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Electric Bikes: Not Cars, Not Bikes, Just Right

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Not to oversell it, but the electric bike might be the single best urban transportation option out there.

Think about it. Car commercials very rarely sell the reality of the vast majority of our car driving existence -- the drudgery of daily traffic. And regular old cycling is akin to eating your vegetables. We know it will make us healthier and can be just as effective an option as driving but cycling advocates usually don't account for the giant hill the you have to climb to get to the office or the fact that your workplace doesn't have a shower.

An electric bike is almost Goldilocksian in how it fits into the urban fabric. You get to power up that big hill, get some fresh air and dodge traffic all at the same time.

Sonny Shem is an electric bike owner and he speaks with the zeal of the newly converted.

"I never liked riding work in the summer because you were too hot and you still had to shower and you didn't want to have to be at work and be uncomfortable but this allows me to get to work, ride when I want to ride and get that [electric] assist when I want that assist and still enjoy the outdoors."

It hasn't always been this way. Electric bikes have languished as a niche item with homemade quirky designs and heavy batteries that made them impractical. But with the recent rapid improvement in lithium ion battery technology (thanks electric car-makers) you're now looking at ranges of 30, 40, even 50 kilometres with a battery pack that's smaller than a shoebox cut in half.

Cliff Vallentgoed is the owner of Redbike, a bike shop in Edmonton, Alberta. He's only been stocking and selling electric bikes for the past few years but the trend is clear.

"Over the past three or four years we've seen our sales increase by many times. I think our very first season selling electric bikes we sold three, the following season we sold 12 so that gives you a picture of the growth curve of these things."

And worldwide the numbers agree. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute e-bike sales are growing at 20 per cent a year and China is home to over 130 million electric bikes. Navigant Research found that over 30-million electric bikes were sold in 2013 and predicts that e-bike sales will reach nearly 38 million a year in 2020.

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Efficiency redefined

In our story on the future of transportation we found electric cars such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, have fuel efficiency equivalents of 149 miles per gallon. Electric bikes blow this out of the water.

A life cycle study from Shreya Dave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 found that per mile travelled an electric bike uses 10 per cent of the energy of a standard sedan and an e-bike will emit 90 per cent fewer pollutants per passenger mile than an off-peak bus.

And these things bring a smile to your face. The model we tried out has a simple twist throttle and it's as easy as it sounds, just twist and go.

"The power is amazing. It makes you feel like you have bionic legs," says Shem. Electric bikes have an internal governor that means you can't go faster than 32 kilometres per hour, but at the end of a long day at the office twisting that throttle will surely put a smile on your face. Shem likens it to a constant downhill ride.

"We all like riding downhill with the wind in our hair and you get that experience whether you're riding downhill, uphill or in the flats," says Shem.

Most cities aren't as far along as making cyclists feel welcome and safe as Vancouver, a place we dubbed "bike city" and better electric bikes cost about $2,500. But even with those barriers it is clear electric bikes are here to stay and that you will see more of them on the road in the future. It's fun, convenient and the greenest commuting option out there. If anyone's paying attention either of us will take a Pedego Classic City Commuter for our birthday!

Even hardcore pedalheads like Vallentgoed see the value in e-bikes.

"Anytime we can reach new users it's brilliant. More users, more bicycles sold, fewer cars on the road, healthier happier people, that's always the goal whether it's the introduction of electric assist bikes or fat tire bikes or anything else that might appeal to someone."

Electric bikes go mainstream
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