Few things on Earth have as bad a reputation as the electric bike. They’re ugly, clunky, and hard to repair. Quite simply, they often don’t work. They accelerate too fast, and brake incompetently. Most of the time, when someone begins a story, “I tried riding an electric bike,” that story usually ends with a variation of “...and then I had to go to the emergency room.”
Well, I tried riding an electric bike a few weeks ago, and I didn’t end up in the hospital. Mostly, I just had fun. I also came around a bit to the idea of the electric bike’s revolutionary potential.
This trip came courtesy of Faraday Bicycles, a San Francisco-based company that’s trying to rehabilitate the electric bike’s sorry reputation. Adam Vollmer, a product designer at a progressive firm called IDEO, put a team together for a contest to create a “modern utility bike.” Vollmer immediately thought of electric bikes; most electric bikes are “heavy and dorky and stupid looking,” he says, and after looking further, he decided “there was nothing sexy or appealing or even fun to ride.” A rare design opportunity opened up; few areas in the modern world don’t bear some stamp of beautiful design innovation. But electric bikes are one of them.
Within three months, Vollmer and his team had created a prototype, based around old-school French and Swedish “workhorse” bikes, used by shoe shine boys and postal workers after World War II, when fuel was rare and expensive. Vollmer admired the double tube-top design, as well as the notion that a bike could be something strong and vital. “It seemed like a cool metaphor for what we wanted bikes to be — an integral part of your life,” he says.
They went to Paul Sadoff, from Rock Lobster Cycles in Santa Cruz, Calif., to build the bike. Sadoff has 30 years of experience and, Vollmer says, has built “every kind of bike under the sun,” except for an electric one. But he makes a lot of one-off TIG-welded steel and aluminum road, cross, and mountain bike frames, so he was their guy.
Apparently, they chose right, because they won the competition and, less than a year later, have a full bike manufacturing shop in operation, funded in part, like the revolutionary films of Zach Braff, by Kickstarter donations. Vollmer already has more than 100 orders, and expects about 200 total by the time production starts.
When I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I got hold of the first pre-production model of the first Faraday bike, called the Porteur, a rare creature in the wild, all clean lines and class, creamy white metal with hints of avocado coloring, blond-wood accents, and a light-brown Italian-leather seat and handlebar wraps. It's the bike redesigned as boutique hotel.
The battery nestled under and behind the seat, barely bigger than an iPod. Three little red LED dots glowed in the back, a little hint of the future on something almost entirely imagineered from visions of the past. Though the Porteur, is, in essence, an urban cruiser, and its elegant wheels reflect that, an optional rack can be screwed onto either the front or the rear of the bike, and it can handle up to 50 pounds of cargo, which, given its intended clientle, will be largely comprised of organic vegetables and craft beer-making supplies.
The Porteur's electronics drive the front wheel, which, Vollmer says, he chose because he was “adamant about using an internally geared rear hub on the bike.” There were also design considerations, since the bike’s chain line looks much cleaner when you eliminate the derailleur. Front wheel drive, Vollmer says, is relatively common on many European electric city bikes: “We determined that, at our power levels, it doesn't affect the handling at all.”
The Porteur’s battery pack is a custom design based on a lithium cell from an unnamed “top-tier battery supplier.” Vollmer expects the final battery capacity to be approximately 240 Wh, which will be able to hold a charge for “many months.” Charging the pack, he says, will take between two or three hours, and deliver about 20 miles of pedal-assisted range. The expected lifetime on the pack is two to four years, depending on frequency of use. Peak power on the motor is 350W.
In most current electric-bike models, you press a button and the bike rockets forward, often leaving its rider behind to scrape pavement. The Porteur, on the other hand, has a little dial near the right-side brake handle, which offers either a light or a heavy boost, but neither take you by surprise. Or you can just have it in automatic mode and let it determine the boost for you, which is what I did as I rode it around the Presidio for about an hour.
The city of San Francisco offers some of the world’s most pitiless urban biking. The streets are crowded with cabs and trolleys and the ascents are harsh. It breeds tough urban bikers with calves so developed it looks like they have kittens under their skin. By comparison, I am, at best, in average physical shape, a pretty good tabula rasa to test the electric bike’s abilities. I started near the bottom of the Presidio and headed up, taking some tough hills and eventually turning onto Lombard Street, the steepest and possibly most annoying thoroughfare in North America. Though the final production model of the Porteur will have eight gears, the one I was riding had 11. Vollmer says they’re going to strip the bottom three, and I could see why. I simply didn’t need them.
Though I definitely pedalled hard, and was sweating more or less as much as one might expect, I got up the hills without stopping, and with relative ease, whereas on a regular bike I would have been walking within five minutes. There was a faint whirr behind me as the electric boost did its job. But it wasn’t showy, just quiet and efficient. It felt like I was being pushed uphill by an invisible hand.
Downhill was just as fun. The Porteur’s electric boost shuts off when you’re not working the pedals, and pedalling definitely wasn’t required. The bike was whipping. At one point, I passed a digital speed sign. The number “25” lit up, and that’s only because I was riding the brakes a little. It was plenty fast and aerodynamic. Then I took it on a trail for about 10 minutes, since trails in the Presidio are never far away. The Porteur has 26" x 1.5" wheels, with Panaracer T-serv Protex tires. They’re fairly thin, but just enough for light trail riding.
Still, while it could handle the burden, I wouldn’t recommend the Porteur for serious off-roading, or even for a 40-mile weekend run. This bike is mostly built for daily use, segments of three miles or fewer, which comprise the length of many car trips taken by Americans. This brings us to the key factor when it comes to a vehicle like this: Value.
The Porteur, at the moment, retails at anywhere between $3,500 and $4,000, depending on whatever discount Vollmer is or isn’t offering online. That’s expensive, certainly, for a bicycle, even for a rare limited-edition one. But Vollmer doesn’t want consumers to compare the cost of the Porteur to other bikes, almost all of which are cheaper. He wants them to compare it to a car. By that standard, it’s a bargain. You don’t need insurance to own an electric bike. Fuel costs are non-existent, and the occasional required maintenance is infrequent and affordable compared with car repairs. You also won’t really need to spend money on a gym membership if you’re riding a bike around everywhere. Whether the bike is electric or not, it’s hard to argue against the benefits, health- and money-wise, of cycling over driving for short trips. A well-designed electric motor just adds another tick to the bike ledger.
But who’s going to buy an electric bike in lieu of an automobile? In North America, that potential market is, at the moment, pretty much limited to child-free upscale professionals who live in cities that also have decent public-transportation options. But that’s true of a lot of early-adoption technologies. Vollmer says he has plans, if all goes well with the Porteur, to make electric bikes that are a bit more downscale, with non-leather seats, brushed steel instead of custom wood, while not skimping on the electric technology. He imagines a Faraday bike that costs under $1,000. While that’s still not a bargain Schwinn, it’s also not out of the range of other top-rated bikes.
The Porteur represents a utopian vision of the future where more city residents ride their bikes to the store or to work, only using cars for road trips or Costco and Ikea hauls. It’s possible. In 2011, Europeans bought twice as many bikes as they did cars, a number partially credited to the rising popularity of e-bikes. While it’s always dangerous, and maybe even foolish, to ask American consumers to behave like European ones, the tendency could eventually move across the ocean. If bike prices keep dropping, and car-ownership costs keep rising, someday an electric bike may seem like less of af fun option and more like a necessary utility. But for that to happen, we’re all going to have to give it a boost.