What Exactly is an Electric Bike, Anyway?
Power-assisted electric bicycles (e-bikes) are indisputably among the greenest and most convenient tranpsortation modes to come around. Already very popular in Asia and Europe, an e-bike is just a regular bicycle with an electric motor to provide assistance. You can use the motor all the time to make riding easier, or pedal normally and just use the motor to help out on hills and against headwinds. The electric assistance is perfectly smooth and silent, complementing rather than supplanting human power, and the experience is entirely different from riding a gas powered moped or motorbike.
E-bikes provide all the advantages of a regular bicycle: fun, exercise, free parking, no insurance or licensing requirments, zero emissions and freedom from gridlock. In many urban situations riding an electric bike will be faster and cheaper than either car or public transit.
In Canada, the Motor Vehicle Act was modified to include a class of Power Assisted Bicycles. Provincially, Ontario introduced legislation in 2005 to test and evaluate the operation and regulation of power-assisted bicycles as conventional bicycles on Ontario roads. In combination, these federal and provincial regulations state that with continuous motor power under 500 watts, and at speeds less than 32 km/hr, there is no need for either a license or insurance to use an electric bike on public roads. The only restriction is that operators must wear a bicycle helmet and be 16 years of age.
The addition of motor and batteries can add 10 to 20 kilograms to the weight of a bicycle but has only a modest effect on the ride. Since the rider is already several times heavier than the bike, the vehicle weight itself makes minimal difference. In fairness, you definitely will notice the weight if you have to pick the bike up and carry it for any reason; otherwise, a heavier bicycle is slightly harder to ride uphill, somewhat faster to ride downhill, and pretty much the same on the flat. To put it in perspective, the bag I carry to college with textbooks and laptop weighs a comparable amount and isn't nearly so helpful on the road!
The average power that a typical unassisted human cyclist will deliver is on the order of 150 watts, or 1/5th of a horsepower. A fit individual can sustain on the order of 350 watts for about 10 minutes and up to 600 watts for a few seconds, but for continuous riding between 100-200 W is typical. In comparison, an e-bike's electric motor producing in the range of 250-350 watts is easily able to maintain its 32 km/hour cruising speed on a flat. The difference is that when climbing a hill, a cyclist will switch to an easy gear and the speed drops to 5-10 km/hr as they work hard and move at a slow pace. When an electric bike does the same thing and slows to walking speed on the hills it seems very under-powered. To maintain nice speeds while going uphill requires on the order of 400-500 watts or more, which is why most riders find it natural and desireable to add their power to the motor when going uphill.
Speed and Range
How fast, and how far? All commercial e-bikes must obey the 32 km/hr speed limit, so the motor assist wil cut out at that speed and you could say that all e-bikes are created equal in that regard. Your peddling will be easier if you have a good set of gears to work with, especially for hill climbing, and it is certainly quite possible to exceed 32km/h if you are peddling hard and/or running downhill. The range of an e-bike depends on many factors, including your riding style, but 20 to 30 km is very typical.
A bicycle is already one of the most efficient forms of human locomotion ever devised. It may come as a surprise to learn that electric bicycles can be much more Earth friendly even than pedal-only bikes! A regular bicycle relies on the human metabolism to convert food energy into work, with a relatively low conversion efficiency. In Canada, most of our food is grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and machinery, then transported, processed, packaged, re-transported, sold, transported again and finally cooked before consumption. Vastly more energy went into producing the food than is actually obtained from the food itself. By comparison, an e-bike takes energy from a highly efficient electric grid (or alternatively through solar charging) and stores it in a battery at 60-80% efficiency. This stored energy is then converted to work through an electric motor with roughly 75% efficiency. That's a lot more direct than the human route! Once you take into account the energy to manufacture and recycle the batteries, e-bikes still end up consuming far less fossil fuel energy than their human-powered equivalents.
E-bikes can open up cycling to people who would otherwise be driving a car. It is wrong to assume that anyone can ride a bike. Many people would like to, but find it impractical or impossible because of distance, age, health or even the inconvenience of having to shower and change at work. E-bikes make biking a lot more accessible.
- Day to day transportation, running errands, or just out having fun.
- Regular commuting to work or school, less than 30 km.
- Benefits to the environment and your pocketbook are maximized when an e-bike is used as a substitute for automobile transportation.
- For many trips, travel time on an e-bike can be less than or equal to travel times on public transit, because the most direct route can be used and wait times are eliminated (e.g., at bus stops and transfer points).
- For short trips and/or during peak periods, travel time on an e-bike can be less than or equal to other means of transportation (e.g, car, public transit) because traffic congestion can often by bypassed.
- Using an e-bike rather than a bicycle to commute can avoid the need to shower or change clothes when you arrive.
- e-bike riders remain comfortable on the hottest days.
- With appropriate clothing e-bikes can be used 8-9 months of the year.
- Carrying capacity on e-bikes can make it easy to do those short trips such as light grocery shopping, banking, returning a video, going to the library or picking up a bottle of wine! With the use of appropriate carriers (e.g., backpack, saddle bags) it is amazing how much you can carry in comfort and safety.
- Riding an e-bike is a good alternative for someone who would like to ride a bicycle but can't because of a physical limitation.
- For most users, costs of operating an e-bike will be less than or comparable to public transit.
- Operating costs for an e-bike include: typical purchase price of $1,000-$2,000; less than 0.5 cents of electricity per km driven; insurance $0; plates/license $0; parking $0; maintenance $150/year (estimate). Compared to the cost of a monthly adult TTC Metropass, you could recoup your investment in the first year.
- The Canadian Automobile Association estimates the operating cost of a car to be between $0.40 and $0.90 per kilometer as given in their Driving Costs brochure. Total annual operating costs are between $10,000 and $15,000!
- Ecological benefits of e-biking are substantial, including low carbon dioxide emissions compared to cars, buses and even pedalling. (Yes, an e-bike is significantly cleaner and more efficient than a human-powered bicycle when you factor in the energy costs involved in producing and delivering food to your tummy!)
Useful Links from the Ministry of Transportation
On November 21, 2005, Bill 169, The Transportation Statute Law Amendment Act, 2005, received Royal Assent, enabling the MTO to pilot new technologies on Ontario roads. One of the primary goals of Ontario's pilot was to test and evaluate the operation and regulation of power-assisted bicycles (e-bikes) as conventional bicycles on Ontario roads.
MTO New and Alternative Vehicles
The Ontario government maintains a site regarding new and alternative vehicles which summarizes the status of e-bikes, mopeds and other modes of transportation. See:
MTO e-Bike Q&A
This Ministry of Transportation site is full of useful information regarding e-bikes and their status in Ontario: