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Tourists take an electric bicycle excursion through the south of France.
Tourists take an electric bicycle excursion through the south of France.

Who Owns E-Bikes and Why? A Study in Trend-Setting

Electric bicycle industry executives kept telling me that Europe is five years ahead of the United States in the adoption of e-bikes. A 2013 study of electric bicycle owners and riders conducted by Portland State University (Oregon) provides intriguing insights into who in the USA rides e-bikes, why and where.

Can we start off by agreeing that Portland, Oregon is pretty much in a class by itself. I mean, how many American cities do you know that has its own television series, Portlandia, centered around its cartoonishly quirky residents?

Among the many positive things Portland is recognized for is its trend-settingly iconoclastic views on urban development, especially when we talk about bicycling. The city has consistently been a pacesetter when it comes to creating an environment that encourages its residents to go by bicycle. Where commuting by bicycle nationally is around 0.6 percent, in Portland it's just over 6 percent, though other US cities are starting to catch up. For as yet not completely understood reasons, bike commuting appears to be dropping in Portland.

Given the Columbia River community's leadership role in cycling, it seems only logical that John MacArthur and his colleagues at Portland State University would take an interest in a fast-growing subset of that world: electric bicycles. In the spring of 2013 they conducted an online survey that eventually attracted responses from 553 e-bike owners or people who have ridden them. That number is, obviously, a relatively small sampling with, as they point out, "concentrations of respondents… observed in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest and along the northeastern corridor." Curiously, these also overlap with the very same regions that have the highest concentration of hybrid and plug-in electric vehicle ownership.

From the map of where people live who took the survey, I would appear to be one of the two from Omaha. What they found is intriguing:

"Respondents were predominately male (85%) and 71 percent of them were 45 years of age or older. Ninety percent of survey respondents identified themselves as white with 71 percent reporting that they were a college graduate or had obtained a graduate degree."

While the majority (58%) indicated that they considered their general health as either 'very good' or 'excellent,' nearly one-third (30%) stated that they "had a physical condition that makes riding a standard bike difficult." Commonly cited ailments included "knee problems, arthritis, asthma, and back pain…"

Some of the other key findings of the study are illustrated in the infograph below. Click on the image to see the full-sized version.

OTEC E-Bike Ownership Infograph

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the study, apart from who rides e-bikes, is why and where they ride them. States the authors:

"Some of the advantages of an e-bike include being able to travel further, accelerate more easily, travel faster, and ride up hills more easily... Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated that they ride their e-bike to different destinations than they did on their standard bike. "

And where did they ride them? Continues the report:

"Respondents that ride to different destinations were asked what those destinations are in an open ended format. Nearly 34 percent indicated that they ride to places that are farther away. Another third listed errands or social events as a different destination that they ride to on their e-bike. Sixteen percent listed commute as a different destination, 10 percent indicated recreational trips and seven percent listed hillier destinations or origins."

The 15-page report, entitled 'E-Bikes in the North America: Results from an online survey' is chalk full of similar intriguing insights, though because it was somewhat self-selective, it may not entirely reflect what could, in fact, be a shifting market, at least from the perspective of Daniel Del Aquila, the co-founder of ProdecoTech, who I interviewed recently at Interbike 2014 in Las Vegas. Dan believes that the market for e-bikes is now starting to see a shift more towards Millennials, who for reasons of convenience and personal financial circumstances are less interested in car ownership than previous generations and often find bicycles a preferred mode of transport.

In this respect the top photograph of an electric bicycle tour group in France would tend to confirm that e-bikes can and do appeal to a fairly broad cross-section of ages, as well as gender. It also speaks to the question of economic status since these tourists clearly have the financial wherewithal to travel. It would be very interesting to do a follow-up survey of this and other e-bike tour groups to see how their attitudes about bicycles and mobility, in general, may have changed.

Dan and other e-bike industry executives with whom I spoke at Interbike kept telling me that they believe the USA is some 5 years behind Europe in terms of electric bicycle acceptance. If it is, then I am launching ePEDALER at precisely the right moment and for, hopefully, all the right reasons.

NOTE: And from an equipment rental perspective, I find the choice of e-bike and accompanying accoutrements in the French tour group photo instructive: from the wooden fruit boxes to the water bottles to the rearview mirrors.

Posted By: Bill Moore [28-Sep-2014]

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