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Electric bike

08/14/07 | by Adam | Categories: Technology

One of the more interesting technologies that's beginning to makes its presence known (again?) is that of the electric bicycle. If you're familiar with the older moped or bromfiets technologies you'll know where I'm going with this. There're two major variations: fully automatic and power-assisted. The former is more closely related to a scooter in the sense that it's an autonomous powered vehicle where the rider needs to do little more than point it in an appropriate direction. The latter is an interesting bit of human-engineering: it won't work unless the rider pedals but at that point gives a bit of assistance. Hardcore cyclists will no doubt sneer at either option but I think it's an excellent way to persuade people to use something other than a car to get around.

With new bike designs like Kona's cargo carrying utility bike tied into the battery power, it becomes realistic for average cyclists to start using the bike for more than just exercise runs around the park or neighbourhood. For example, I don't ride downtown. Partially it's because I can't be bothered. Partially it's because I don't like being sweaty and smelly throughout the work day. Partially it's because Calgary's public transit is quite good from where I live. However, during this year's work-to-rule period and expected strike I began to consider other options of getting to work.

One advantage of the electric bikes is that they can work on Calgary's bike system. The city bylaws state that no powered vehicle capable of operating at more than 20 km/h can use the paths so a fair number of the electric bikes you can buy are deliberately crippled to stay within that limit. Having watched how people riding more powerful motorcycles behave, I have no problems with this limitation. I certainly wouldn't want to be restricted to roads during rush hour.

A few weeks ago I took out a demo bike from It's Electric downtown at the Eau Claire centre. The demo bike was a normal mountain bike retrofitted with an electric motor in one of the wheels. For all intents and purposes it worked like a normal bicycle with a much heavier front wheel and a large battery over the rear one. Once the motor is engaged the bike behaved much like a very quiet moped. The batteries are detachable and come with a small charger so when at work they can be recharged during the day. Even though the bike should be able to do a round trip between one's home and downtown on a single charge this means shouldn't be a problem with the battery dying on the way. On the upside, it's still a functional bike so even if the power does run out, you can still puff the remainder of the way! The design of the bike I looked at allowed the heavy motorized wheel and the battery to be removed within minutes (although the cables remained attached to the frame) so the bike could easily be reverted to its original state. Personally I'd be inclined to just buy a second frame and keep my normal riding bike as is.

Based on current prices, it's about $700 to retrofit an existing bicycle with the motor. It won't be the more discrete or indeed the one with the best distance, but it's definitely capable of what I'd want. As a price comparison, a book of bus tickets is currently just under $20 for ten and you'll use them up in a week. Assuming you ride for 50 weeks a year (admittedly quite unlikely given Calgary's climate) you'll spend $1000 just on bus tickets alone. Electrifying the bike isn't the cheapest thing to do but it's definitely giving me something to consider.


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