For millions of people around the world, electric bicycles are a staple of commuting. But Americans have been slow to adopt so-called e-bikes, which typically employ an electric motor to supplement peddling.
Palo Alto, Calif.--based Karmic Bikes, which plans to launch its first model in June after a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign, thinks it has found the formula to make e-bikes popular. Its Koben bike situates a motor near the pedals and crank, making it easier to climb steep hills. "It never feels like the bike is pushing or pulling you," says founder Hong Quan.
Getting Americans to consider one may be difficult. According to data firm Navigant Research, Western Europeans will buy some 1.6 million e-bikes this year. In China, where fewer people have the disposable income to buy a car, roughly 30 million are sold annually. In the U.S. that figure is estimated to be just 140,000 in 2016.
The design of U.S. cities may be hindering adoption. Roads are tailored for driving, with bike lanes for traditional cycling. Urban planners haven't figured out how to solve the in-between. "You can't have a 25-mile-an-hour electric bike and pedestrians in the same environment," says Derek Chisholm, a transportation planner for Los Angeles--based architecture and engineering firm Aecom.
This makes it difficult to set rules for how and where electric bikes should be operated, leading to municipal bans. New York City, for example, prohibits the use of motor-assisted bicycles, though they've proven popular with delivery workers.
Still, Quan points to the proliferation of bike-sharing programs as evidence that cities are starting to embrace two-wheeled commutes. "It's going to be a long battle," says Quan. "I'm willing to work on this for 10 or 20 years."
Max speed: 15 m.p.h.
Range: 40 miles
Features: Folds for easier storage; automatically locks when owner is 10 ft. away; includes USB phone charger
Weight: 55 lb.
Max speed: 20 m.p.h.
Range: 30--50 miles
Features: Intended to ride like a regular bike with electric power available when needed
Weight: 44 lb.
STROMER ST2 S
Max speed: 28 m.p.h.
Range: 110 miles
Features: Includes a screen for displaying metrics like speed; can be locked or unlocked remotely with a smartphone app
Weight: 57.5 lb.
Max speed: 20 m.p.h.
Range: 25--40 miles
Features: Motor is in the center of the frame for even weight distribution
Weight: 40 lb.