Having been born into modern Car Culture, most of us fail to appreciate the profound merit of the humble bicycle. True, some equate it with happy childhoods, some appreciate its exercise value, some derive significant recreation value from it, but what about primary transportation?

Donning our climate crisis lens, we note that transportation generates ¼ of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Cars, trucks, buses – even EVs are responsible for emissions, when accounting for their manufacture and their electricity sources. Bicycles have zero emissions.

The invention of the modern “safety bicycle” in the late 1800s revolutionized human transportation. Costing about $100 equivalent in 1901, the bicycle was cheaper and safer than the means of transportation it replaced: walking or horse-back riding. That simple machine delighted its riders with new freedom, independence, fun and convenience. Its popularity was responsible for the establishment of road systems and was behind the passage of the 1916 Federal Roads Act.

Then the automobile took over, and America’s bicycle love affair ended. Roads turned to highways from which bicycles were banned, and bicycles were relegated to niche recreation. Today only 0.5% of U.S. work commutes are by bicycle (8/18/22 “How to Save a Planet” podcast).

But it turns out a bicycle is still the most efficient form of transportation, bar none. (By “efficient” we mean using the least amount of energy to go a certain distance, most often in terms of “miles per gallon,” or mpg.) Even walking uses more energy than a bicycle.

Of course, a normal bicycle uses your food calories as its energy source, but when your calories are measured in terms of the equivalent energy of gasoline, the bike averages around 1500 mpg. Walking gets around 800 mpg.

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However, now that we’re all here in this vast and sprawling society centered on automobile transportation, we can’t exactly back-track and re-discover the glories of the bicycle. Or can we? It may not be the safety bike revolution of the early 20th century, but the e-bike movement of the early 21st century is happening around the world.

An e-bike is a bicycle that can be ridden like an ordinary bicycle, but it has a battery and an electric motor that can boost you when it comes to hills or if you want to ride faster. (Or if you’re feeling lazy and just want to cruise without pedaling.) The range you get from a full charge of an e-bike will depend on several factors: The weight and design of the e-bike; the battery capacity; the terrain you ride on; the speed you go; and how much you pedal with your own calories.

Because of the motor and battery, the e-bike is typically heavier than a normal bike, ranging from 40 lbs to over 100 lbs. The top speed of e-bikes varies with the model. Most have speed limiters that will not assist you if you are going faster than a certain speed. (This is due to common legal limits which vary from state to state.) For some bikes it’s 20 mph while the highest is 28 mph.

There are several options for how the motor power is controlled. Most e-bikes now have “Pedal Assist” technology, meaning that the motor kicks in when you start pedaling. On some e-bikes you need to pedal to continue to get “assist” from the motor. On others you have the option of using a handlebar throttle to cruise without pedaling.

Since we are interested in energy, we want to know about e-bike efficiency as a means of transportation. Do they make sense in rural Maine? In Maine’s cities? Should we want one?

To measure mpg for an e-bike, think of the battery as your “gas tank.” While they vary in capacity, a typical battery might store 0.75 kWh of energy—equivalent to about 2.7 ounces of gasoline. That small amount of energy is enough to take you 15 to 30 miles, depending on the terrain and depending on how much you help with the pedaling and equates to getting 700 mpg or more. Charging at today’s CMP prices would cost about 15 cents.

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Say you have a 5-mile daily commute and do an errand or two to make the daily drive 15 miles. Five days a week, 50 weeks per year, adds up to 3750 miles and 150 gallons of gas (perhaps $600 in fuel costs), 1.5 tons of CO2, and wear-and-tear on your car.

The commute by bike would take you less than 15 minutes and the round trip will have a daily cost of 15 cents, with annual CO2 output of around 100lbs if you rode it all year.

Of course, Maine is not the ideal commuter setting for any bike transportation, so it will probably not be a year-round option – but speaking of which, AAA now provides e-bike service too!

E-bikes are becoming the most popular EVs in Europe, according to a 2022 German study (Electrek 7/3/2022), which also notes that U.S. imports of e-bikes in 2020 exceeded purchases of EV cars. A 2021 New York Times article (11/8) quotes new e-bike riders’ sense of “a child-like joy, thrilling and freeing.” Sounds almost like the good old days!

Our research finds that e-bike prices range from under $1,000 to $12,000 depending on various features. Abundant on-line resources can educate you about all the nuances. Something perhaps worth researching if you are one of the millions waiting in line for an EV car!

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is professor emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff spends her time over-thinking and re-wording things. Email: [email protected] or [email protected] Previous columns can be found at https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.

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