The bane of my bike commute in Calgary, Alberta, is the river valley hill. It's not particularly steep, but at about a mile long, I rarely ascend without arriving drenched with sweat. Recently, however, I made it to the top with barely a glisten on my forehead, thanks to a bicycle that was unlike any other I've ridden. Attached to the frame was a battery that powered a small motor. When I began climbing the hill, the motor quietly kicked in, and I zipped straight up with ease.
Studies have shown the prospect of arriving at work sweaty is one of the biggest impediments to getting would-be bike commuters out of their cars. That's especially true in a city like Los Angeles, where cyclists may face long routes, hills or hot streets with a lack of shade.
"Pedelec," or pedal electric-assisted bikes like the one I rode, can end that worry. They look and act like traditional bicycles, but their motors make pedaling much easier when required — like accelerating from a stop or heading up that dreaded hill. Sometimes called the most energy-efficient motorized mode of transportation ever built, they're also incredibly green. One study pegged the carbon emissions of an e-bike about equal to those of a regular bicycle. The same study found e-bikes to be just as green as walking.
At a time when cities across North America are struggling to combat crippling traffic and reduce climate emissions, e-bikes have the potential to ease both problems.
And yet ridership has yet to truly take off. About 152,000 e-bikes were sold last year in the U.S., a figure that would be more than 5 million if Americans used them at the same rate as western Europeans.
In China, meanwhile, production of e-bikes grew to 37 million units in 2013 from 1.6 million in 2002, and 32.8 million were sold in the Asia-Pacific region last year. Some western European countries are seeing double-digit annual growth in e-bike sales, and 1.6 million were sold on the continent last year.
Many of the barriers to e-bike adoption in North America are legislative. Patchwork rules treat e-bikes more like mopeds than traditional pedal bikes in some jurisdictions, meaning they are banned from bike lanes and from boarding public transportation.
Few places on the continent, however, are better poised to break through these barriers than California. Legislation was approved last year to encourage e-bike use, by legally differentiating the cycles from mopeds. In an attempt to head off worries about turbocharged machines flying down sidewalks and bike lanes at unsafe speeds, the law classifies bikes into different tiers to separate lower-speed e-bikes, which top out at 20 mph, from faster-moving "speed pedelecs," which are restricted from protected bike paths.
Amid these legislative boons, e-bikes have become more accessible to the average consumer. Finding them in bike shops isn't as difficult as it once was, and their cost has fallen as the price of lithium-ion batteries has dropped. Today, a decent e-bike, while still expensive, is comparable in price to a high-end mountain bike.
After years of consternation over mixing pedal and motor power, cycling advocacy organizations also are finally throwing their support behind e-bikes. Dave Snyder, the executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, backed the state's new legislation based partly on the idea that e-bikes help out those who "just can't ride as far or as fast as they need to."
Pioneering legislation, advances in technology, a decline in prices and millions of commuters facing long routes increasingly clogged with cars should be helping e-bikes take off.
So why aren't they?
Part of the problem is the lack of bike infrastructure. Pedelecs may make getting up a hill easier, but they won't make battling car traffic any less dangerous without the safety of protected bike lanes.
And while costs have come down, e-bikes are still out of reach for too many consumers. California and other bike-friendly states might be wise to look to India, which offers subsidies for the purchase of e-bikes under the same guidelines as those offered for electric cars. E-bikes are, after all, the most popular electric vehicle on the planet.
Operators of municipal bike-sharing programs also might follow the lead of Baltimore and Madrid by adding pedal-assist bikes to their fleets in an attempt to entice those who are intimidated by the physicality of pedaling a bike (or are worried about getting too sweaty).
Perhaps the main thing missing from widespread e-bike adoption, however, is the thing that is potentially easiest to remedy — cultural acceptance of e-bikes by two groups that have long disdained them: cyclists and motorists. Hard-core cyclists tend to view them suspiciously, as if a boost from an electric motor is cheating. Motorists also have cast the same wary eye at e-bikes that they often do with bicycles.
The e-bike I recently borrowed from California company Elby drew curiosity from many people I encountered, especially from older riders who thought the machine would help them maintain their endurance and speed as they aged. It also, however, prompted a few upturned noses from those who consider themselves cyclists. "What's the point?" one neighbor asked, falsely assuming the motor removed all of the exercise involved in pedaling.
With progress made on the technological and legislative problems that were holding back e-bikes, the biggest barrier now seems to be the outdated attitude that sees bikes only as a recreational athletic opportunity rather than a practical transportation option.
If riding that Elby up the hill on my afternoon commute proved anything to me, it's that there is a place for e-bikes in our transportation system. We just need to get on board.
Tom Babin is the author of "Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling." He blogs about bikes at shifter.info.