It’s clear e-bikes are having a moment. Sales in the U.S. grew by an astounding 145% last year, thanks, in large part, to the pandemic. But as e-bike models expand, it seems that more and more people are getting interested in their possibilities even as life—and work commutes—slowly return to some semblance of normal.
When I got the invite to test out some new e-bike models from Specialized, I jumped at the chance. I’d never ridden an e-bike, and the first thing that I thought of was how fast the engine could let me go. Curious about the possibilities, even as I was just a few weeks removed from a bike accident that left me with a few (baby) stitches and one (very baby) fracture, I agreed to go.
My Specialized guides for the day put me on a mint green version of their new Como model, a sturdy bike with a step-through body, wide seat, and a taller handlebar for upright, easy riding. It reminded me of a sleek beach cruiser. They explained that we were headed to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where we could really test out the speed capacities of the bike—the motor can assist each bike in going up to 28 mph (45 kph). To get to the park, we had to bike a mile or two from the Specialized showroom through busy city streets, navigating the kind of stop-and-go, keep-checking-over-your-shoulder New York bike experience that I’m pretty used to at this point.
In this kind of traffic, riding the Como felt mostly like pedaling a regular CitiBike, just less cumbersome. It was impossible to rev the electric engine much when you’re stopping every other block for a light or a pedestrian or weaving around trucks sitting in the bike lane. I did get a chance to test out the Garmin sensor feature, which detects cars around and behind the bike; the petite screen mounted to the handlebars depicted where those cars were in relation to me. In a city setting where I’m always a little on edge when biking, this was really welcome.
Things changed when we got to the park and started cruising on the car-free main loop. Suddenly, I had the space to put the pedal to the metal. The bike’s motor is whisper-quiet and incredibly seamless; it felt like I’d suddenly grown massive quads that were propelling me forward, rather than relying on an external engine. Soon, I was pedaling my Como smoothly on the road, whizzing past runners and other bikers stuck using their puny legs (suckers). The Como’s design felt solid and comfortable enough that my fear about going too fast disappeared. I was surprised to glance down and see that we were doing a brisk 26 mph (42 kph).
There’s a pretty substantial hill near the end of the park loop that routinely kicks my ass. On the Como, I was a little out of breath when I got to the top—the bike is electric, not a miracle worker—but it was a completely different experience than the sweaty, lactic acid-inducing one I had the last time I biked up the hill. On the way back to the showroom, one of my Specialized guides let me switch from my Como to his Vado model, which has a body much more like my regular bike; riding back through the city felt much more familiar on this model, and helped me better appreciate how much the motor helped me out on slightly steeper roads.
Climate-wise, widespread bike adoption could be a real game-changer. More than a third of all car trips in the U.S. cover less than 2 miles (3 kilometers). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cutting just half of those trips would save 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the equivalent of taking a whopping 400,000 cars off the road. An e-bike fits nicely into these marching orders: No emissions, easy to ride and use, and appealing for people who may not want to break a sweat to pick up groceries.
After my ride with Specialized, I can totally see how an e-bike could fit into my life. Even if I might not go as fast as we did in the park on a day-to-day basis, it’s the assisted power, not necessarily the speed, that would be a real win. A motor, a sturdy rack, and some panniers would make shopping a breeze, including letting me stock up at the grocery store instead of worrying about what I can carry home. I could see myself getting to work without being a sweaty mess or having to navigate rush hour on the subway. An e-bike could even expand my horizons.
Last week, I biked to the beach with some friends. The 15-mile (24-kilometer) ride down felt like a fun little workout, but after a few hours playing in rough surf and hanging out in the sun, biking an hour-plus back home was the last thing I wanted to do. At one point as I miserably churned up a hill, my shoulders completely sunburnt, sand in my shorts, my backpack feeling like it was full of bricks, I wistfully thought of the comfy Como and how pleasant it would be to have a little help getting home.
While the Como offers a nice e-bike experience, our infrastructure is a different story. New York has a decent amount of bike paths and lanes, but other places may not be so lucky. The Como could cruise, but it’s not going to really do you a lot of good if you live in an area where highways are the dominant mode of roadway. In general, roads are still car-first, with other modes of transit an afterthought. When it comes to cutting transportation emissions, it’s not enough to shift consumer behavior. American cities also need to make it easier for people to ditch their cars. Until then, it will be hard to unlock e-bikes’ full potential.
The Como models start at just over $3,000. While there are definitely less costly e-bikes out there, upgrading is still a niche option only for those with the means. Congress is weighing an e-bike tax credit in the infrastructure bill, but it’s been shrunk during the negotiations and is getting widely panned by e-bike advocates.
I’m probably still stuck chugging up hills on my regular Trek for now. But if Congress actually wants to help spread e-bike adoption with a more generous tax credit, I have an idea for how to make good use of it.