When thinking of commuter bicycling in America, the innovation adoption curve comes to mind. With any new product (or lifestyle choice) there are leaders and followers. In Los Angeles, 1% of the population commutes on pedal power. In America’s leading cycling city, Portland, OR, it’s around 6%. How did a city with 39” of rain per year become a better cycling city than one with only 14” of rain per year (and usually all at once!)?
What would it take to cross the chasm between early adopters, (aka brave/crazy/poor) people who actually pedal to work and the mainstream who still suffer traffic and gas prices for the sake of comfort and safety? CicLAvia (coming up October 6th!) is great for reintroducing people to the joy of cycling, but what will it take to get those people to pedal to work in the near future? According to this article on CleanTechnica.com, the electric bicycle market is growing like wildfire. No wonder automakers are taking notice…
$60 million or $1 billion?
At Interbike, I spoke with Caron Whitaker of The League of American Bicyclists, who told me that Portland spent about $60 million over the last 18 years “building” (more like painting, really) over 300 miles of bike infrastructure. No wonder they’re the Platinum Standard! Granted, the League needs to separate their rankings by city size, because it’s a lot easier to make a town of 1,497 inhabitants bicycle friendly than a metropolis of nearly 4 million and growing. Portland comes in 4th place, but has a population bigger than the total of all others in the top 10. So if they were to rank cities over 500,000 separately, Portland would be #1.
What can $60 million buy a city? Whitaker told me it would also have paid for one mile of 4-lane highway. Interestingly, Los Angeles (and state, and federal) taxpayers have spent $1 billion just to add a couple lanes to the 405. Which still isn’t done, and will cost more. Yet if 10% of those drivers rode their bicycles to work, that extra lane would never have been necessary. Yes, I’m talking to you, Car Guy Elon Musk.
Another transportation maverick, Gary Fisher, known for picking winners in bicycling technology, is also on the e-bike train. The inventor of the modern mountain bike is a huge advocate of electric bicycles, the ideal form of transport over the Sepulveda pass for anyone who doesn’t want to shower at work. If only there was a safe route for cyclists, instead of the freeway that Sepulveda Blvd is for locals who know better than to ever drive on a “freeway” in Los Angeles.
Bicycling- it’s not just for kids anymore…
On Tuesday at Interbike, LEVA chairman Ed Benjamin gave an overview of the electric bicycle industry, and where it’s headed. He pointed out how cycling in America has evolved over the years. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was strictly for the kids. In the 70’s when OPEC made driving a car a bit difficult, many adults discovered they could just as easily get there by bike. This was known as the great Bike Boom period. There was a bust, of course, once gas prices stabilized.
But with the recent recession, more people have taken up cycling again. Even before the recession, Millenials have shown a much stronger interest in cycling than driving. Benjamin went on to explain that bicycle shops (the audience was mainly shop owners) are throwing away money by not selling electric bicycles. He told us electric bicycle sales doubled in the US from 2011 to 2012, from 80,000 to 160,000.
By only catering to people fit enough to pedal at full power, they’re missing out on half the US population who are either too heavy, injured, or old to pedal without assistance. He also echoed a lot of the information Ford shared with us in their research for the Further with Ford conference. Benjamin told us that GM had even expressed an interest in doing something with bicycles. As you know, Ford already has.
In that interview, Pedego CEO Don DiCostanzo claims electric bicycles are a gateway drug to electric cars. I claim they’re a gateway drug to pedal bicycles. I think he’s right, considering current e-bike customers. But I see this as a way to get people into bikes who might not otherwise consider them. Then once they start riding, they realize it really is a LOT easier and faster than walking, even without pedal assist or a throttle!