As America’s Cash for Clunkers program replaces old cars with new ones, some are discovering electric bicycles as an interesting alternative to gas stations, traffic jams and parking fees.

In Japan, battery-powered bikes sold more than scooters and motorcycles in 2008, with a 24% increase in sales since January. The most common explanation for this spike is environmental awareness – less gas equals more green – but I believe the housewives, senior citizens and businesses buying the lion’s share of these vehicles are doing so for reasons more practical than altruistic.

For some companies, electric bikes affect the bottom line. Fuji Xerox’s fleet of 540 bikes have already paid for themselves via smaller fuel costs, less staff parking tickets and outgoing service times cut by 10 percent. Kinki Osaka Bank Ltd. expects to save ¥47 million in fuel a year. For housewives and the elderly, electric bikes make daily errands less daunting. Bikes can navigate the narrow roads of many Japanese neighborhoods more easily than an unwieldy car, but hills and heavy loads can be a burden. Ever tried pedaling yourself, two kids and three bags of groceries up a steep hill in late August? Not fun, but with an electric bike, you can do it seated while talking on the phone (my lawyers tell me to encourage readers to keep both hands on the handles). With each downward motion of the pedal, the bike administers a small boost of forward momentum, like someone giving you a push. You get the benefits of motorized transport but can still ride and park on the sidewalk.

I’ve taken my kids to school and daycare on one of these bikes for the past three years. Sure, it’s not as exciting as the view from a Ducati 749, but the brick-sized batteries on these bikes (pictured above, below the seat) last a week on a 3-hour, ¥10 charge of electricity, and I don’t spend tens of thousands of yen each month on a parking space in my building. Plus, I’ll live a healthier (and knowing the way I ride, longer) life simply by pedaling around town. Just doing my part for the environment, that’s all.

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