Bicycles are the sharks of transportation, virtually unevolved through a century of technological upheaval in automobiles and airplanes. But shrinking motors and newly powerful batteries have, in the past couple of decades, enabled rapid advances in electric bikes. Electricity expands the bicycle’s range—and, perhaps, the range of people who will feel capable of riding one in the city.
Last month, I spent a week riding an e-bike around a city that struck me as a perfect test for the tech’s appeal: Los Angeles. Great weather and lots of quiet streets make L.A a decent biking city; formidable hills and great distances, I imagined, would make it a great e-biking city. With two battery-powered wheels under my control, I thought the famously disjointed city might cohere in the same way I had found other cities did on a manually powered bike.
In 2005, Andy Bowers wrote for Slate about using a bicycle to discover a secret Los Angeles. “The main roads may mimic Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but the areas between L.A.’s clogged arteries comprise mile after square mile of low-density, low-stress residential bliss,” he wrote. Since then, the region has gotten considerably more friendly to transportation alternatives, investing billions in new transit lines and even installing some world-class bike lanes. (Some cities are better than others, and you can easily trace municipal boundaries in L.A. County by looking at a map of bike infrastructure.) The most eloquent spokesperson for the new L.A. might be the writer Alissa Walker, who frequently chronicles the challenges and joys of car-free life in the Southland.
Inspired by her and others—and eager to avoid taking cabs everywhere—I picked up my bicycle at Electric Bikes LA in El Segundo, a sleepy town south of Los Angeles International Airport. The bike was a Faraday Porteur, a rolling rhombus of white-painted steel that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in an old French movie, save for some fancy trimmings like bamboo fenders. Tucked beneath the seat was an eggplant-sized computer, which I charged by plugging the bike into a wall.* On a pedal-assist bike, which make up the bulk of the U.S. market, each time you push down on the pedals, a motor doubles or triples your effort.
My first impression was that my Porteur—which weighs 40 pounds, nearly twice as much as a typical commuter bike—rolled nicely on downhills and flat ground but struggled on hills. It was a warm and sunny day, another of the many record-high temperature winter days that Southern California has experienced this winter, and I was soon breaking a sweat.
Then I turned the motor on.
Reader, I flew, past even the MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra) out for their weekend rides. Their glares glanced off my back; other riders seemed perplexed at my speed. I get it. Watching someone ride one of these things is a little like seeing a cat leap 10 feet—it defies what your eyes have gotten used to believing is possible.
Over the course of the week, I took two long rides: 15.4 miles in 68 minutes and 9.8 miles in 40. My pace worked out to 13.5 and 14.7 mph, respectively, about 25 to 30 percent faster than I travel when commuting in New York. (And with probably 50 percent less effort from me.) But it’s not the top speed that really differentiates the experience; it’s the speed with which you get there and the ease of maintaining it. It feels like you have superhuman strength, and that’s how people look at you, too (with a mixture of envy and anxiety).
It’s true, as Bowers wrote, that L.A. has a wonderful grid of quiet streets alongside its famous boulevards. Many of them are sleepy, eucalyptus-scented places to bike, if you can stop gawking at the architecture long enough to stay upright. But these streets’ frequent stop signs rendered the electric boost mostly useless. Crossing between neighborhoods—right where I thought my e-bike would prove superior to a regular two-wheel—can also be slow, since many of these little streets don’t get traffic signals to shepherd you swiftly across busy arterials. Instead, I felt most at home in lanes on busy, fast-moving streets, where I could cruise with electric power coursing from every revolution of the pedals.
The barriers to entry are steep: E-bikes have gotten damn nice, but still cost upward of $1,000, putting them far beyond an impulse buy. The Porteur retails at $3,499, though you also have the option of financing it with payments of $150 a month.* Finally, while lugging it indoors can be onerous, it’s impossible to feel comfortable leaving the bike—briefly the most valuable single object in my possession—locked to a pole on Sunset Boulevard.
Burdened by the thought of its cost and preoccupied with its care, I thought of my e-bike more like a car than a bicycle. And maybe that is the way to think of them: not as high-class bicycles for riders who want to sweat less, but as low-cost, low-maintenance vehicles for people who drive 3 miles to work alone. Think of an e-bike as a replacement for a car, not a manually powered bike, and suddenly it seems cheap. It seems easy. It seems green. Parking is a piece of cake. And unlike a car, it never gets stuck in traffic.
There are signs the mode could catch on in U.S. cities. Chinese-food delivery workers get it: In New York City, they ride electric bicycles to get their work done quickly, even in the face of police harassment. Uber gets it: In San Francisco, the ride-hailing giant is making electric bicycles available to customers for a fraction the cost of a cab. The Dutch get it: E-bike sales now make up nearly 30 percent of the market, by volume, in the world’s bicycle capital. Here their market share remains under 3 percent.
For that to rise, it might require a reimagining on the part of those who might e-bike and those who live alongside them. I had gone into my trial thinking of the electric bike as just a superior bicycle, and in some ways, it’s a similar experience, requiring a degree of fitness from the rider and a safe place to ride in the city. But in other respects—price, care, added value—it compares more favorably to the automobile. If bikers start thinking about their electrically powered peers as redeemed drivers, rather than fallen athletes, they might glare less. (At the moment, no one seems quite sure where on the road electric bicycles belong.) Companies marketing e-bikes according to automotive tradition—available on monthly leases or as a substitute for taxi rides—may have more success than those trying to persuade existing bike riders to make a permanent upgrade. And, finally, cities ought to consider e-bikes not as I did, as a chance to make a regular bike move farther, faster, but as these companies do, as a low-cost, low-hassle substitute for more cumbersome transport.
It’s also an investment in the not-so-far future. When the day comes that cities teem with automated vehicles, space will be at a premium, and modes that use less of it will be favored. It will also become something of a rare pleasure to be able to carve your own path through a city of robots on algorithmically determined journeys. For both requirements, the electric bike fits the bill.
*Correction, Feb. 12, 2018: This article misidentified the component beneath the seat of the bike. It is a controller, not a motor. The article also misstated the nature of Faraday’s offer. The $150 per month is a financing option (24 months, 0 percent interest), not a lease.