Why Are e-Bikes Taking Off In North America While Electric Motorcycles Stagnate?

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In a previous article, I pointed out that electric motorcycles are getting going in the United States, but under the radar as e-bikes. It used to be that there were bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles, with fairly bright lines between these categories, but electrification is making a mess of all that, both practically and legally. There are now “bicycles” that rival motorcycles for speed (or even keep up with them in cities), and there are slow electric motorcycles that are really more of a moped.

But that still leaves us with a big question we need to be asking: why are people going for a fast e-bike instead of an electric motorcycle?

Perception of Risk is a Common Human Failing

One video I came across illuminates one big aspect of this: perceived safety. People think a bicycle (even if it’s got a fairly peppy electric motor driving it) is much safer than a slow motorcycle that actually has the same specs.

The problem? Perception of risk, which humans suck at. It’s the reason many people don’t take climate change seriously, but the problem extends into many decisions we make about time and resources.

We worry about plane crashes and fear air travel more than driving despite the fact that flying is far safer than taking a road trip. We worry about mass shootings and society expends a lot of energy arguing over those, doing drills in schools & workplaces, and more, but most people lack even the most basic first aid skills for common problems like choking, which is far, far more common than a shooting no matter what country you’re in.

It turns out that something as simple as the Heimlich maneuver, which we seen in Hollywood films and TV shows, is likely to break your leg if you do it wrong. Not only will you not clear the blockage, but when the victim passes out, they’ll come down and you’ll both end up needing medical attention. Improper CPR could break the tip of the sternum and put a bone fragment into the victim’s internal organs, or not work at all if you don’t do a very solid chest compression in the right place.

We could solve much of this with 2–3 hours of training per year in basic first aid skills, but we don’t perceive such things to be as big of a risk, so it doesn’t get the time it deserves.

It turns out that when it comes to e-bikes, we’re making similar mistakes, as this video points out:

When people ride a motorcycle, they know how dangerous it is. You have to get a special endorsement on your license. You need a big, full-head helmet that passes rigorous testing. If you’re smart, you’ll also wear clothing that can protect you from “road rash” and other injuries.

Bicycles? We might wear a helmet when riding those. Maybe. No special clothes are worn, except maybe stretchy pants if you’re really into it. Add an electric motor, and we’re going closer to motorcycle speeds, sustaining motorcycle injuries when we crash, and running out of room on the road faster than we would when pushing pedals. Plus, an e-cyclist is less visible than a person on a motorcycle and has a lot less safety equipment.

On top of that, motorcyclists are required to get training, which leads us to …

Regulation and Licensing

When we see the increasing rates of motorcycle-like death and problems with e-bikes, we might be seeing the unintended consequences of government regulation that wasn’t that well thought out.

Instead of increasing safety across the board, motorcycle licensing seems to be discouraging people from getting training, instead opting to ride an e-bike that can go almost as fast as a motorcycle can safely go in the city. Some people will respond to this dilemma by suggesting that motorcycle regulations should be extended to e-bike ownership, but that probably just means that people will quit adopting e-bikes, too.

Only around 8% of U.S. households own a motorcycle of any kind, and that’s a record high. At the same time, 5.8% of Americans don’t know how to ride a bike at all. Motorcycle numbers are that abysmal.

Instead of discouraging the adoption of micromobility with heavy-handed regulation and smothering it the same way we smother motorcycling, we should really be looking at things like better e-bike infrastructure (and no, a “share the road” sign doesn’t count). Protected lanes with physical barriers between bikes and cars, dedicated bike paths, and more could make a huge difference.

Cost

This is a big one. Electric motorcycles are just too expensive for people to consider in most cases, often exceeding $10,000. A not-so-good e-bike can be had for around $1000, better ones can be had for $2000, and premium models are available for $3000–5000. Combine the price difference with the lack of heavy-handed regulation, and the choice for people looking to get into traveling on two wheels is going to be obvious.

Narrowing these costs down is essential to adoption. As I got into in my previous article, low-cost electric motorcycles are a great option for cities.

Fear of Manual Transmissions in Gas-Powered Motorcycles

It’s sad, but true. The manual transmission is dying out, despite that it would be great for EVs. If an EV came equipped with one, you could just leave it in 2nd gear all the time and it would drive about like any other EV around town. You could forget it was even there. Adding a low gear for towing or taking off really hard (torque multiplication) and adding a high gear for better highway cruising efficiency would give you the benefits without any of the clutching work normally associated with manuals.

People are so afraid of manuals that a vehicle manufacturer is very unlikely to ever consider this. Instead, they’re building automatic transmissions for EVs. Blech.

People are even more afraid of clutching a motorcycle with a gas engine. Sure, there are cone clutches and other options that make riding easier, but they’re frowned upon and their users mocked, so the manufacturers never messed with them much.

A motorcycle getting 80 MPG on gasoline is arguably cleaner than some four-wheeled EVs, especially when you consider the extra emissions of building the big vehicle, its battery pack, etc, but for all of the reasons above, people just aren’t adopting them in the United States like they did in other countries.

Now, with electrification, there’s no arguing at all which option is more environmentally friendly. An electric motorcycle is better than a four-wheel EV in every respect but seating capacity (which often goes unused, and the electric motorcycle probably beats transit per passenger cleanliness by most metrics. We’re fools for not finding ways to encourage their safe adoption more.

Featured image: My Townie Path Go e-Bike, photo by Jennifer Sensiba


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1950 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba