What’s the first piece of advice I give anyone visiting Kyoto who wants to check out the sights? Rent an electric bike.

And just like that their visit is a completely different experience compared to others who are forced to slog their way over the numerous hills that surround the country’s former capital as they work their way from temple to temple in a bid to cross off all the historic sights on their itinerary.

But it’s not just tourists that are jumping on the electric bike bandwagon. The country’s residents have been using them for some time. Parents carrying children, elderly folk looking for a bit of exercise, sales staff scurrying from meeting to meeting and delivery couriers hauling trailers — they’re all fans of the humble two- or three-wheel electric vehicle.

In fact, electric bikes have become as commonplace as, well, bicycles themselves.

Yet, when it comes to electric vehicles, the car industry captures most of the headlines, as automakers such as Telsa and Nissan push technology beyond combustion engines.

However, the number of electric cars on the roads — about 2 million worldwide — is dwarfed by the number of electric bikes that are in circulation.

Navigant Research estimates that annual global sales of electric bikes are expected to reach 40 million by 2023. China, which has for decades been leading the electric bike market, accounts for about 80 percent of all electric bicycles sold.

In Japan, the electric bike industry is booming in an otherwise declining bicycle market.

In 2016, the domestic market for electric bikes was worth an estimated ¥4.7 billion, with Panasonic Corp., Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. and Bridgestone Corp. producing the bulk of the nearly 550,000 electric bikes sold last year. By comparison, Japanese carmakers produced 939,025 units last year.

What’s more, as the country’s population ages, domestic manufacturers are making fewer standard bicycles, largely ceding that role to Chinese imports.

In 2016, electric bikes accounted for nearly 6 out of every 10 bikes manufactured nationwide, according to the Japan Bicycle Promotion Unit, which tracks bicycle production in the country.

The future of the bike is increasingly looking, er, electric.

A man sits on an electric bike near Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi Prefecture, in March 2010.
A man sits on an electric bike near Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi Prefecture, in March 2010. | KYODO

Technology vs. rules

People have been tinkering with the design of the humble bicycle ever since it became a common feature of daily life in the latter half of the 19th century. Early innovators tried to harness the power of electricity to enhance the mechanics of a bicycle — helping a bike to do more and its rider less.

For the next 100 years or so, electric bikes remained largely in the realm of hobbyists. Legislation also kept these bicycles off the roads.

“Before electric bike legislation, most countries treated any sort of powered bicycles as a moped and, thus, a motor vehicle, requiring insurance, tax, helmet and other paperwork,” says David Henshaw, editor of A to B Magazine and co-author of a book titled “Electric Bicycles.”

“Things only really took off in the 1980s,” Henshaw says. The first generation of electric bikes used gel lead-acid batteries and weighed as much as 40 kilograms.

“The vast majority were Chinese made,” he says. “Today, Germany and Japan dominate the luxury end, with China at the lower end.”

As the name implies, electric bikes assist a rider while cycling. Unlike a moped — where you hop on and twist a throttle to start moving — pedal-assist electric bikes won’t go anywhere until a rider starts pedaling. Once a rider does start pedaling, a tiny current — via the battery — powers the motor, which helps to turn the crank and propel the rider forward.

If you’ve ever been waiting at a traffic light alongside a parent and two kids who are sitting at the front and rear ends of a bulky bicycle, you’ve probably noticed the ease at which the bike takes off. When the signal changes, the electric bike glides forward easily and is well ahead of you by the time you get up to speed.

“With pedal-assisted bicycles, it’s like riding a bicycle and not riding on a bicycle,” says Byron Kidd, a cycling advocate and editor of the website Tokyo By Bike.

By contrast, many electric bikes that are popular in China have a throttle similar to a moped, and while they don’t require as much physical exertion, they can be more difficult to control and are more prone to accidents.

Pedal-assist electric bikes in Japan have a range of between 30 and 70 kilometers, depending on variables such as motor efficiency, battery capacity, gradient and weight of the bike and rider.

The maximum speed limit of all electric bikes is set at 24 kilometers per hour in accordance with domestic transport law.

Electric bikes generally use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are removable and typically take between two and three hours to charge.

If a battery runs out before a rider reaches their destination, they can still complete their journey and pedal the bicycle without any electric assistance.

Nevertheless, many electric bike users do experience “range anxiety” that their batteries aren’t going to last the distance.

Corinne Suya, who lives in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, bought two batteries for her Yamaha model to counteract such anxiety. Suya lives at the top of a hill and her electric bike is typically also carrying two of her three sons.

“Cycling without the battery is almost impossible unless it’s downhill or a flat run with few obstacles,” Suya said. “Otherwise it’s just way too heavy to stop and start, especially with kids and bags on there.”

Catherine Littlehale Oki, a Kyoto resident who ferries her daughter around on a Panasonic electric bike, says “cycling without the battery on that model of bike is like trying to push a dead horse up a muddy mountain.”

Explosive growth

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama rides an electric bicycle in Tokyo in December 2009.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama rides an electric bicycle in Tokyo in December 2009. | KYODO

The growth in electric bikes has been fueled by two factors: technology and legislation. Yamaha was the first in the world to launch a pedal assist bicycle with its PAS (Power Assist System) electric bike in 1993. The bicycle was powered by a lead battery and had a range of 20 kilometers. It would take the best part of half a day to recharge its battery.

Still, Yamaha sold about 30,000 bikes in the first year of production — three times more than it had forecast. Updates to PAS models were rolled out every two years and with each iteration, the bicycle included better technology.

The market for electric bikes surged after regulations governing a bicycle’s motor and road safety were revised in 2008 and 2009. Sales of domestic electric bikes rose from 275,000 to 335,000 between 2008 and 2010.

Masayuki Hasebe, director of the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center in the Osaka city of Sakai, says parents had no problem using electric bikes instead of cars, especially for short trips to and from schools or shopping, once they realized how safe they are.

Hasebe also thinks the rising popularity of electric bikes in recent years has helped relieve traffic congestion.

Kidd says many parents view electric bikes as an essential household item, especially since they’ve become more affordable and practical. Kidd notes that an average trip distance by bicycle in Tokyo is about 2½ kilometers and electric bikes make those trips much easier.

Suya says while her Yamaha electric bike was expensive, it has been an investment that has paid off. “I have three boys and work full time,” she says. “I couldn’t survive without my electric bike.”

Littlehale Oki became a convert to electric bikes after borrowing a friend’s.

She says her electric bike has given her more freedom and she regularly brings her daughter from Yamashina into Kyoto, which is well known for its hills.

“We go longer distances,” Littlehale Oki says. “I am stronger because I don’t feel nervous biking over mountains with 16 kilograms on the back of my bike.”

Not just for parents

If parents are an important part of the equation driving the popularity in electric bikes nationwide, older cyclists are another.

Kyoko Kato, 75, lives near the shores of Lake Nishinoko, a small body of water near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Kato rode a standard bicycle for the vast majority of her life, but a combination of the constant winds whipping along the shoreline and worsening arthritis in her back meant that cycling had become too difficult.

Kato wanted to keep exercising in some fashion, but long walks proved difficult and tiresome. Three years ago, she bought a Karoyaka Life EB, a three-wheeled electric bike manufactured by Panasonic.

“I still remember the first time I tried to pedal up a slope with my new electric bike,” Kato recalls. “It was amazing.”

Kato says the design of the electric bike is also helpful: The frame of her bicycle is low to the ground, making it easy to mount and dismount.

“Electric bikes give hope and joy to older cyclists,” says Hasebe, the 66-year-old bicycle museum director who used to work for Shimanto, a leading bicycle parts manufacturer.

Hasebe says older cyclists were the first to purchase electric bikes when they first hit the market.

“The emergence of electric bikes enabled older cyclists to stay connected to friends and society,” Hasabe says.

Neither Panasonic or Yamaha would disclose information on consumer demographics, but officials from both companies say smaller electric bike models appear to be popular with older cyclists.

“These bikes are important socially for older cyclists,” Kidd says, “but there’s also the health benefits.”

To find out if there are health benefits to a workout on an electric bike, researchers at the University of Boulder, Colorado, put a group of 20 out-of-shape volunteers on these vehicles for a month-long experiment, the results of which were published in the European Journal of Applied Psychology.

Each volunteer was assigned an electric bike and underwent a health check in the lab to check body composition, blood pressure, aerobic fitness, blood-sugar control and cholesterol profiles. Freed from the lab, all 20 subjects were asked to ride electric bikes, fitted with a GPS device, to and from work at least three times a week for the following month, spending at least 40 minutes in the saddle on each ride.

A secondary test was to see if the bikes were safe, especially as electric bikes have a much lower profile in the United States.

After a month, the researchers called their electric bike “guinea pigs” back into the laboratory and poured over the data from their heart monitors and GPS device.

They found that the electric bike commute amounted to a moderate workout: heart rates averaged about 75 percent of each person’s maximum, comparable to an easy jog. Riders also showed greater aerobic fitness, better blood-sugar control and less body fat. Importantly, no crashes were reported, and seven participants went on to buy electric bikes after the experiment concluded.

Japanese electric bikes for Japan

Cycle Osaka participants pose with an electric bike near Osaka Castle.
Cycle Osaka participants pose with an electric bike near Osaka Castle. | COURTESY OF SAM CROFTS, CYCLE OSAKA

Sam Crofts is the founder of Cycle Osaka, a tour guide service that operates in the country’s second city. Many participants can’t believe that electric bikes aren’t more prominent in their home countries.

Crofts usually recommends electric bikes for families who sign up for a guided cycling tour of the city.

“After they’ve given them a go, they usually love them,” Crofts says.

It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll be able to find a Japanese model back home.

The regulations governing electric bikes vary significantly from country to country. There’s also the small matter of taste.

While the mamachari-style electric bike is popular in Japan, European and American consumers tend to prefer a more robust commuting bicycle. Crucially, these consumers also prefer an electric bike that has more range and more output than Japanese models.

“In Europe,” Henshaw says, “there is much more emphasis on middle-aged and even youngish riders, with machines that look sexy, exciting and are able to commute long distances fast.”

“It’s about getting around faster rather than easier,” Henshaw says.

In that sense, the cycling landscape is different insofar as Europe and Japan are concerned.

“As a rule, Japanese bikes and motors were — and to some extent remain — light, short-range and slow,” Henshaw says. “They were quite unsuitable for European or American use, and most attempts to import them failed.”

However, Henshaw believes that Japanese electric bikes could eventually make a resurgence in Europe.

“They could yet go on to take the lead back from the Germans,” he says, “but they have to get to grips with the European mentality.”

Tim Snaith, owner of 50Cycles, a fleet of shops in the United Kingdom that specialize in electric bikes, started selling Japanese models when he launched his first store in 2003.

Working with his brother who was based in Tokyo, the pair would buy electric bikes, ship them to the United Kingdom and resell them. Starting out with the Honda Step Combo, they moved on to the Panasonic WiLL, one of the first electric bikes to use a lithium-ion battery.

“Fortunately, both bikes were incredibly reliable and trouble-free,” Snaith says.

Since around 2006, 50Cycles hasn’t stocked any Japanese models — although, as Snaith notes, many of the electric bikes they’ve sold feature technology from Japan.

Japanese electric bike manufacturers are adapting. However, they’re also constrained by domestic regulations governing electric bikes.

Yamaha and Panasonic are gearing up to implement a range of sporty electric bikes.

Panasonic Cycle Technology President Eiichi Katayama shows off an electric OM1 mountain bike model in July.
Panasonic Cycle Technology President Eiichi Katayama shows off an electric OM1 mountain bike model in July. | KYODO

Panasonic plans to release a new model in its range of XM1 mountain bikes in December. The new model will be priced at ¥330,000 — about twice the price of a utility electric bike.

Yohei Hosokawa, a sales representative at Panasonic, says the new model is reflective of the European brand of electric bike that’s capable of more than just trips to and from the school and shops.

Yamaha also has been offering a range of sporty electric bikes and road bikes since 2015. A spokesperson for Yamaha says that an electric mountain bike was showcased at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. Yamaha’s electric road bikes also have an output for charging phones built into the battery.

However, both models are unlikely to be seen outside of Japan. Manufacturers restricted the models’ motor power and battery capacity to adhere to regulations governing electric bikes in Japan, making them less attractive in countries in which the laws are less prohibitive.

In the meantime, the electric bicycle in Japan will continue to evolve. Engineers and bicycle enthusiasts will keep tinkering with technology, increasing the capacity of batteries and reducing charging times.

A research team at Kyoto University is testing wireless charging technology, converting electricity to microwave frequencies in order to charge the bicycles. Ultimately, trials such as this could lead to the establishment of charging stations throughout towns and cities.

Regulations will likely change as well, but at a much slower pace. The increase in the number of electric bikes on the road might also prompt Japan to tackle its cycling infrastructure — or lack thereof.

Kidd says the template already exists in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, both of which have invested heavily in a cycling infrastructure built around cycle lanes.

In the meantime, nothing can halt the electric bikes’ rise — except perhaps for an uncharged battery.

Haruka Iwamoto contributed to this report.

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