Electric Bikes and Expanding the Reach of Cycling

Perhaps embracing — rather than shunning — electric bikes can help expand the community of cyclists.

Last month, I wrote about the question of. As a result of that piece, I heard from – and later met – the man behind E-Velo Electric Bicycles. The conversation we had helped me finally accept that there may be a bigger place for electric bikes in Arlington than I’d thought.

My previous column’s question about e-bikes on Arlington’s trails was more academic than practical, really — I still haven’t heard of a single instance of anyone being hassled for riding one. But this academic question was a part of a very practical discussion I’ve been having with other cycling advocates for some time now: How do we get more people on bikes? 

I’ll say it up front — e-bikes have never really held much interest for me, and I’ve certainly taken some good-natured shots at a friend who regularly used one for his commuting. I didn’t particularly understand the attraction of what I saw as adding a good deal of cost and complication to the self-sufficient simplicity that is a regular bike.

But I’ve been rethinking that for a little while now. It was prompted, in no small part, by a stay in New York late last year where I noticed that almost all of the Chinese-food deliverymen had swapped out their (incredibly annoying) mo-peds for e-bikes. The street was quieter and the smell of two-stroke engines was gone.

While I’ve often thought that many delivery jobs could be better handled on a bike, I’d never expected to see such a wholesale adoption of bikes by an entire industry. But the addition of the electric assist turned bikes into a viable alternative for users who would have otherwise opted for a motor.

And it’s that opportunity — the chance to bring those who would generally prefer a motor over pedaling into the cycling fold — that e-bikes present. I’ve always looked at e-bikes from the perspective of a cyclist. Boris Mordkovich, the head of E-Velo, thinks e-bikes are better considered from the perspective of a non-cyclist.

Boris and his partner and Anna Mostovetsky are on a cross-country tour, using their E-Velo bikes to ride from New York to San Francisco. We met for a brief chat on their way through D.C. (They were coming from Annapolis and headed up the C&O Canal to Pittsburg.) I spent much of the time peppering Boris with questions about equipment, costs and breakdown scenarios, which he patiently answered. It was only at the end I realized that I was overlooking the big story.

What Boris and Anna were doing was demonstrating that e-bikes put something as big and ambitious as a transcontinental bike trip within reach of anyone. They need not be super fit, with the capacity to pedal 80 to 100 miles a day for weeks at a time. They need not even be particularly well off – these bikes cost roughly $1,800, and the total cost of electricity for the trip? About $20. That brings bike touring to an exponentially larger population than a regular bike.

So what does any of this have to do with Arlington? Think Rosslyn. Specifically, think of the Rosslyn hill, pedaling back from D.C. I am certain that hill is the primary reason lots of Arlingtonians have never completed the Arlington Loop and wouldn’t dream of trying to commute into the district. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought twice about riding up the Rosslyn hill, but it’s a significant challenge for many.

One way to overcome that hill is to become a cyclist – keep riding, and it will get easier. Really. But not everyone wants to “become a cyclist.” They just want to get where they want to go with minimum hassle. And for some, an e-bike puts cycling on the table as a viable option. The electric assist can turn the hard slog up the Custis into a breezy pedal. Who can begrudge that?

Bikes need not and should not be exclusive to the spry and fit. E-bikes open cycling up to a larger population. Sure, they aren’t for everyone — I doubt I’ll end up with one any time soon. I think, however, they can absolutely be part of the bigger picture for getting more people out of their cars and onto bikes. There are details to be worked out, but on the whole, cycling is better off embracing — rather than shunning — e-bikes.


Arlington's own Phoenix Bikes is holding its annual fundraiser bike show Thursday, April 26. Get your tickets here. ' mission is to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs through direct participation in a financially and environmentally sustainable nonprofit bike shop that serves the community.

Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.

Yevgeniy Mordkovich April 26, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Good morning Mark. My name is Yevgeniy and I am Boris' business partner at EVELO Electric Bicycle Company. I wanted to thank you for one of the most thoughtful articles about electric bikes and our tour I have read so far. eBiking seems to be a topic that is attracting a LOT of attention, both extremely good and extremely bad with little to nothing in between. It is refreshing to see someone consider both sides of the argument. I think it's important to realize that the world is not black and white but rather a combination of both. We at EVELO see ebikes as a way to get people pedaling. Those are the people that would never get in the saddle otherwise. We feel fortunate to live in a time when technology is finally beginning to catch up, making this idea into reality. After all many visionaries such as Lee Iacocca failed at making ebikes a household item, only because they were ahead of their time.
rc September 19, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Part 1- My wife and I, both in our 60s, have been looking in purchasing an ebike. We don't mind pedaling but need some assistance on longer trips or up steeper hills. Overall, we enjoy them greatly and they make bike riding enjoyable again. We have demoed several ebikes that offer differing motor types (front , rear, and mid ) and also pedal assist and throttle (some models have both of the later). You really have to try several out to see what you prefer. Some models don't have the motor kick in until you pedal a revolution or two. They claim that that is for safety reasons. But we have found that we like to have "immediate power" especially when starting from a dead stop at an intersection; or even walking the up a steep path- so the immediate throttle option is invaluable. Actually, my wife says she won't buy a bike that does not have that immediate throttle option. (Some offer the throttle but need to pedal a bit for it to kick in). Part 2 coming up...
rc September 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Part 2 We like having both pedal assist and throttle capabilities. Depending on where you live, the bike you eventually purchase might be determined by what your nearest dealer is selling; maintenance, set-up, interfacing with the manufacturer (should problem arise) and repair is important. Also, these bikes are very, very heavy- don't think about throwing them on a trunk or roof bike rack. Actually, you need to get a bike rack that is especially designed to hold ebikes. We have heard about legal problems riding bikes in certain states- but if you ride responsibally you should have no problems.
rc September 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Part 3 It would be a good idea to Google the model that you are interested in and read the user comments and reviews. Take some of these comments with a grain of salt as you don't really know who is writing them- the manufacturer (glowing reviews) or their competition (offering negative reviews)!!!!! There will be a lot of tips you will pick up or the advantages of disc vs non-disc brakes, battery location ( note that some ebikes' batteries can not be removed from the bike to be charged indoors - apoor design) the number of pedal assist modes or levels, etc. A good ebike will be fairly expensive as it will have good components and a good battery. If you are going to be riding on fairly flat terrain with an occasional mild hill or on very hilly terrain will also dictate somewhat the bike you get- you don't want an underpowered ebike.
rc September 19, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Part 4 Finally, some ebikes have frames that let you sit more upright (cruiser) others more bent over. For us (over 60) the former seems to suit us better. You will only know this after riding for several hours on the bike- not a quick demo trip around the block. How to get experience for a longer demo?- several cities have tours on ebikes like San Fran or San Diego or Miami. Being on one for a few hours will really seal or break the deal! Enjoy! I know nothing about conversion kits (putting a motor, battery and controller on your favorite, comfortable, existing regular bike). Some like it, and it seems to have a good following.


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