The 21st Century Revolution: e-Bikes, Environmentalism, Capitalism, and More

the first in a series on e-bike technology, innovation, and global welfare

The 21st Century Revolution: e-Bikes, Environmentalism, Capitalism, and More
Photo by Makoto KASHIWABARA on Unsplash

E-bike technology, innovation, and global welfare

Bicycles are over two-hundred years old and yet remain a staple mode of transportation across the world. And it makes sense: bicycles and other velocipedes are cheaper than automobiles or horses, easy to self-maintain (even with limited tools), and are capable of transporting their riders large distances in a relatively short amount of time.

But, in the United States, bicycles have yet to “take off.” Sure, plenty of people in dense urban areas bike, but the number is still minuscule when compared to the number of drivers. Out of the roughly 328 million people in the United States, 222 million drive cars while only about 47 million ride bikes (about 12 percent of the population). Compare this to the Netherlands where there are literally more bicycles than people.

In Portland, Oregon, about 6 percent of people who commute do so on a bike as of 2019 (this comes to around 22,000 people). This, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation is an increase of 370 percent over the number of commuter cyclists in 2000. And yet, even as these numbers climb, they remain consistently below the numbers of bicycles on the road in other countries (in Germany about 44 percent of the population ride bikes and in China there’s roughly one bike per household — around half a billion — or almost a 10–1 ratio when compared to cars). Interestingly, Great Britain joins the United States in a low number of active cyclists — despite that up through the 1950s a massive number of Brits biked regularly.

People are beginning to bike more and, in the US, many cities are taking steps to ensure a safer biking environment to further encourage this ecologically friendly form of transportation. And yet the numbers remain incredibly low. Why?

By Tim Williams — originally posted to Flickr as Star Trek Motorcycle.2, CC BY 2.0

I have a few theories as to why bikes have yet to “override” the use of automobiles in the United States.

  1. Recreational cyclists: have you ever watched the Triplets of Belleville? If so, you’ll remember the incredible portrayal of the bicyclists as thin-backed, flamingo-necked, possessed of calves the size of melons, slowly squeaking along the long asphalt ribbon toward the finish line. (Here, see what I mean?). Well, the United States is a haven for exactly this sort of recreational biker. Since many of the rural roads in my own county are narrow and twisty, these riders are frequently the subject of local ire as, in their tiny spandex shorts, they huff uphill at 5 MPH while a long line of automobile traffic waits in desperation for a safe passing zone.
  2. Infrastructure: not only is the United States a large country, our infrastructure is designed to favor the automobile rather than the cyclist. You can see this in my example above, where automobiles and bikes are forced to share the same transit corridor (which makes such corridors less safe for everyone involved). Again, on the local level there are some areas which have made efforts to create infrastructure for cycling, but these are sporadic and rarely serve to connect multiple urban centers together.
  3. Commute distance: as pointed out above, few areas have a good infrastructure for bicycling. Worse, many people make unnecessarily long commutes every day. Why are they unnecessary? Because, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown us, much of the white-collar work responsible for long commutes can be easily transitioned to full or part-time at-home work.
  4. Time & Money: biking does take more time than riding public transportation (usually), or driving a car. In the United States, obsessed as we are with pointless productivity, this creates a severe problem. The people who would benefit most from being able to use a cheaper and healthier mode of transportation are stymied in the face of the most serious cost to their most precious resource: their time. But the actual financial burden is also extreme — a good bicycle (let alone an electric bicycle) can cost as much as a used car, or more, and offers significant drawbacks for the investment in terms of carrying power and all-weather transportation.

Now, all of these issues trace back to systemic social problems, but some of them are also due to a glitch with how the technology of electric bicycles (e-bikes) is perceived, and how that technology has been applied within the US market.

In the articles which follow this, I’ll look at some of those issues in closer detail and explore what might get Americans riding. I’m going to take a look at real for-pleasure riding as well as what a serious commuter bike should look like, and through it all I’m going to expand the case for e-bikes as the best mode of local transportation for the 21st century.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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