Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Alan Durning's "Parable of the Electric Bike"

Alan Durning is the founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute, in Seattle, WA. He recently wrote a series of blog posts considering ebikes, their adoption, and ways to increase their adoption. I'm offering a summary outline here, but his clear thinking, research, and conclusions on the topic make it a very worthwhile read.

Part 1: "Juice Hawgs"

Intro and insight into current demand, from cargo to personal transportation, and brief summary of the history of ebikes.
My response - Nice preview - this is going to be good!

Part 2: "Charging Up"

Three Reasons Why eBikes may soon become mainstream in the NW and NA
1 Technological innovation keeps improving electric bikes.
2 Electric bikes are spreading in China and Europe.
3 Political trends are encouraging for electric bikes as well.
My response - I'm with him so far, though the "ebikes will soon be wildly popular!" mantra is often repeated in the press, but it hasn't actually happened in the US yet.

Part 3: "Flipping the Switch"

Ebikes seem perfectly poised to be very popular. Yet even government subsidies can't seem to accelerate ebike adoption.
My response - I didn't know that there were government subsidies in some areas. In trying to answer the question "they should be, but aren't popular; why?"

Part 4: "Circuit Breakers"
Four barriers to ebikes in the NW are:
1 Immature technology
2 Utilitarian bike culture not as pervasive as China/Europe
3 Closed distribution channels
4 Safety
My response - these aren't really unique to the NW, and are to some extent repetitious of #3. On the Safety point, I hear from a lot of ebike shoppers and owners that they're looking for/appreciate a little extra confidence in traffic through the additional power the motor affords them. Citing technological innovation as a positive impact, and immature technology as a hindrance to adoption seems contradictory - the net is "immature technology, but its getting better".

Part 5: "The Body Electric"
The rise in popularity of ebikes in China is a "policy accident". In order to create conditions for the wide adoption of ebikes, we need to:
1 Enact climate control policies putting a price on carbon
2 Make dramatic progress in improving bike infrastructure
3 Promote density in city planning
My response - These are social ways to address the lack of utilitarian bike culture, and address safety concerns, but no mention of how to address technology and distribution issues. 

Overall, I enjoyed this series; its a good overview of the state of the industry/market, and is still being quoted online.  His solutions aren't ebike, or NW, specific, of course.  Its interesting that he wants to create societal pressure promoting ebikes; I think inherent in this is the assumption that electric car research into batteries will resolve technical issues there and that the forces of a growing market will address closed distribution channels. Granted, I live in a city with comparably well-developed bike infrastructure, but in the short run, I think the biggest barrier to ebike market growth is awareness. These recommendations, focused on long run solutions,will help sustain and build market growth, once the awareness issue is overcome.


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  3. @pdxebiker

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