Staying at home has driven a lot of people outdoors, and sales of bicycles — both traditional and electric — have been booming. For many manufacturers and retailers, May 2020 was a record sales month even as many other industries suffered. But this recent surge is just a continuation of the rapid gain in U.S. sales of electric bikes over the past few years, due in part to the cost savings they offer.
Across the world, e-bikes are replacing primary or second cars, saving on car payments, insurance, parking and maintenance.
“Weather permitting, I ride my e-bike to work at least two to three times a week,” said Nazmul Sattar, a middle school teacher in Greensboro, N.C. “It’s like maybe ten to twelve miles there using roads and greenways. Depending on the time of day, sometimes I can get there even faster than driving. I’m not sweaty or anything. And honestly I’m usually much happier.”
“Buying an electric bike is an economical way for us to be environmentally friendly,” echoed Oca Rigby, a graduate student at Duke University in Durham. “Before using this bike, my husband would drop me off at work every day. Now, using an electric bike has saved us time and money.”
Here’s how e-bike commuting can save you money.
How Do E-Bikes Work?
While there are a wide variety of styles of electric bicycles available both online and in stores, an e-bike is essentially a bicycle designed with three additional parts: a display, a motor and a battery.
As you pedal, you use the display to pick the level of assist you want, usually ranging from Eco to Sport to Turbo. Based on the input, the motor increases the power and speed of the bike by 125% to 300% without the rider pedaling any harder. In other words, you can climb that big hill or keep up with commuting traffic without breaking a sweat. And have fun doing it.
The battery, which is charged prior, provides the power to the motor.
With the motor assist, Class 1 and 2 e-bikes can go up to 20 mph, and Class 3 bikes go up to 28 mph. (Anything above that is up to your legs.) The rider must keep pedaling to get the assist on most bikes, but some models come with a throttle that allows acceleration up to 14 mph or more without pedaling.
“A year ago, it was estimated that one out of ten bicycles sold in the U.S. was electric and it appears that number could double by the end of the year,” said Joe Michel, owner of eBike Central, in Greensboro, one of the largest stores in the southeast. “We’ve seen monthly increases in sales in our store for the past six months. As more consumers become aware of the benefits, both economic and healthwise, of riding an e-bike, we expect that to grow exponentially.”
With commutes in the largest U.S. metro areas being less than 10 miles according to MarketWatch, e-bikes can easily handle this distance at speeds equal to and often above the stop-and-go traffic around them. There are even foldable e-bikes, so they can be easily stored in an office or transported on a train or bus.
What Do E-Bikes Cost?
Prices can vary widely: from $1,000 to $1,500 for the basic, everyman e-bike sold directly off the internet by companies like Rad Power or Juiced, to a custom $10,000 high-end imported Riese-Muller e-bike or a $12,000 Specialized road bike sold in stores.
But every day more and more solid, reliable e-bikes are being introduced in the $1,000 to 2,500 price range that can save consumers time and money over the long haul.
A limited number of stores across the country selling only e-bikes have a wide selection of styles and prices, while a growing number of traditional bike stores carry a few models as well.
Cost Per Mile
Electric bikes substantially reduce transportation costs for commuters when replacing a car completely, or even using it a few days instead of driving.
The average e-bike battery is between 500W to 800W, which means it will take 0.4-0.8 kilowatt hours to charge the battery completely. Assuming you pay a rate of $0.10 per kilowatt hour, it costs 5 cents to 8 cents to charge a battery that will take you 25 to 80 miles, depending on the level of assist you use.
Compare that with the average U.S. automobile, which gets approximately 25 mpg, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current price for a gallon of unleaded regular in the U.S. is at a low $1.82. So for every 25 miles you travel, you save $1.75 with an e-bike compared to the cost of filling a car with gas.
Added Vehicle Costs
While that alone may not seem enough to put the Honda in the garage and hop on an electric Yamaha, the true cost of commuting in a car is much higher.
According to a report from Strong Towns, a website devoted to strengthening how cities work, the actual cost of a commute is 34 cents a mile. This includes not just gas, but also oil, tires, maintenance and depreciation of your car. So, say you commute to and from work a total of 15 miles a day 250 times or more in a year, that commute costs $3,750 in car expenses annually.
An e-bike requires about $150 a year in maintenance on brake pads or motor tune ups, if that, Michel said. A single battery will take 1,000 charges before it starts to wear down. Each charge lasts 30 to 50 miles. So the rider will most likely tire out long before the battery.
What About Parking?
A 2018 report by transportation analytics company INRIX found the average driver spent more than $3,000 a year on parking. The most expensive parking across the country ranged from $8 an hour in Denver to $17 an hour in Chicago.
E-bikes can be locked to a bike rack or brought in the office at little or no charge. The foldable bikes are especially convenient if bike racks aren’t available and office or elevator space is tight.
Automobile owners pay an average of $1,502 a year in car insurance, according to Car and Driver. The average cost of motorcycle insurance is $702 annually, according to the Motorcycle Legal Foundation. Even a moped costs an average of $250 a year to insure, according to TheScooterist.com. Class 1, 2 and 3 e-bikes do not require insurance. Riders aren’t required to pay registration or have a licence either.
Don’t Forget the Health Savings
For older riders or those of any age recovering from health issues such as heart attacks, hip or knee replacements, e-bikes allow for low-impact exercise that a traditional bike can’t offer. As a rider’s health improves or they get into better shape, they can adjust the level of exertion on the e-bike.
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer and editor in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned.