Aug 17, 2020
When we talk about the electrification of transportation, we tend to think about electric vehicles or light rail transit. But there’s another sub-genre of electric transportation that is rapidly growing in popularity: e-bikes. In this episode, Seth Weintraub, an award-winning tech journalist and blogger, helps us tackle some of the myths surrounding e-bikes and helps us understand why they’re becoming one of the greenest transportation options when it comes to urban traffic and environmental impact.
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Dan Seguin 00:02
Hey everyone, welcome back. This is the ThinkEnergy podcast. When we talk about electrification of transportation, we tend to think about electric vehicles, buses, or light rail transit. But there's another subset of electric trains Transportation that is rapidly growing in popularity. With improvements to battery storage, we may just be entering a new golden age of transportation and mobility, driven by a range of factors from climate change technology, economics, in general consumer preference, the evolution of electric transportation is changing the landscape faster than we've seen in our history. Certainly the awareness of our own responsibility to reduce our own overall impact on the environment is a significant factor. The accounting firm Deloitte says that 300 million electric bikes will be out worldwide by 2023, which is 50% more than today, urban dwellers in particular are seeking convenient, eco healthy and affordable ways to move around congested cities. A criticism has been that e-bikes don't contribute to exercise since the motor does most of the work for you. But a new university of Boulder Colorado study shows that using an electrically powered bicycle on a regular basis can actually provide riders with an effective workout while improving some aspects of cardiovascular health, especially for riders who were previously inactive. The researchers noticed improvement in the rider’s cardiovascular health, including increased aerobic capacity and improved blood sugar control. E-bikes and scooters are affordable now. They are efficient to operate, reduce congestion and ease commute times. They do increase physical activity and simply put - a lot of fun. Yes, e-bikes have a higher emission than a regular bicycle but they far outperform cars, including electric ones, similar to EV's e-bikes can help communities achieve their GHG emission reduction targets. What's interesting is that half of all e-bikes driving trips are shorter than 16 kilometers, with some averaging single trips of just nine kilometers. That's a no brainer distance to cover by e-bikes. Studies show that e-bike owners are replacing 46% of their car commutes, and 30% of their driving errands with a bike rides. Of course, like other electric forms of transportation. This takes support, buy in, and infrastructure investments from municipalities. With supportive cycling infrastructure in place e-bikes have the potential to substitute or completely replace almost all trips taken by a gasoline powered car -which could address congestion and pollution issues and mitigate parking challenges within urban areas, especially for downtown dwellers. So here's today's big question: Are two wheels better than four? In addition to tackling some of the myths surrounding e-bikes are the greenest transportation option when it comes to urban traffic, and environmental impact. Joining me today is a very special guest, Seth Weintraub, an award winning journalist and blogger. In 2003, Seth bought one of Tesla's first model S EVs off the assembly line. This began his love affair with electric vehicles and green energy, which he turned into electrek.co. Seth, I only scratched the surface of your bio in my introduction. Can you tell us a bit more about you, your work, and why electric transportation technology and the environment mean so much to you?
Seth Weintraub 05:14
Alright, so my background is in engineering, I went to school for engineering got my post grad engineering. But I started about 10 years after I began my career in writing about technology. And that started with Apple and started 9to5Mac, about 12 years ago. And then that expanded to Google covering Google and covering, you know, the wider technology range. My interest in clean energy kind of began, when I got a Prius, but really kind of everything came together when I bought my first fully electric car, which was a 2013 Tesla. Model S, you know, I got it at the time, I started reading around about, you know, this product, which I thought was pretty incredible. And nobody was really talking intelligently about it, in my opinion, obviously. So I was like, Hey, I know how to do a blog, I know how to, you know, write about technology. I'm going to start up electrek. So that, you know, I didn't want to just say like, start up another 9to5 Tesla kind of site. I wanted to kind of hit the wider spectrum. At the time, I was super interested in solar, we were putting solar on your house, so we get the full, you know, the driving and electric car powered by the sun. At the time, Tesla wasn't a solar provider, they had Solar City which is, you know, kind of a preferred vendor at the time because you own both companies. But eventually they Tesla integrated Solar City into the company. And there are a lot of other solar platforms out there. So it's just a super interesting thing. And it's kind of scary if we don't kind of figure out the getting fossil fuels out of our energy matrix. And so it's not just solar and electric cars, we like to talk about electric bikes in a big way. We talked about boats and trains, and you know, every other form of transportation and energy usage. And super interesting because it's changing so much right now. It's such a big part of, you know, the transformation that's going on around the globe. And obviously, it's super important.
Dan Seguin 07:42
Now, I'd like to talk about electric bikes, which are gaining in popularity across the world. I'd be interested to hear about the technology behind e-bikes and break down any myth or misunderstanding about what they are and what they are not.
Seth Weintraub 08:00
That's great - electric bikes, in my opinion are one of the big technology transformations happening right now. So you know as a background love to bikes used to be lead acid batteries and kind of the change in cars from lead acid and nickel cadmium batteries to lithium batteries kind of worked its way down to electric bikes. So, you know, 10 years ago, any electric bike you would find would probably be a lead acid battery so big and heavy and kind of not able to use the full potential of the battery. And that's gone down to these like bricks that are, you know, pretty small and sometimes even fit into the frame of the bike. So, um, but, you know, it just there's so much to talk about electric bikes. You know, they started kind of in earnest about five or six years ago becoming something that you know, everybody can jump on to you know, why are they great? So for me, you know, I, I live in an extremely hilly area, but even if I didn't, the extra speed for me makes my commute more like a car commute. So I can go to my coffee shop or you know to do run my errands on regular roads that cars occupy and I travel around 25 miles per hour. So even on big hills, a car doesn't overtake me very quickly, if at all. So, for me, it's a safety issue like I travel more like a car, cars aren't trying to pass me they're not stressed out. They can't overtake me very quickly. But it also opens up biking to a much broader swath of the population. So you know, if you have a five or 10 mile commute to work on a regular bike, you have to be quite fit and you're probably going to expect to arrive at your destination pretty sweaty in a regular bike. But with a an electric bike, you can kind of control how much assist you have, you know, some electric bikes have throttles and there's a whole litany of, you know, what's legal, where. But a throttle is it almost turns it into like a moped, where you don't even have to pedal if you don't want to. And obviously, the breeze in the air keeps you cool. Like, you know, it's 95 degrees. What is that? Like? 30 something Celsius out today, and everybody's like, I can't believe you're riding your bike. I'm like, when you're going 25 miles per hour, like it's pretty cool. Like there's a lot of wind hitting you and it's, it's really not that bad of a commute. So there are just so many components to it. And you know, I'm probably going off on all different directions, but it just enables a much broader swath of the population can go much further, much faster, much safer.
Dan Seguin 10:57
Okay, Seth, who is the main consumer of e-bikes. Is it the adventurer or the urban city resident looking for a quick commute? Are there different classes of e-bikes and levels of motor systems? Can you maybe help me better understand the categories and the consumers?
Seth Weintraub 11:18
Sure. So there are a lot of different consumers of E bikes. You have younger folks who just want to go really fast. You have older folks who may be their, you know, their legs and hips aren't what they were at one point and the bike makes it easier to go, city people there's, there's people who like high performance. There's the bikes that are pretty much motorcycles with pedals, and they can go 30-40 miles per hour. So I don't want to there's not just one group of e-bike owners there's they kind of cross the swath of the population. So, you know, you alluded to urban city residents man, like, you know, I live in the suburbs, but every time I go to New York City, I love having an E bike, I can get around much faster than anybody. I mean, I can beat an ambulance across town quite easily. So, for the urban people, like, you're just flying by traffic, there's no, you know, obviously, you don't want to blow any traffic lights and you want to obey everything. But like, for the most part, you're going to be the fastest vehicle on the road. And but for suburbanites like me, like, you know, going to the store, for instance, one thing people don't think about is like, you probably have to park pretty far away and you have to, you know, walk out to your car and do all this other stuff. And by the time you eliminate it, because when you write an E-bike, you pull it out of your garage and drive right up to the store. By the time you do all those things that you have to deal with, you know, find a parking spot, and drive around, whatever. By the time you do all that you're pretty much getting to your destination at this same amount of time with any bike that then when you are with a car, so you know it for me like, when I go somewhere in a car, I kind of just space out and forget about it. But when you're on a bike, it's like a ton of fun you're, you know, hitting the turns and flying and sees how fast you can pedal. So it's just better in just about every other way. Obviously. When there's a lot of snow when it's raining, that presents some issues, but it's just, you know, as a human being, I think the experience is so much better. You're way more in touch with your environment, you're way more in touch with the people around you. It's just, it's just better in every single way. So there are three official categories of e-bikes in the US and then there's a kind of a fourth category that's unofficial. A category one is a pedal assist up to 20 miles per hour, category two is pedal assist up to 20 miles per hour with a throttle, category three is pedal assist up to 28 miles per hour. And then there's kind of an unofficial category for which is the throttle for 28 miles per hour. And then, you know, in the EU they have a kind of a different kind of motorcycle-ish electric motorcycles category up to around 35 miles per hour.
Dan Seguin 14:23
Thanks, Seth. What is the biggest obstacle and/or opportunity for the mass adoption of E-bikes? Does it take him in this capacity to build an E bike movement? Or where does it begin? Do e-bikes offer a transit solution that can be seamlessly integrated into sustainable city features?
Seth Weintraub 14:44
I'm gonna say like, the roads, like safety, is kind of like the number one thing I think keeps people off of bikes in general. But you know, e-bikes are certainly a part of that. That when bike-specific lanes get put into cities, biking goes way up, safety goes way up. There are even bike lanes. Like if you're on a street with a bike lane. There are still quite a few accidents that happen there. It's better than no bike lane at all. But, having a dedicated, walled-off avenue for bikes is kind of the way to go. And that's one way of jump-starting bikes. My personal belief is biking is going to start with people like getting the word out, getting people educated, getting people on bikes, like, you know, I'm kind of an evangelist, so to speak. So, you know, I drive my bike to the coffee shop every day, which is about three or four miles or five kilometers. So they, you know, people see the bike and they want to ask questions, I'm like, Hey, get on, go ride around. See what you think and I probably sold, I don't know, 10 or 15 bikes, and just by putting somebody's butt on the seat. So I think you know, if a city is looking for a way to get more people on bikes, they should probably just say, you know, have events like, hey, come grab the bike, or, hey, we're going to do e-bikes, you can rent a bike for give it a try free for day, that kind of thing. You know, obviously Uber's jump and line bike and all those are, are good ways for cities to kind of get into E-biking, although I would say those bikes aren't a great experience. They're certainly better than the equivalent non electric versions.
Dan Seguin 16:44
Now. e-bikes give us another device to charge. Are batteries getting better. How long can they last before recharging?
Seth Weintraub 16:54
Great question. So e-bikes are certainly getting better as batteries get better. technology gets better. One thing I would like to see is e-bikes to adopt USBC. So that's kind of the standard that your MacBook and your PC or laptops are using - goes up to 100 watts would be nice if not only could they charge via USBC, but they could, you know, maybe, you know, in the wintertime when you're not using your bike, you can use the battery as a backup for your home. So if your power goes out, you can use your laptop or power your phone, you know, it adds more utility to the battery on your bike. So that's one thing I think that could make batteries better beyond the more charge. As far as how long do they last before charging, that's, you know, there's big batteries and small batteries and powerful batteries and non-powerful batteries. A typical battery for any bike on a typical e-bike would probably take you around 10 or 20 miles with you know, some pedaling involved. There are bikes that go hundred miles and there are bikes that probably, you know, you have trouble making it five miles. So you're going to want to check that out probably check out our review maybe on a lab check to see you know what real world range bikes get but you know the least expensive bikes out there, you know, a bike that costs like $700 on Amazon will take you 10 or 20 miles.
Dan Seguin 18:24
Here are two things that I usually avoid talking about on the show: finances and weight. But I have to know, what is the cost range of any bike and how heavy are they? Now, having had to get one on a bike rack to a car, I can attest, they're fairly heavy...
Seth Weintraub 18:43
Yeah. So they're heavier. I think a typical one will weigh around 50 pounds. And you know that's off, probably about double what a typical non electric bike weighs. The good news there is you can kind of just pull off the battery in a lot of cases. So like, if you're putting it on the rack, you can pull off the battery, which is, you know, it'll bring it down to 35 pounds, you still have a heavy motor and some more heavy components that are going to make it a little heavier. But you can put the battery in your car while you're taking it out. So, the cost range is another really tricky one. I mean, you can get very inexpensive ones down, you know four or $500 but those are the smaller tired ones maybe the foldables, very low power very small batteries. You know, there's like four major North American, maybe five brands, just off the top of my head - There's like Saunders evelo Luna juice, and probably the biggest one is Rad. Yeah, so they those are typically cost, like I just bought my father-in-law a Rad runner for I think around 1100 dollars US and you know that's kind of a base model bike it's got fat tires and then you know we got ourselves a Juice Scorpion, which is kind of a more like a more petty looking one and that's that goes for around 1500 dollars you know that's going to be your range of like solid bikes you know 1000 to 1500 is good and then if you're looking for like bike store quality bikes, you know track specialized, you're looking at $2-3,000 I'm currently my daily driver right now is a Gazelle T-10, which is a fantastic bike. You know, all the power I need but still is a biking type of experience. And that that I think runs retails around $3-4,000 depending on the configuration, so pretty wide range.
Dan Seguin 21:06
Okay, let's move on, with the growing concern around preservation and sustainability for future generations, are electric bikes, one of the most environmentally sound means of motorized transportation in the world today?
Seth Weintraub 21:23
Absolutely. And, you know, I didn't allude to it earlier but when you think about how much power you actually need to get, you know, the 5-10 mile commute that you do every day compared to even an electric car - it's a small fraction. So for instance, for my an entire week of going, you know, I do a lot of my work at the coffee shop in town for an entire week, I can go off of one 500 watt hour battery. So, you know, in comparison that would drive my Tesla probably about a mile. So, you know, I'm going, I don't know, 20 times as far as you can go on a car on the same amount of energy. So, you know, if everybody rode a bike instead of, I mean even an electric car and then you know, obviously, gasoline cars are much worse on the environment than that. But I mean, just even compared to an electric car, an electric bike is so much more fuel efficient. You know, obviously 20 people could ride bikes for one person riding a car in terms of energy usage.
Dan Seguin 22:38
Thanks to our green space, and dedicated bike lanes our great city, Ottawa, has a thriving cycling community. What cities in the world are leading the e-bike movement through Policy and Planning? Where are the success stories that Canada can learn from?
Seth Weintraub 22:58
You know, I think the world leader and in biking at least in the Western world would probably be Amsterdam. They kind of took a look way back in the 50s and 60s at their car culture city and kind of reinvented their city around biking and pedestrian traffic and you know obviously the city is much better for it. You know, each city is different. I've been to some places like even Berlin. It had a great way to get around on bikes, there's like dedicated bike lanes and every area. I lived in Paris for a year. They had a couple years they had something called the belly there where this was way early, maybe 10-15 years ago before you know all the bikes and Uber jumps and you just rent a bike from Any spot, you know, within a few blocks and you can go to any other spot within a few blocks, their roads weren't as bike friendly, but they had, you know, at least a system to get on the bike and get off the bike really easily. So, you know, that's my experience. You know, unfortunately, the US doesn't have too much to offer there. You know, we're very car-culture type of place. I'm trying to think. I don't remember Toronto being a very bike centric area, although I did enjoy a long bike ride in Vancouver. So maybe that's, that's somewhere else to look.
Dan Seguin 24:44
And Seth, what about E-scooters? What are your thoughts?
Seth Weintraub 24:48
Well, I would argue so I've used e-scooters, I would argue that bikes are way safer. You're just standing versus sitting. You're actually getting some exercise on bike scooters are with their smaller wheels not as adept at hitting potholes and stuff like that. I mean, I like scooters, they're energy efficient compared to cars, they're not picking up nearly as much space. But for me, personally, my experience on the bike was much better than a scooter.
Dan Seguin 25:24
Other than the demand for environmentally friendly products, what are the major factors that have contributed to the widespread adoption of electric bike growth in recent years? Do geography and culture play a part?
Seth Weintraub 25:42
Geography definitely plays a part. Certainly, you know, hills make electric bikes more appealing, culture in the sense that you know, if you see somebody riding an e-bike, you become more open to riding with yourself, if your friends and family pick one up and you're going to probably give, give one a try. Other factors that contribute, I think, you know, as I mentioned, for more out there, kind of breeds more, more adoption. And certainly like the technology getting better. The prices of really good batteries are coming down because of all the electric cars and other innovations happening. So it's a combination of things. I'm trying to think of other stuff, you know, hopefully, websites like ours are bringing electric bikes to the forefront, you know, maybe you're a Tesla person and you're like, Hey, you know, I like reading electric for the Tesla coverage, but there's all these really awesome e-bikes we see, maybe pick one of those up too and throw it in my trunk.
Dan Seguin 27:05
Now, what's it like to ride an e-bike in traffic? Numerous studies identify the issues of safety as the key barrier to e-bike adoption. The two primary safety issues are one: the actual safety of the e-bike itself, including its higher operating range relative to a regular bicycle, and two: safely writing an e-bike on the road, Seth, how can these concerns be addressed? And what should beginners know?
Seth Weintraub 27:36
So I agree with that, I think we talked about it earlier about safety being the probably the biggest barrier to e-bike adoption. If you are going to ride on roads. Obviously speed kills the faster you go - when you have an accident, they're more likely you're going to get hurt. But the flip side of that is that if you're driving, if you're riding your bike and you're behaving more like a car, you'll get treated more like a car. So instead of riding, you know, on the white line on the right side of the road, you ride in the middle of the road, and you're and you're riding the speed limit. So, you know, if you're in that 25 mile per hour zone, or 30-35 mile per hour zone, and you're actually going close to the speed limit, cars aren't going to feel the need to overtake you. So you can kind of become one, you know, one of them on the road, just that you know, kind of like a motorcycle would kind of think of itself as a, you know, a road citizen. So that for me is the big difference. When I ride around town or people don't try to overtake me because I'm, I'm riding the same speed as cars. Obviously, when somebody sees somebody on a bike, though, they're in the car, their first thought is Oh crap, I got to you know, figure out a way to get around this guy, but, you know, if I'm riding in the middle of the road and I'm going the speed limit, there's really no reason to try to get around me. And they just kind of settle in behind me. Hopefully.
Dan Seguin 29:10
Okay, Seth, how about we close off this podcast with rapid fire questions? I hope you are ready.
Seth Weintraub 29:18
Oh, God. Yeah.
Dan Seguin 29:20
What is your favorite word?
Seth Weintraub 29:23
Dan Seguin 29:24
What is one of the things you can't live without?
Seth Weintraub 29:27
I'm going to get sappy and say: family.
Dan Seguin 29:29
What is something that challenges you?
Seth Weintraub 29:35
Well, you know, my day to day is publishing. So I'm going to probably go with Google's publishing world.
Dan Seguin 29:44
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Seth Weintraub 29:48
Just flying would be fine.
Dan Seguin 29:50
If you could turn back time and talk to your 18 year old self, what would you tell them?
Seth Weintraub 29:56
Relax, maybe like things are going to come together. Pretty good. I don't know. I kind of feel like there's a lot of anxiety around 18. So one of those, you know, don't, don't get too discouraged.
Dan Seguin 30:15
And lastly, what do you currently find most interesting in your sector?
Seth Weintraub 30:21
So for us, what's super interesting is that we are, you know, at a crossroads. So it's, what's interesting to us is like, we know where we're going to be in a few years where we know that, you know, Norway is a good example. They're kind of ahead of the curve 60% of the cars they buy, and obviously, a lot of their bikes are electrified. We know we're going to get there but it's always interesting to see how we're going to get there. It's interesting watching people's minds change. I was at a socially distant dinner party last night, and somebody who I had no idea was interested in electric vehicles was like, Yeah, I got to get an electric bike. And I know my next car is going to be electric. And I was like, Oh, this is kind of going mainstream now. So that's kind of like, what's super interesting for me.
Dan Seguin 31:21
While Seth, we reached the end of another episode of the ThinkEnergy podcast, last question for you. How can our listeners learn more about you? How can they connect?
Seth Weintraub 31:31
So visit Electrek.co We, um, there. We have a podcast every Friday. And I'm @llsethj on Twitter. That's kind of my outlet of choice for non-story items.
Dan Seguin 31:52
Again, Seth, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a lot of fun. I hope you enjoyed it. Cheers.
Seth Weintraub 32:00
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Dan Seguin 32:04
Thank you for joining us today. I truly hope you enjoyed this episode of The ThinkEnergy podcast. For past episodes, make sure you visit our website HydroOttawa.com/podcast. Lastly, if you found value in this podcast, be sure to subscribe. Cheers, everyone.