A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers

I ran across this article written by Dr. Morgan Giddings recently, and while it’s been out there a while, many of you, like me, may not have seen it.

Dr. Giddings writes of the use of bicycles for utilitarian purposes, taking the place of the automobile, and how this phenomena is becoming increasingly relevant and popular with rising fuel prices and concern for the environment.

Two main topics are explored.  One is the evolution of cargo bikes, and two, the use of electrical motor assists.  I’ll be very interested to hear reader experiences and opinions on both.  Especially thought provoking is the idea that using electrical motor assists may not be “pure bicycling”, and does that really matter.

Here are a couple quotes:

“Every innovation has its place and time. Some innovations happen before the market is ready for them and wither on the vine. Others miss the boat, being too late. Ross Evans’ Xtracycle was in the right place and time to help people in poorer areas of the world make more practical use of a bicycle – especially if the only alternative is traveling on foot. But in the late 1990‘s, the richer countries weren’t ready for this kind of revolution. Steeped in historically cheap oil, a suburban housing boom, and a trend towards ever-bigger, gas-guzzling SUV’s, the Xtracycle was greeted with a bit of a collective yawn in places like the USA. While it did grow a small base of dedicated followers early on, it wasn’t yet going to inject itself into the mainstream, even among most bike aficionados. At the time, the aficionados only seemed interested in the latest mountain bike suspension technology or the latest racing part from Campongolo (a high-end bicycle manufacturer) – they were not looking for a way to replace their car with a bike.”

“Another reason for slow electric bike adoption here is that many in the US have come to view bikes as purely recreational. And from the perspective of most recreational cyclists, using an electric bike would be considered “cheating.” This viewpoint has led most bike shops in the US to shun the electric bike. I never really understood that line of thinking, but it seems to go something like this: “If you don’t go out and sweat really hard, and you need help from an electric motor to get you around, you must be a bit of a wimp. And we aren’t catering to wimps.” (Or something like that.) If I used my electric bike in a bicycle race, of course it would be considered cheating. But I don’t use it for racing; I use it for everyday transportation.”



11 replies
  1. Tom Armstrong
    Tom Armstrong says:

    I’ve long said that the highest, most noble purpose for a bicycle is personal transportation. I have worked in bicycle shops for most of the last twelve or thirteen years, and have sold a fair number of mid-level and high-end road bikes in addition to thousands (it seems) of hybrids and kid bikes.

    I’ve also been active in the local bicycle club for a dozen years or so, including three years as that club’s VP Education (I’m a League Cycling Instructor as well). As an instructor, I find that folks who have very good solo urban transportation skills make the transition to rural “club” riding much more readily than folks with lots of rural experience but no urban experience make the reverse transition.

    I recently acquired a Bikes at Work trailer (used) and had the folks at Bikes at Work fabricate a hitch to work on my Globe (the disc brake caliper being located such that the standard hitch won’t work). I’m excited about the possibilities this opens for me in riding instead of driving.

    There may even be a Surly Big Dummy in my future. I’ve looked at the Sun example, the Trek example, and a bit at the Kona Ute, but the Big Dummy is the class of the genre. I’ll admit to being enough of a bike snob that I’d prefer the Surly, and rationalize that by saying that I do actually haul stuff with my bikes, and would likely test my own limits regularly enough with such a bike that having a more durable component group would be important in the long haul.

    As for electrics: I see no problem with them at all. They open more sustainable transportation to more folks. There are some who decry the carbon footprint of the generating plant in the power chain, and I see their point. It most certainly is not cheating (except for maybe the oil companies) to ride one instead of driving a car for getting to work and being sensitive to the hygiene “needs” of one’s job or one’s personal capabilities. I may not need or want one now, but I may at some point in my life.

    It’s not what you ride–it’s THAT you ride and HOW you ride (how being, of course, in line with Cycling Savvy or one’s personal take on Vehicular Cycling when on the roadway, or riding consistent with whatever other style is appropriate).

  2. Khal Spencer
    Khal Spencer says:

    I second Tom Armstrong’s comment.

    Criticizing the carbon footprint of an electric bike, even if coal-powered, is ludicrous compared to the carbon footprint of a motor vehicle and all of its support infrastructure. Purists could, I suppose put PV panels on their roof and recharge the E-bike that way!

  3. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    It always cracks me up when people ask (of electric assist): “Isn’t that cheating?”

    Well, yes, if one is competing in a bike race, then having an electric motor is cheating. But otherwise, it’s like saying having a Prius is cheating because you get higher miles per gallon by having an electric assist.

    If people really care about their carbon footprints, their first priorities should be to reduce their home energy consumption and eat locally-grown foods. A 60 watt light bulb pulls a lot more power than a recharging bicycle battery.

    • Khal Spencer
      Khal Spencer says:

      That recommendation to look at household energy use is especially true in states that use a lot of coal power. I can reduce our carbon footprint by almost 50% just by “moving” our house from New Mexico to New York using the Nature Conservancy calculator!


      New Mexico, for those not aware, is heavily dependent on coal for electricity and uses some pretty polluting power plants in the Four Corners area. You can thank us for the particulates in your air and the mercury in your water.

  4. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    I’m fine with e bikes, though they negate one major advantage of commute cycling for me – the time savings achieved by making my commute do the double duty of getting me to work, while largely covering daily exercise, without it taking away from free time. In that one way, an e bike is as bad as any other motorized transport. We old coots have to keep our hearts pumping so we don’t fall over…

  5. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Some e-bikes require that you pedal. It can also extend your range in higher temps if you need to get somewhere with a minimum of sweat. And of course if you’re hauling a load and/or have grades to deal with, the extra power can make a huge difference.

  6. Keri
    Keri says:

    E-assist can make the difference between riding and driving for a long commute.

    But one thing that is not recognized by many e-bike riders or by planners, engineers and lawmakers is that e-bikes make it easy to exceed the design speed of a bike lane. You can easily be going way too fast to deal with manufactured conflicts while still going less than the speed limit or speed of traffic.

  7. Vlad M
    Vlad M says:

    For what it’s worth, in many Chinese cities electric bikes are absolutely ubiquitous now; in many places, like Yangzhou, there seem to be more of them than the “regular” kind. You see them “customized” for winter weather ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Qufu_-_electric_bikes_parked_-_P1060310.JPG ), and they allow the “clean public” to keep their white shirts clean on +32 C (90 F) summer days – and it’s easier to hold your umbrella/parasol this way. There is a cargo variety too ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Qufu_-_Gogobike_-_P1060308.JPG , http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Qufu_-_Gogobike_-_P1060304.JPG).

    I’d sometimes have a somewhat hilarious experience of pushing pedals hard to get somewhere – and then seeing a little old lady on an electric bike noiselessly pass me.

    On major streets, boulevard-style, where there are frontage roads (primarily for bikes; a functional equivalent of an American bike lane, sort of) on both sides, road signs direct the electricals to those frontage roads, along with the regular bicycles, although this is not always obeyed – probably, exactly because the frontage road may be too crowded (esp. due to people illegally parking, or construction work), mixed bike/ped traffic there moving to slowly.

    You don’t see them (or, for that matter, too many regular bikes) in the Chinese countryside; there, people usually use small gasoline-powered motorcycles/scooters to travel between villages, much like in Thailand or Malaysia.

  8. Ben Nash
    Ben Nash says:

    I love my electric A2B Metro. It really helps me over the hills in San Francisco. There are a few new electric bike shops here in the city.

  9. Walter
    Walter says:

    I added an electric bike to the fleet this spring for commuting. I can get to work in the cool mornings without spending the day sweaty and do what I please on the way home. I’ve done over 350 miles since March 3rd and whether it’s cheating or not, frankly Scarlet, that’s 350 miles I would have spent on my butt in a car.

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