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August 16, 2008

Sales Of Electric Bikes Surging Amid Higher Gas Prices

Looking for an environmentally friendly way to commute to her job as a bookshop owner, Honora Wolfe, a 60-year-old bookshop owner who lives in the outskirts of Boulder, CO, found her solution in the form of an electric bicycle.

"I'm not out to win any races," she said.

"I want to get a little fresh air and exercise, and cut my carbon footprint, and spend less money on gas. And where I live, I can ride my bike seven months out of the year."

The spike in gasoline prices, along with a desire for a greener commute, have people such as Wolfe increasingly turning to electric bikes as an alternative form of transportation. Experts say the bikes, which function much like typical two-wheeler with addition of a battery-powered assist, are flying off the racks.

Although official sales figures are hard to quantify, the Gluskin-Townley Group, which performs market research for the National Bicycle Dealers Association, estimates 10,000 electric bikes were sold in the U.S. in 2007, an increase of 6,000 over the number sold in 2006.

Bert Cebular, owner of NYCeWheels, an electric bike and scooter dealership in New York, reports a 50 percent jump in sales over last year.  And Amazon.com Inc. reported sales of electric bikes jumped more than 6,000 percent in July from a year earlier.

"The electric bikes are the next big thing," Frank Jamerson, a former General Motors Corp. executive turned electric vehicle expert, told the AP.

The electric bikes are even more popular in Europe, where commuters seek alternatives for short trips that can free them from having to navigate overcrowded transport systems.

According to industry estimates, 89,000 electric bikes were sold in the Netherlands last year, while 60,000 power-assisted bikes were sold in Germany.

The principle behind electric bikes is not unlike that used with hybrid cars, with both combining conventional technology with a battery-powered motor. In the case of the electric bike, the result is a vehicle that rides somewhat like a scooter, with some additional pedaling required.  

Most models have a motorcycle-like throttle that provides a boost that can be used when going up hills or accelerating from a stop. On some models, the motor automatically kicks and adjusts according to how hard the rider pedals.

Regulations vary by state, but federal law considers electric bikes as bicycles, and no license or registration is required as long as the speed does not exceed 20mph and power does not surpass 750 watts.

Weight, quality and battery type vary by price. An IZIP mountain bike from Amazon with a heavy lead-acid battery costs a few hundred dollars, whereas for $1,400 a person can purchase a250-watt folding bike powered by a more-powerful nickel-metal hydride battery similar to those in a camera or a Toyota Prius.

At the high end, an extra-light 350-watt model with a lightweight lithium-ion battery sells for around $2525.  Nearly all models can go at least 20 miles before requiring a recharge.

When running errands or commuting to social occasions, commercial film director Joe Conforti, from New York, uses a four-year-old model designed in the 1990s by Lee Iacocca.

"It's really nice," he told the AP, although he is eagerly looking to upgrade to a newer, more powerful model.

"If you've got a date, you go to meet friends - you go out on a (conventional) bike, you're gonna sweat up. You go out in an electric bike, it's great it's terrific, you're not gonna sweat up and you ride home fine."

Dealers throughout the country say the increased demand goes beyond just the jump in gas prices, and attribute sales growth to an increase in customer referrals.

"Fifty percent of that increase is probably because of gas prices, and the rest is that there's just more bikes out there," said Cebular, who has run his Manhattan shop for seven years.

Improved technology also has made electric bikes more popular, he said, adding that his Web business is booming.

"When I started, there was only one bike that had a nickel-metal hydride battery - everything else was lead-acid and was 80 or 90 pounds," he said.

"That's a huge improvement."

Jay Townley, a partner at Gluskin-Townley, said the latest electric bikes are sleeker than ever, something that baby boomers find attractive.

"The new designs that we've seen in the marketplace are going to inure to the benefit of the electric bike companies," he said.

England-based Ultra Motor, an electric bike and scooter company, is capitalizing on the growing market for attractive-looking two-wheelers designed specifically for commuters in the United States.   The company unveiled its "A2B" model, a slick, low-riding electric bike last Tuesday, which took a conventional bicycle and redesigned it with larger wheels, a lower center of gravity and a thick shaft to hide the lithium-ion battery, said U.S. CEO Chris Deyo. The bike resembles something of a cross between a mountain bike and a motorcycle.

So far, 75 U.S. dealers have signed up to sell the $2,500 bike.

"A year ago, when you mentioned the word electric bike, people looked at you and they really weren't sure what it was," Deyo told the AP.

"Today, what we're finding is we're actually having dealers call us seeking an electric bike to meet the demand."

Jamerson believes the trend is only just beginning.  After retiring from GM in 1993, He helped develop the company's EV1 electric car, and has been an avid follower of alternative transportation ever since.

Though seen as a commercial failure, the EV1 project nevertheless helped convince Jamerson of the value of electric transportation. Amid soaring fuel prices and growing reluctance on dependency on foreign oil, Americans are ready to embrace electric vehicles, Jamerson said.

"Did you know there are 70 million electric bikes on the road today in China, and they are selling at the rate of 2.6 million electric bikes a year?" he asked rhetorically.

"The public at large needs to understand that it is the right thing to do to move to electric transportation, and electric bikes and electric scooters will allow you to do that, to get that familiarity."

Wolfe is elated with her bike, a 48-pound mountain bike made by California-based IZIP.   A self-described "tree-hugger for decades," she drives her Honda Insight hybrid car or rides the bus when she's not commuting with her bike.  For her, it's part of a personal campaign to reduce her carbon footprint. She also powers her home with rooftop solar panels, and uses a geothermal furnace to heat and cool it.   The furnace even heats her water, she said, just one more way to reduce emissions.

"Even my 92-year-old mother has a Prius," she said.

"So I come by my green credentials genetically."