Energy: Electric Pedal Power
"Most of us who would like to do something that would either combine our daily commute with exercise or help us find a less expensive and more environmentally friendly way of getting there and back, need something to help us make the move more practical. "
by Dan Schafer
In the 1970's your correspondent rode his bike in the snow from East 24th Street to downtown Minneapolis. But not just in the snow mind you--he rode in nice weather too. In those days it probably was because he was that just too independent and impatient to wait for public transport. Nor was driving a car and parking in downtown Minneapolis even an alternative for a college student of his means. The main thing that brought his bike adventure to an end was getting his bike stolen.
That was one twentieth-century fellow's experience, but it is clear that most sane people aren't as hardy or fool hardy as he was in those days. None the less there certainly are many of us who, at least in a speculative sense--we may not be ready to commit ourselves to anything yet--think it would be nice to commute by bike, at least in good weather. After all, it is good exercise which most of us realise we need. It is environmentally friendly which would help make us feel good about ourselves. It would give us a chance to enjoy the outdoors. Also, normally we would not need to worry about parking and, not insignificantly, it would be much cheaper than almost any other alternative. (That is, unless we had to cost in too many stolen bikes.)
But for most of us there are obstacles. What about road traffic? What happens when it rains? What about pedaling against the wind? Then for some of us there may be hills to climb. For others of us the distance might be just too far. Or, maybe not too far if we could go a little faster, but we're not sure we're ready for Tour de France feats every day. For many of us the fact that we aren't as young as we used to be makes us wonder if we would be up to it. Another group of us might worry about whether we could keep it up. We worry it could end up being another idea we tried and gave up on.
China, which has used bicycles more than probably anywhere else in the world, has found a way to start leveling out some of these problems. According to "China's Clean Revolution" by The Climate Group, China sold over 21 million electric bicycles in 2007. We don't know that they intentionally started out to solve a problem, but that there was a ready market for them is obvious.
But how could an electric bicycle help with anything? After all, from a purist's point of view it doesn't solve much. From a purist exercise point of view it is certainly cheating, and from a purist environmental point of view it is fudging as well. But doesn't the very fact that it isn't a purist's ideal mean, almost by definition, that there is potentially a much wider range of people that could be interested? And couldn't we say that what is needed on both fronts, exercise and environment, is a way to get a lot more of us on board? That is, those of us who are die hards or fool hardy are probably already doing our thing. But most of the rest of us who would like to do something that would either combine our daily commute with exercise or help us find a less expensive and more environmentally friendly way of getting there and back, need something to help us make the move more practical. And for some of us in this latter group it may be that an electric bike could help.
How does an electric bike work? Of course it depends on which one we choose, but our definition here is one that combines pedaling and battery motor power assist. Some electric bikes would require a choice of either one or the other at any given time during the ride. But it seems by far the better choice is to be able to apply both at once when the going gets tough. So we pedal along on our own power until we get to a hill or the headwind gets too strong. Then we turn on the electric motor, and keep pedaling. But it basically it is no more effort than when we were pedaling on level ground or without a wind.
So an electric bike won't eliminate every obstacle to biking our commute, but it might mitigate more than we think. Will it help with road traffic? Not essentially. We need to be very judicious about what road traffic we determine we can handle, and do all that is effective to make ourselves and our bike able to be seen by other drivers on the road, i.e. lights, reflectors, bright or iridescent clothing. Two other helpful things are a mirror and a bell. This next advice also has to be handled judiciously, but sometimes a biker is safer if he can move with the traffic rather than forcing other vehicles to find a way around him. When your correspondent biked in downtown Minneapolis, by pedaling like a demon he could keep pace with the cars through the timed traffic lights on the one way streets--in good weather--not in the snow!! This might have some application to an electrically assisted bicycle, but care!! care!! care!! Don't go faster than we or our bike and brakes can manage safely.
Will an electric bike help in the rain? Again not essentially. But if having some added power frees us from some exertion that helps us concentrate on riding safely there is some help. Another associated thought is that knowing we have some power in reserve may help us be more willing and able to pack a little more gear like rain protection along, when we set out on our ride.
Obviously a distance problem could be helped a little, both from being able to maintain a better speed, and from just having a little more endurance to bike a longer commute. This obviously relates also to those of us whose concern is that our bodies aren't as young and strong as they were. And similarly it relates to the worry about the temptation to give up. When we have a battery and a motor in reserve, our stress about the thought of biking should be eased.
In the case of one of the 21 million Chinese buyers of an electric bike last year, if we looked at why he or she bought an electric bike we would probably find it was an upgrade from a normal pedal bike and the upgrade was made because it was economically feasible. But for whatever reason the choice was made, as the whole world now knows from China's experience in trying to prepare for the Olympics, almost any choice that didn't add more smoke or exhaust to the air in China's cities was probably a good choice. So whatever may have been their motive, the fact that the choice of an electric bike was available appears to have been good, not only for their lifestyle, but also for the quality of the air that they have to breathe.
How about us? How can we get started? If we already have a bike that we like, we can look into a conversion kit. Most commonly that would consist of a new front or back wheel that has an electric motor in the hub or some fancier innovation, and, of course, a battery that usually would have to be mounted somewhere on the frame. If we are a little handy we should be able to do the installation ourselves. It isn't a big job. But more than likely if we are dealing with a local bikeshop they could do the installation for us. Otherwise there are many ready made electric bikes available. With either option it helps to study what is best for us. The motors vary in power and the batteries vary in weight and distance one charge can go. Of course a lighter battery is best because it means less weight we are pulling around. Lighter generally means a lithium battery which will be more expensive than a Nickel Metal Hydride battery which is, in turn, more expensive than a lead battery. But if we can afford the best, it is probably worthwhile. If you have an internet connection, and type "electric bike conversion kit" into Google you will get enough ideas to send your head swimming.
Biking isn't for all of us. Neither is electric biking. But in Thailand your correspondent has found biking a delightful way to exercise and to see much that we otherwise miss, boxed up in our car and flying along at relatively "mindless" speeds. "Try it. You might like it."
Return to Table of Contents
Dan Schafer and Myron Kliewer in Thailand