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Electric Bike

Learn about the electric bike, an ideal transportation solution.

Find helpful electric bike information. [© Jupiter Images, 2009]
© Jupiter Images, 2009
Find helpful electric bike information.

The skyrocketing price of gasoline and the growing impact of global warming have led many people to turn to alternative modes of transportation. The electric bike, a bicycle equipped with a battery-powered motor, is a mode of transportation that has gained interest in recent years.

The electric bike has exploded in popularity in Europe, where bicycles are far more common than in the United States. ExtraEnergy, a nonprofit organization that promotes light electrical vehicles, estimated that more than 60,000 electric bikes were sold in Germany in 2007, according to an article in USAToday. In 2006, a whopping 89,000 electric bikes were sold in the Netherlands.

The electric bike is becoming more popular in the United States as well. The Gluskin-Townley Group, market researchers for the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA), reports that about 10,000 electric bikes were sold in the United States in 2007, up from 6,000 the previous year. Online retailers have aided the boom, offering low-cost electric bikes on their sites.

How an Electric Bike Works

An electric bike looks and feels very similar to a regular pedal bicycle, with one big difference: A small electric motor is attached to the hub of the front or rear wheel.

This motor is powered by a rechargeable battery (most commonly lead-based) but the relatively heavy and inefficient nature of lead batteries has lead many manufacturers to start using nickel-cadmium or lithium-ion batteries, like those used in laptop computers.

The electric motor is controlled with a throttle attached to the handlebar of the electric bike. Most throttles are similar to those found on motorcycles, allowing the rider to control how much power is delivered to the engine.

Electric bike frames are often made of aluminum alloy or other light materials to reduce the overall weight of the bike - a lighter bike will require less power to move and the bicycle can travel a greater distance on a single charge. The lighter frame also makes up for the additional weight of the electric motor and battery, as well as the heavier spokes required for the wheels.

Electric Bike Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages of an electric bike are many. Electric bikes give the experience and freedom of bicycle-riding to people who normally would be unable to ride a bicycle, such as those with physical limitations.

Additionally, electric bikes are a far more economical and environmentally friendly transportation choice than cars or trucks. A typical battery charge requires only a regular electric socket and uses about 10 cents worth of electricity. Assuming that most batteries will travel 20 to 40 miles per charge (depending on how much pedaling the rider contributes), a rider can travel hundreds and even thousands of miles for the same cost as a gallon of gas.

Electric bikes are especially handy for shorter trips or trips that require a number of stops, such as running errands. Even better, in most states electric bikes are not considered automotive vehicles as long as they travel below certain speed limits. That means that in most cases a rider doesn't need a driver's license, and can use designated bicycle lanes in urban areas.

Electric bikes aren't perfect, however. The relatively inefficient battery is one of the biggest disadvantages to an electric bike. Because even the best batteries last less than 60 miles per charge, electric bikes aren't the best choice for long-distance travel, especially for people who have difficulty using a normal pedal bicycle. Additionally, recharging an electric bike's battery can take a relatively long time — up to six hours.

Although they are relatively environmentally friendly, electric bikes are not entirely "carbon-neutral." The electricity used to charge electric bikes has to be produced somewhere, most likely in a power plant. The batteries used in electric bikes can also create an environmental hazard when not disposed of correctly. For a more conscientious approach to using an electric bike, consider using a solar-powered charger, or a charger that uses wind power.

How to Choose an Electric Bike

The primary consideration in purchasing an electric bike is the type of battery used to power the bike. Lead batteries are the cheapest, but are very heavy, have a short life span, and can perform poorly during cold weather.

Nickel-cadmium batteries are more efficient than lead batteries (about twice as powerful), but they are more expensive, and over time these batteries lose their ability to hold a charge.

Lithium-ion batteries — similar to those used in laptops — are the most expensive batteries, but they are also the most efficient.

Regardless of the type of battery used, consider the ability to remove the battery for charging purposes. Some of the more powerful electric bikes come with non-removable batteries, but this can severely limit flexibility in charging the battery.

Another consideration is the bike's frame and weight. In general, lighter and sturdier electric bikes are best. Electric bikes are heavier than regular pedal bikes, but higher-end models can weigh less than 50 pounds, and some even come with folding frames for easier transportation.

Finally, before choosing an electric bike, make sure to learn the local electric bicycle laws of the area. While most states classify electric bikes as bicycles, the specifics of these classifications vary. Some states don't allow electric bicycles to travel faster than 20 mph, while others are more lenient. Check with community officials about local regulations before purchasing an electric bike.

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