Electric Bicycles Gaining Traction Locally

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A customer preps for a test ride of an e-bike outside Pedego Electric Bikes in Barrington. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

A customer preps for a test ride of an e-bike outside Pedego Electric Bikes in Barrington. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Is an electric bicycle cheating? For purists, the answer is likely “yes.” But for some, an electric boost simply makes it easier to ditch the car.

"It gets you out there,” said Brad Raugley, owner of an elongated cargo-style bike he uses to shuttle his two toddlers around Providence.

Raugley estimates he logs 150 miles a week biking his kids, 18 months and 5 years old, to preschool and running errands from their home off Hope Street.

“We bought it as a replacement to a car,” he said, waiting for repairs to the family vehicle at Legend Bicycle on Brook Street.

The 10-pound battery pack is slightly smaller than a school textbook but provides enough juice to power the average e-bike to 20 mph without pedaling. Raugley’s two-wheeler weighs about 700 pounds fully loaded with two kids, one adult and groceries, yet the lithium-ion battery makes hills and headwinds a breeze for pedaling.

The biking is so effortless that the family's one remaining car gets little use, even during the winter.

“I find the bike takes away your excuses,” Raugley said.

Jack Madden, owner of Legend Bicycle, said there is certainly a market for e-bikes. “I’m sure we’ll see a lot more on the road as time goes on, and that’s a good thing," he said.

Raugley’s station wagon-style bike is one small but growing line of alternative bicycles. The more common e-bike is more subtle. It looks like the standard rental bikes on Block Island, with generous seats, wide handlebars and ample tires.

In fact, Mark DeStefano recently opened electric bike shops in Wickford and Barrington to rent and sell e-bikes to the more easy-going crowd: people who want to exercise, but dislike treadmills and battling big hills. The demographic is, of course, the baby boomer generation.

“As the bikers get older, they still want to ride but they can’t ride like they used to,” DeStefano said.

Technically, e-bikes aren’t fully battery powered, and are considered low-speed bicycles, meaning that according to state law they have a top speed of 20 mph and working pedals. State law doesn’t prevent the bikes from going faster, although the engine turns off at 20 mph.

That’s plenty fast enough for most e-bikers, DeStefano said. Many customers have bad knees or other ailments that keep them from going all out, he said. A bike that gets around town, works on a bike path, or improves the commute to work is more than adequate.

“It’ll take a 200-pound guy up College Hill without pedaling,” DeStefano said.

The price of an e-bike starts at about $500, with high-end models topping $5,000. DeStefano’s Pedego line is a mid-priced, sturdy design that cost between $2,600 and $3,700. Much like a motorcycle, a throttle on the handlebar controls the power from the electric engine, which sits in the hub of the rear tire.

Just about any bicycle can go electric with a conversion kit that costs about $500.

Either way the concept appears to be catching on. After notable failures to launch e-bikes in the United States, such as Lee Iacocca’s EV Global line that ran from 1999 to 2004, the e-bike appears to be gaining traction. Sales have grown steadily during the past 10 years, as the batteries shifted from lead to the smaller and lighter lithium-ion, which has allowed the latest e-bikes to shed the moped look.

Europe and China, meanwhile, have established e-bike markets. The United States is way behind, although sales doubled between June 2012 and June 2013, according to EV World. Some 900 retailers now carry e-bikes.

Jeff Wise, 62, of Acton, Mass., tested a Pedego bike outside the Barrington store during a recent break from a ride along the East Bay Bike Path. “It’s fantastic idea,” he said, standing beside his French-made Motobecane bike he bought for $300 in 1979.

Wise said he may wait to make a purchase until the batteries store more power. They currently run 20-40 miles per charge. Still, he said, the e-bike is a smart environmental choice. Even if it's charged with electricity from a fossil-fuel power plant, the bike weighs considerably less than a car and uses far less energy.

“I think it’s great to have electric,” he said.