These days, electric bikes are becoming an increasingly popular mode of transportation around cities. They are fast, efficient, environmentally friendly, and fun to ride. Of course, there are some drawbacks as well. This guide lists the pros and cons of electric bikes to help you decide whether or not e-biking is for you. I’ll also outline a few important considerations when buying an electric bike.
What is an Electric Bicycle?
Electric bicycles, also known as e-bikes, are bicycles with integrated electric motors and batteries which can be used for propulsion. The motor is usually mounted near the crank or in one of the hubs. The battery mounts on the downtube, seat tube, or on a rear rack. Most e-bikes have a max speed of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) and a range of 20-35 miles (32-56 km) per charge.
A wide range of e-bikes are available. Some only offer pedal assist. This means you must pedal while you ride. The motor helps you along. Some models are more like mopeds where you can use the motor to power you along without pedaling if you prefer. Battery capacity, motor placement, and motor size vary as well.
Pros of Electric Bikes
- Environmentally friendly- This is one of the main reasons people choose to commute on an e-bike instead of driving a car or taking the bus. E-bikes use electric motors that don’t emit any harmful emissions into the atmosphere like internal combustion engines. They are one of the cleanest and greenest modes of transport available. Riding an e-bike is an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint. The only cleaner option is to walk or ride a non-powered bike.
- You don’t sweat as much- One of the main reasons more people don’t bike to work is the discomfort of sitting around in sweaty clothes all day. Nobody wants to smell or feel dirty. Most employers don’t offer showers and changing clothes when you arrive at work every day is a hassle. Electric bikes eliminate this problem. While riding an e-bike, your heart rate stays lower because the electric motor does most of the hard work for you. Pedal assist can help you power up that big hill. On some models, you don’t even have to pedal if you don’t want to. This means you sweat much less. You’ll feel fresh and dry when you arrive.
- Much cheaper transportation than driving- On average, it costs around 50 cents per mile to drive a small sedan. An e-bike costs just 5-10 cents. The initial cost is much lower as well. If you’re on a tight budget, you can buy a decent e-bike for $1500. A reliable commuter car costs over twice that much. Additionally, you don’t have the expense of auto insurance when riding an e-bike. Maintenance and repairs are significantly cheaper as well. You also don’t have to pay for parking. For a complete breakdown of the cost of commuting by car vs e-bike, check out this great article from Rad Power Bikes.
- E bikes allow you to cover more ground in a single day- E-bike range has greatly improved over the past few years with new battery technology. The average e-bike has a range of 20-35 miles (about 32-56 km). If you cycle part of your journey without electric assist, you can cover much more ground. This allows you to travel further than you could on a conventional bike.
- Faster than a conventional bike- Most e-bikes are limited to a max speed of 20 or 28 miles per hour (about 32 or 45 kph). Most cyclists can’t reach those speeds under their own power. At least not for long. Your average speed will be higher on an e-bike and you will reach your destination faster. By cutting the time of your commute down, you can sleep in a bit more.
- Quiet- Electric bicycle motors run almost silently. While riding, you can hear what’s going on around you and enjoy the environment without having to listen to loud engine noise. You’re also not bothering the people around you with noise pollution. Cars and motorcycles are much louder.
- Little maintenance required- For the most part, e-bikes take the same amount of maintenance as non-powered bikes. Pretty much all you need to do is keep the tire pressure up to spec, clean and lube the chain periodically, and replace the brake pads and tires as they wear out. You can pretty much take care of all of the maintenance by yourself with a few basic tools and a bit of know-how. The electric motor and battery don’t really add any maintenance other than keeping the battery charged up and replacing it every few years when it wears out. E-bikes require much less maintenance than cars or motorcycles.
- Less regulation to deal with- In most jurisdictions, electric bicycles are treated just like non-powered bicycles. You don’t need a driver’s license to operate one. There is no minimum or maximum age, no testing, and no vision or hearing requirements. You don’t need to register your bike and you don’t need insurance. You can just buy an e-bike and begin riding.
- Using an e-bike reduces wear and tear on your car- Owning both a car and e-bike lets you choose the best vehicle for each trip. For a short trip to the grocery store or coffee shop, you can hop on the e-bike. For a drive across town, you can take the car. Whenever you choose the e-bike instead of the car, you save money because you’re not paying for gas, maintenance, depreciation, and repairs on an expensive vehicle. According to this article from energy.gov, 60% of vehicle trips were less than 6 miles in 2017. This means most people could make most of their trips on an e-bike if they wanted.
- You can still ride your e-bike if your battery dies- If you run out of juice, you’re not dead in the water. You can just pedal home under your own power.
- E-bikes are great for elderly people or people with certain types of disabilities- Electric assist allows people who can no longer ride a non-powered bike to continue riding. For example, maybe you aren’t able to produce enough force to power yourself up a big hill anymore but you still have plenty of energy for cruising along on the flat sections. E-bikes assist you through the tough parts. If you suffer from knee pain, an e-bike can reduce the strain.
- E-bikes allow people of different fitness levels to ride together- A weak cyclist doesn’t have to strain themselves to keep up with their faster friend. Electric assist can make up the difference so people of different skill levels can ride together without making too much compromise.
- Great for riding up hills and through headwinds- When the riding gets a bit too tough, you can just use the motor to power through. You don’t have to overexert yourself if you’re not up to tackling a big hill or strong headwind.
- Storage is easy- You can safely store an e-bike in pretty much any apartment or home. You don’t need a garage or parking space like you do for a car. You don’t have to worry about oil leaks or gasoline smells of an internal combustion engine. Once you arrive at your destination, you can just lock your bike up at the bike rack. You don’t have to look or pay for parking.
- Electric bikes are cool and trendy- Over the past few years, e-bikes have greatly increased in popularity around the world. Particularly in Western Europe. One possible reason for this is the improvement in battery technology. Modern e-bikes achieve a range of over 20 miles with a reasonably sized battery. Another factor is environmentalism. More and more people are switching to greener forms of transportation to protect the environment. Check out this great article about the increase in popularity of e-bikes for more info.
- You can convert your current bike into an e-bike- You don’t need to go out and buy a new e-bike if you want a powered bike. You can install an electric bike conversion kit on the bike you already have. With most kits, this involves swapping out one of the wheels with a new wheel with an electric motor in the hub. You’ll then mount a battery onto the frame and wire everything up. This is a bit of a job but it costs much less than buying a whole new bike.
- Electric bikes are fun- Most e-bikes are governed at a top speed of 20 or 28 miles per hour. It doesn’t sound that fast but it feels plenty fast on a bicycle. Cruising along at those speeds is great fun.
Cons of Electric Bikes
- You need access to electricity- Most e-bikes can travel 20-35 miles (about 32-56 kilometers) on a charge. After that, you’ll need to find a place to stop and charge your bike up again. If your bike has a large enough range for a round trip, this isn’t really a problem. You can just plug your bike in when you arrive back home. If you deplete more than half of your battery on your way to your destination, you’ll have to charge your bike before returning home. Many businesses and offices don’t offer any charging facilities for e-bikes at this time. For this reason, e-bikes aren’t great for long rides. Most of the time, you won’t be able to charge the batteries until you get home.
- Long charge times- Most e-bike batteries take 3.5-6 hours to fully charge. This is a long time to wait if you need to ride somewhere. Of course, you can still ride with a partial charge but your range will be reduced. Some e-bikes offer quick charging which allows you to get to 80% capacity in just 1-2 hours with a 10 amp charger. This is convenient but hard on the battery.
Short range- Most e-bikes have a range of 20-35 miles (about 32-56 kilometers). This is fine for most commutes and short trips to the store and back. The battery will last 3-5 hours depending on your speed and the terrain. This is not enough for a full day of riding. For this reason, e-bikes don’t really make sense for bicycle tourists or bicycle couriers. Having said this, there are a few e-bikes on the market with massive batteries that have a range of well over 100 miles. For example, this e-bike from Delfast Bikes holds the Guinness World Record of 228 miles (367 km) on a single charge.
Expensive- The average e-bike costs around $2000-$3000. A mid-range non-powered bike costs around $1200-$1500. An e-bike costs about twice as much as a non-powered bike. The extra cost comes mostly from the battery. This alone costs around $500-$800. The motor adds additional cost as well. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off with a regular bike without a motor.
Heavy- A typical e-bike weighs 40-70 pounds (about 18-32 kilos). The motor and battery add a considerable amount of weight. A standard non-powered bike weighs around 25-35 pounds (about 11-16 kilos). The extra weight doesn’t really matter until your battery dies and you have to pedal up a steep hill without any assistance. The weight also makes e-bikes harder to store. You’re not going to want to carry a 70 pound bike up 3 flights of stairs into your apartment every day, for example.
Expensive battery replacements- E-bike batteries cost $500-$800. The cost depends on the size and model of your bike. Proprietary batteries usually cost more than standard sized batteries. Most e-bikes use lithium-ion batteries that are capable of holding a charge for around 800-1000 cycles if they are treated properly. If you ride every day, you’ll probably get 2-3 years out of each battery. You’ll need to consider the battery replacement cost when calculating the cost of ownership of your e-bike.
- You can’t fly with an e bike- According to the FAA, lithium batteries in your carry-on or checked luggage must be 100 watt-hours or smaller. Some airlines permit batteries up to 160 watt-hours. These are usually restricted to medical devices. Most e-bike batteries are in the 300-500 watt-hour size range. These are far too big to carry on an airplane. The 100-watt hour limit is just too small for an e-bike. If you need to fly with your e-bike, you may be able to ship the battery to yourself and just fly with the bike. Alternatively, you may be able to rent or buy a battery at your destination.
- Some e-bikes use proprietary parts- These are parts that are specific to your model of bike. They are only available from the manufacturer. Many e-bikes have proprietary parts in the motor, drive system, or battery. There are several problems you may encounter with proprietary parts. First, they make replacement parts harder to find because you have to buy them from the manufacture or dealership. They don’t follow the ISO standard. If you’re not near a dealership, you might not be able to get the parts that you need. Second, proprietary parts are generally more expensive than standard-sized parts. Manufacturers can charge more because they know you have no other choice if you want to keep riding the bike. Finally, proprietary parts can become impossible to find if the manufacture goes out of business in the future.
- More frequent maintenance- Most people ride their e-bikes further and at higher speeds than non-powered bikes. You’ll rack up miles faster. This means that some parts wear out faster and maintenance needs to be done more often. For example, you’ll probably have to replace the tires, chain, and brake pads more frequently. This takes time and adds to the cost of ownership.
- Electric bikes have complex parts that can be hard to repair and find replacements for- The motor and battery add a lot of complexity to the bike. If one of those fails, you’ll probably need to hire a professional to fix or replace it. Additionally, finding the proper replacement can be a challenge. E-bike parts aren’t readily available in every bike shop. You might have to order parts online or find a dealership in order to get the repairs that you need.
- Electric bikes require expensive, high-quality consumable parts- For example, e-bikes often require stronger, high-end chains due to the added torque of the motor. A cheap chain works fine under human power but would snap under the torque of a powerful 750-watt motor. You’ll also need to buy tires that are rated for high speeds or e-bike use. These cost more than standard cheapie bike tires.
- The legal status varies between jurisdictions- E-bikes are still pretty new. So far legislation has not caught up with the trend. The law views e-bikes differently depending on where you are. In general, e-bikes are limited to a 750 watt motor and 20 mph max speed in the United States. For the most part, you can ride an e-bike anywhere you can ride a regular bike. That isn’t the case everywhere though. In some places, you may not be allowed to ride on bike paths. Some jurisdictions require you to hold a license. Some require you to wear a helmet. There may be age restrictions. Before you buy an e-bike, you’ll want to check the laws in your city so you don’t end up with a ticket. You’ll also want to make sure that you can legally ride an e-bike. For more info, check out this article about electric bicycle laws in the United States. The laws vary by country as well. The restrictions are much more strict in the European Union and China, for example.
- There is a slight learning curve to riding an e-bike- Most riders can hop on an e-bike and ride comfortably without any issues. Having said that, there are a few things that take some time to get used to. You must learn to keep an eye on your battery level and ride in a way that maximizes your range. Learning to use the throttle can also be a challenge for some riders. There are more controls. You must also take more care when shifting. Shifting under power can cause damage to the chain and gears.
- Not as good for exercise- When you ride an e-bike, you’ll rely on the motor instead of your legs. Your heart rate stays lower and you don’t burn as many calories. If you’re buying a bicycle for exercise and recreation instead of transportation, a non-powered bike might be a better choice.
- There is a negative stigma to e-bikes- Some people consider e-bikes to be for lazy people. Others think e-bikes are meant for older people who don’t have the ability to cycle without assistance anymore. This seems to be changing as e-bikes increase in popularity but there is still a negative stigma in some places.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks
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- Steel Frame Vs. Aluminum Frame
- Presta Vs. Schrader Valves
Electric Bike Designs
Electric bikes come in a wide variety of designs. Major design differences include the motor type and placement, battery size and placement, and the way the power is controlled. Each electric bicycle design has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.
In this section, I’ll outline the two main design choices you’ll need to make when buying an e-bike. I’ll also talk about the most important and expensive component, the battery.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide: Types of Electric Bikes
1. Pedal Assist (Pedelec) Vs Throttle Controlled Electric Bicycles
These systems allow you to control the power on the bike. There are three classes of e-bike:
- Pedal assist e-bikes (class 1)- With this system, the motor only provides propulsion when you pedal. When the electric assist system is engaged, the motor starts working when you start pedaling. When you stop pedaling, the power cuts off. The pedal assist system makes pedaling easier. This is the most common class of electric bike. They are usually limited to a 20 mph top speed
- Throttle controlled e-bikes (class 2)- These work like a motorcycle or scooter. A twist-grip or button mounted on the handlebars allows you to control the power. You don’t have to pedal if you don’t want to. Many e-bikes have a throttle system in addition to electric assist. This type of system is common in the US and Asia but is prohibited in much of Europe.
- Speed pedelec e-bikes (class 3)- These work exactly the same as regular class 1 pedal assist e-bikes. The only difference is the top speed. Class 3 e-bikes usually reach a top speed of about 28 mph or 45 kph. These e-bikes have large motors to achieve the higher speed.
A Note About Pedal Assist Control Systems
There are two different pedal assist control systems available: torque sensor pedal assist and cadence sensor pedal assist.
Torque sensor pedal assist measures the amount of power you’re putting into the pedals and adjusts the electric assist based on this measurement. When you pedal harder, the motor provides more power.
Cadence sensor pedal assist provides a constant amount of power when you pedal. It doesn’t matter how hard you pedal. Some e-bikes allow you to adjust the level of assistance.
2. Hub Motor Vs Mid Drive E-Bikes
This design choice refers to the location where the electric motor is mounted on the bike.
Hub motors are mounted in either the front or rear hub in the center of the wheel. These motors are used instead of a standard hub. Hub motors work independently from the rest of the bike’s drive system. Most hub drive e-bikes use a cadence sensor for pedal-assist or just a throttle.
Hub drives are common on lower-end e-bikes because they are cheaper and less mechanically complex than mid-drive motors. They often require less maintenance as well. They are also compatible with most bikes if you plan to convert your existing bike into an e-bike.
The biggest drawback to hub motors is that they usually only offer one speed. This makes them less efficient. They are also heavy which makes changing tires or repairing flats a bit more difficult. Hub motors can also limit your wheel component choices due to the size of the motor.
Mid Drive Motors
Mid drive motors are mounted in the center of the bike near the crank. The motor unit is integrated with the bottom bracket and crankset. Sometimes the frame and motor are integrated as well. Most mid-drive motors use torque sensors for the pedal assist system.
The main benefit of this design is that you can take advantage of the bike’s gears because the motor powers the rear wheel through the chain. This improves efficiency by allowing you to run the motor at the ideal rpm. This can also help the motor last longer because you can gear down so the motor doesn’t have to work as hard. In addition, mid-drive motors offer more torque and better weight distribution. They are also smaller and lighter than hub drive motors.
The main drawback to mid-drive motors is that they are hard on drive components. The reason is that the motor puts out more power and has more torque than a human can. Cheap chains can’t put up with the stress. Mid-drive motors are also more complex and more expensive.
A Note About E-Bike Motor Sizes
Electric bicycle motors are measured in watts. The more watts, the more powerful the motor. Sizes range from 200w to around 1500w. The larger the motor, the larger battery you’ll need to achieve a reasonable range.
The most common e-bike motor size around the world is 250w. With electric assist, these bikes can usually achieve a top speed of 20 mph and have a range of 10-20 miles per charge. They often do not have throttle control. These bikes work great for short commutes and casual riding but can feel a bit underpowered in hilly areas.
More powerful e-bikes in the 500-1000+ watt range work great for longer rides where you might expect some hills. They also work well for off-road riding. The powerful motor allows you to ride without pedaling if your bike comes with a throttle. The main drawback is that more powerful motors require larger and more expensive batteries. These e-bikes can often reach a top speed of 28 mph.
Before buying an e-bike, you’ll want to check your local laws regarding e-bikes to see if there is a motor size limit. For example, in most of Europe, China, and Japan, the max e-bike motor size is 250w. In most of the US, the max motor size is 750w. In some places, there is no regulation. Some places require a license to ride an e-bike above a certain motor size.
Electric Bike Batteries
The battery is maybe the most expensive, most fragile, and heaviest component on the e-bike. In many cases, the battery alone costs as much as the rest of the bike. When selecting a battery, you want to consider the range you require, your budget, charge time, weight, and the expected lifespan of the battery. There are two main battery technologies to choose from: lithium or lead-acid.
Lithium e-bike batteries weigh 5-7 pounds, cost $500-$800, and take 4-6 hours to charge. These batteries can cycle 500-2000 times before they need to be replaced. There are two different types of lithium e-bike batteries: lithium-ion (Li-Ion) or Lithium Polymer (LiPo). Both perform similarly. Lithium batteries are the most common these days.
Lead-acid batteries use older technology that are still common on Chinese e-bikes. This is the same battery technology used in car batteries. Lead-acid batteries are heavy at 30-40 pounds. They cost much less at around $150. Charge times take around 5-8 hours. Lead-acid batteries usually need to be replaced after 200-300 cycles.
On most e-bikes, the battery is mounted in the triangle either on the down tube or seat tube. In this case, the battery mounts to the water bottle attachment points. Sometimes the battery simply sits in a frame bag in the triangle. On lower-end e-bikes, the battery often mounts to a rear rack. On higher-end e-bikes, the battery may be integrated into the frame.
E Bike Battery Capacity
When choosing a battery, maybe the most important specification to look at is the capacity. This plays the biggest role in the range you can expect out of your e-bike. The best way to measure battery capacity is in watt-hours (Wh). A battery with more watt-hours will generally offer a longer range.
Sometimes watt-hours isn’t listed in the bike’s specifications. To calculate your battery’s watt-hours, multiply the battery’s voltage (V) by Amp-hours (Ah). Once you know the watt-hours, you can easily compare the capacity of different e-bike batteries.
I like to think of watt-hours as the number of watts that a battery can run at continuously for one hour. For example, if a battery has 500 watt-hours, it can run at 500 watts for one hour. The same battery could also run at 250 watts for 2 hours. This gives you an idea of how long your battery will last with your e bike’s motor size.
Of course, there are a number of factors that determine your e bike’s range including the weight of you and your luggage, wind, terrain, hills, battery age, speed, temperature, riding position, tire pressure, and more.
Electric Bicycle Conversion Kits
If you already have a bike that you like or you’re on a tight budget, you can save a chunk of money by installing an e-bike conversion kit. A multitude of options are available including hub drive and mid-drive as well as throttle controlled and pedal assist.
The basic kits usually cost around $200-$300 and include everything you need including the motor, controller, handlebar-mounted display, throttle, pedal-assist sensor, brake levers with safety switches, torque arm, installation hardware, and a manual.
The only part that isn’t included in the e-bike conversion kit is the battery. These usually run $200-$400 depending on the size and quality. All in, you should be able to convert your bike to electric for around $500. When choosing an e-bike battery, you’ll need to make sure that the voltage matches the voltage range that your motor is designed for.
For more info check out this great guide to converting a bike to electric from Instructables.
Final Thoughts About the Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes
These days e-bikes are more popular than ever. They are an excellent choice for commuters, casual riders, and even those who ride for exercise. When compared to a car or motorcycle, e-bikes are cleaner and better for the environment. They are also significantly cheaper to operate and maintain.
Having said this, e-bikes have some drawbacks that must be taken into consideration. When compared to a standard bike, electric bikes are more expensive and are slightly harder to maintain. They must also be charged frequently as the range is still relatively short on most models.
Personally, I love e-bikes and can’t wait to see how the industry develops in the future. I’m looking forward to quicker charging and longer range as battery technology improves. I expect to see more and more e-bikes on the road in the coming years. For many cyclists, they just make sense.
Do you ride an electric bike? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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