Travel | ON THE ROAD

Electric bikes charge the market

Rising oil prices push up the expense of owning most vehicles, but electric bicycle prices have fallen by nearly half in five years, and they are now lighter and more efficient, too

by Lee Brown

What do you buy for the U.S. president who has everything? When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to the United States in 2006 for his “sayonara summit” with George W. Bush, he presented Dubya with a CD of Elvis numbers, sung by his good self, as well as a far more inspired gift — an electrically assisted bicycle.

While international diplomacy saw Bush feign great interest in Koizumi’s croonings, the bike-mad potentate was far more interested in his new wheels — in fact he couldn’t resist doing a lap of a room in the White House.

Bush is not the only one intrigued by these bikes that take some of the legwork out of cycling. Legions of Japanese commuters have discovered that electric bikes can transport you from A to B — gliding past traffic jams and zipping up hills — without raising a sweat (well, no more than on a regular summer’s day).

Nearly 300,000 electric bicycles have been sold in Japan in the past 12 months, and opting for one means never again paying for gas or parking tickets — and no more dreaded and impoverishing shaken vehicle-inspection tests. Overseas, less than 100,000 electric bikes are sold in the United States each year, and they sell in small numbers in Western Europe — held back by their unfashionable image as a “ladies’ bike.” But they have gained a solid foothold in India, and in China, the biggest market of all, there are sales of over 10 million electrical bicycles a year, some selling for as little as ¥30,000.

Riding an electric bike is simple: The turn of a pedal or press of a button activates the motor and you’re away. It’s much like riding a regular bicycle, only easier.

“Ah, but isn’t it cheating?” I hear muscular fitness fanatics ask. Well, yes, it might be. But electric bicycles aren’t pitched at people who already cycle to work; they’re aimed at the elderly, parents with young children who need to be taken to and from school, or workers who face a long or hilly commute to the office or factory.

“Most of the people who buy our electric bikes are aged between 50 and 60, or are in their 30s with children,” says Mitsugu Tanaka of Panasonic Cycle Technology’s Sales and Production Department.

Yamaha Motor Corporation sells about 50 percent of their electric bikes to seniors, 40 percent to housewives and 10 percent to businessmen, students and others, according to press officer Satoko Ogawa. “Some companies, such as pizza delivery firms, also use them for their economic efficiency — due to recent skyrocketing fuel prices — and their eco-friendliness,” she says.

There are other reasons for the sudden growth in the popularity of electric bikes. Improved battery technology over the past three years has seen electric bikes become a far more viable option.

When Yamaha launched its popular Power Assist System (PAS) bicycle in 1993, it weighed a hefty 31 kg, had a range of just 20 km and took 10 hours to recharge. Today its latest model, called the PAS Lithium, weighs 24 kg, can travel up to 65 km and recharges in less than two hours — and the battery detaches, so you can even top it up at work.

A model released this month, the Yamaha PAS Brace, has eight gears with S.P.E.C. 8 (Shift Position Electric Control 8), a clever system that senses which gear you’re in and automatically provides more power when you need it.

And in March, Bridgestone Cycle released its upgraded Assista Stila L, an electric bicycle aimed at women that looks tres chic. Like Yamaha’s PAS, it features a super-efficient lithium battery, allowing it to travel 65 km on one charge, but it also features a nifty solution for riding at night — the tail light operates on solar power and switches itself on when the sun goes down. It is such a clever safety feature that every bicycle should come with one.

Not to be outdone, Panasonic has also achieved what electric bike boffins thought was impossible — its Lithium ViVi RX-10S, due out in late September, will feature regenerative braking. If it sounds technical, that’s because it is. But put simply, regenerative braking means every time you brake, you recharge the battery. Tests by Panasonic have shown the range can be extended to an astounding 182 km. And like Yamaha’s PAS, it features a solar-powered rear light.

But don’t let all this talk of technology baffle you. What it boils down to is that electric bicycles now weigh little more than a standard version, are easy to charge and don’t need to be plugged in so often. Perhaps best of all, as features have been added, prices have come down. Yamaha’s PAS model cost ¥149,000 in 1993, but today you can buy a Yamaha, Panasonic or Bridgestone electric bicycle for under ¥80,000.

With gas prices climbing past ¥185 per liter, electric bikes soon pay for themselves, and they offer those who wouldn’t normally dream of cycling a clean, green and easy way to travel.