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The E-Bike Lifestyle: Saving Money, Low Sweat, & Cheating?
Jun 16, 2011
This is a guest post from Peter Rosenfeld; not to be confused with me! Peter Rosenfeld lives outside of Philadelphia and is starting his third year of riding a Bionx electric bicycle.
Why Do You Ride an E-Bike?
I get a lot of questions about why I ride a bicycle with electric assist and what are the costs involved.
The why WAS pretty easy. As a long-time bicycle commuter and recreational bicyclist, I hope to ride a bicycle well into my golden years. But about five years ago a relapsing/remitting neurological disorder I have became more severe, causing progressive weakness on one side of my body as well as fatigue and other symptoms. I was finding it very difficult to continue even my relatively short bike commute to work.
At first I decided I would have to give up bicycling and start using an automobile to get around. But my wife suggested I follow up on something I had considered earlier – an assist system to add to my bicycle. She felt the cost would be worth it.
In reviewing the kits, I found they fell into two rough categories. There were low-cost kits that were very heavy and used lead acid batteries. I refused to even consider such kits as they had short ranges and would make the bicycle very heavy so it would no longer ride like a bicycle and couldn’t be ridden without the assist. On the other hand, some of the high-end kits with lithium batteries were very light weight and had very good battery ranges, but the price of them took my breath away.
Breaking Down the Costs
One high-end kit I was interested in was the Bionx 350PL. It weighs 16 pounds (newer versions are even lighter), has a range of 25-45 miles (based on my experience and depending on the assist level), and a battery that should last about 500 charge cycles or about 15,000 miles at a moderate level of assist. The kit cost about $1,600 at the time, and the battery costs about $500 for a rebuild. I did some calculations and realized that even a high-end electric assist kit, if used instead of driving, would pay for itself in fuel savings alone, although there are a lot of other savings in not using your car. The car I own gets about 25 mpg on the urban/suburban routes I use. With gas around $3.50/gallon at the time, using the bicycle instead of the car would save $2,100 in gasoline over the lifetime of the battery, enough to pay for the kit and for a battery rebuild at the end of that period. So even if the kit only lasted 15,000 miles it would pay for itself just in fuel savings. I didn’t figure in bicycle maintenance costs like tires and chains as these are trivial compared to maintaining the car – even a couple of oil changes would exceed any of these costs.
Regarding these bicycle operating costs, the question I most often get asked is how much does it cost to charge the battery. The cost of recharging the bicycle, assuming an 80% charging efficiency and 14 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, costs about 6 cents per complete charge and would be about $30 over the 15,000 mile battery life. Almost too trivial to consider compared to other costs, such as battery replacement.
So I convinced myself that using an electric assist would make economic sense. And my doctor was encouraging it as she felt I needed to continue to get as much exercise as possible. Bicycling was about the only form of exercise I was getting even though it was fatiguing me – I found it easier to bicycle than to walk at this point.
I got the kit and couldn’t be happier. Not only was I able to return to bike commuting, I was also doing recreational rides again. The bicycle was just so much fun to ride. I ended up getting more exercise than I did before I became disabled just because I was riding the bicycle much more. I was particularly glad that my kit allowed me to use it in in various modes: a pure pedelec mode, where various levels of assist are added transparently to my effort using the Bionx’s torque sensor; or I could use it in throttle mode. The electric motor is strong enough to allow the system to move me at 18-20 mph on flat ground without pedaling. So whatever my mood or physical state, the bike was still fun to ride.
Since then, my condition has remitted to the point that I no longer NEED the assist kit. But I still use it because it has dramatically increased the utility of bicycling for me. There are a couple of areas where I think an electric bike really shines.
The Upsides of the E-Bike Lifestyle
The most important is the “sweat factor”. I live in a climate where, for about 5-6 months a year, bicycling with any strong effort will cause me to be dripping with sweat. This is no problem for recreational rides, but does become a big factor for transportation and commuting. Say I need to go to my doctor, who is 8 miles away. Before the assist, I’d likely drive so I don’t arrive for an exam sweaty. Or if I’m at work and going to a meeting at another site 6 miles away. Without the assist, I’d change into bike clothes, bike to the other site, shower, if possible, and change back into business wear. The bicycling takes less than 30 minutes. But the changing and showering adds another 30 minutes, making it take too long, especially when I’d have to repeat the process going back to my office. So I’d make sure to have my car on those days. But the assist allows me to get around without worrying about the “sweat factor”. Now I just cycle over in my business clothes and it takes almost no more time than driving.
A lesser effect is the increased speed and reduced effort. It use to be, I’d only bike errands that were less than around 8 miles, one way. It started to take too much time and effort compared to driving for trips longer than that. A 20 mile round trip on bike was fun, but I’d often be tired if I had to do more than one of those in a day. But with the assist I have a bit of boost in speed – my average speed goes up from about 13-14 mph to 17-18 mph – and a reduction in effort so even if I do 40 miles in errands a day I don’t feel tired out and can still do other chores around the house when I get done.
I also don’t worry about hauling heavy loads long distances. If I pick up 35 pounds of stuff at a distance grocery, I’m not going to worry about bicycling up my one big hill with the load.
Overall, I’m able to have a Dutch Bicycle “lifestyle”, riding around in street wear, but with our more extreme climate, hillier terrain and longer distances.
Are there downsides to this lifestyle?
The electric motor component adds a higher level of complexity to the bicycle. In the past, there have been few mechanical problems on a bike that I can’t fix, even when on the road. But if the electrical system fails on the bike, I am out of luck. Also, there are currently no local dealers who can repair the system but instead would have to ship it off to Bionx. Luckily, the Bionx system has so far been completely reliable.
I don’t have range anxiety – the fear of running out of power during a trip and getting stranded – because my bicycle rides quite well without power. But because I still do have some physical limitations, I find myself limiting my total trips in a day to the range of the bicycle to avoid riding long distances without the assist. The battery takes four hour to charge, too long to do while running errands or while doing a long recreational ride or while bicycle touring. I’d love to have one of the newer fast-charge battery technologies such as is used by the Schwinn Tailwind electric bike. In theory, this battery technology could easily charge a large Bionx battery in 15-20 minutes from an ordinary 120V socket. This would be excellent for 100+ miles a day bike tours. I could charge the bike back up during a coffee or lunch break.
Another downside is the attitude of some other bicyclists. Too many times another bicyclist will struggle to pass me, catch up to me at a stop, notice the battery and say something that implies I’m a “cheater”. Since I wasn’t trying to race the other bicyclist, this attitude seriously annoys me. I’ve never been into bicycling as a competitive sport but as a fun way to get around. But this attitude from other bicyclists keeps me off our recreational trails and other purely recreational routes so I can avoid this attitude. Hopefully, this attitude will change as ebikes become a bigger part of our cycling community.
But overall, the experience has been very positive, allowing me to incorporate bicycling much more into my daily life. And the wider range that I can cover on my ebike means that I am now pretty much car-free, not that that was my goal.
Has anyone else found that ebikes allow a more bicycle-oriented lifestyle?
End of Guest Post by Peter Rosenfeld
Please leave you comments and/or questions below for Peter.