Electric Bikes, On A Roll In Europe, Start To Climb In U.S. Electric bicycles have been popular in Europe for some time. But recently there has been a surge in U.S. sales amid changing perceptions that e-bikes aren't just for the elderly.
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Electric Bikes, On A Roll In Europe, Start To Climb In U.S.

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Electric Bikes, On A Roll In Europe, Start To Climb In U.S.

Electric Bikes, On A Roll In Europe, Start To Climb In U.S.

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/365267595/365762053" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is a new way to commute - the e-bike or electric bicycle. It looks a lot like a regular bike but with an electric motor that doesn't burn gasoline like an old-fashioned moped. As you pedal, the motor gives you a powered boost when you need it.

Susanna Capelouto reports that e-bikes are growing more popular in Europe. But in this country, the census says less than 1 percent of workers commute by bike. And e-bikes have to overcome a reputation as toys for old people.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: Bike commuting is still rare in America's cities, but those who do it have a special bond - at least in Atlanta, says Joel Bowman.

JOEL BOWMAN: I want to say the biking community here - I love it. There's a lot of waving and a lot of, you know, high-fiving going on among bikers. I like being part of that.

CAPELOUTO: He's getting ready to ride the six miles to his job at Emory University - something he's been doing for decades. But as he got older - he's now 66 - the ride got harder. So he switched to an e-bike.

BOWMAN: The real contrast is the old bike, sometimes I got a little - ughh, I got to bike home. I'm tired. This, I just look forward to being on 'cause it is pure fun.

CAPELOUTO: E-bike riding feels like a back wind pushing you up a hill as you pedal. On straight roads you can reach up to 20 miles an hour, depending on how hard your legs are working. It's adjustable, so you always have the option of a no-sweat ride. Ed Benjamin runs the Light Electric Vehicle Association.

ED BENJAMIN: We doubled our sales between 2012 and 2013.

CAPELOUTO: OK. That sounds impressive, but he is talking about selling 200,000 e-bikes in a country where consumers bought 16 million bikes last year. These e-bikes can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Typically, that's two to three times the price of a similar bike without the electronics. Most U.S. customers are older. Benjamin wants to change that.

BENJAMIN: And when somebody says to me, I'm young, and I'm strong, and I'm fit, and I don't need no stinking motor, I kind of chuckle because I can have clear memories of having exactly the same attitude.

CAPELOUTO: He's confident that attitude will shift as more and more cyclists who are puffing up a hill get passed by a smiling e-biker. That's kind of what happened in Europe. Take Holland, where the elderly have been riding e-bikes for a decade. Then younger people started buying them a couple of years ago. Now speedy bike commuters are forcing discussions of widening bike lanes. Jack Oortwijn is editor-in-chief of the industry publication Bike Europe.

JACK OORTWIJN: I can imagine that for an American this sounds a bit strange that we have such crowded cycle paths, but that's the fact here. E-bikes contributed to that. It's a trend that started with elderly people and not like the usual new trends that starts with young people.

CAPELOUTO: E-bikes make up a growing 20 percent market share in Holland, and plenty of sportier models for younger commuters are being offered. More and more families in Europe are trading in their second car for an e-bike. America's cities still have a long way to go in their bike friendliness. And in Atlanta, Joel Bowman is content to just be an accepted rarity on his e-bike.

BOWMAN: And it's great. I know I can now basically stay with this biking community for a long time with this bike. Maybe you should test-drive it.

CAPELOUTO: OK. All right. Here we go. So I'm pedaling like a regular bike up a hill. And I'm going to hit one - ooh, hear that? For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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