— Electric bikes raise a lot of emotions in the industry — are they cheating, or not? — but there hasn’t been much actual research into who uses them and how. A recently published study from Portland State University suggests that e-bikes can reduce the barriers that keep many people from getting on a bike.
“People say, ‘I don’t like to bike because it’s too far,’ or ‘I don’t want to be sweaty,’ or [because of] hills,” said John MacArthur, the principal investigator. “E-bikes really did drop those barriers. I find that is where the device and technology can help get more people out cycling.” The study showed that e-bikes gave riders more confidence and encouraged them to ride more often and to more places.
MacArthur is a research associate at the Transportation Insight for Vibrant Communities program at Portland State. He and Chris Cherry of the University of Tennessee are among the only American researchers who specialize in studying e-bikes.
The study, and more like it, could boost acceptance of ebikes — and cycling in general — in North America. “E-bikes are a great way to introduce the sport of cycling to people who would not have otherwise considered riding a bike to work, school, or for recreation,” said Morgan Lommele, e-bike campaigns manager for PeopleForBikes.
“This study is promising because it shows that with the small boost of an electric bicycle, more people ride a bike, and they ride more often.”
The $168,000 project, done under the auspices of the National Institute for Transportation and Communities of the U.S. Department of Transportation, was conducted from April 2014 to September 2015 among employees at three campuses of Kaiser Permanente, a major health care company that serves more than 500,000 people in metro Portland.
The study used 30 iZip E3 Compact folding e-bikes, distributed among the three campuses. A total of 150 employees used the bikes for 10 weeks at a time. They were encouraged to commute on them and use them for a wide range of other trips. All took surveys before and after using the e-bikes. Half of the participants said they didn’t ride bikes, and less than 10 percent had ever ridden an e-bike. The number of people who used a bike to commute to work more than doubled during the study. Participants also put a lot of personal hours into the bikes — the number of those who biked for shopping or other errands doubled with e-bikes, and those who rode to visit family members or friends quadrupled. Even though some 85 percent of participants said they had access to a working bike, fewer than a quarter of them bothered to ride them. But with the e-bikes, the number of people who rode at least once a week more than doubled to 53 percent.
“This analysis shows that people will use a bicycle more if it is electric assist,” the authors said. More than 60 percent of the riders strongly agreed that riding an e-bike is “fun.” That could be relevant for wellness programs and other programs that encourage people to ride bikes more often. “If an e-bike can provide an enjoyable benefit to taking trips by cycling then we might see more trips by bicycles and for the behavior change to hold,” the authors said.
The e-bikes also boosted cycling confidence among participants. Those who described themselves as “strong and fearless” or “enthused and confident” cyclists rose to 52 percent after the study from 38 percent before.
Those are among the categories popularized by Portland’s Roger Geller to characterize how people view cycling — ranging from “no way, no how” to “strong and fearless.” MacArthur said an important next step would be a more “naturalistic” study that would use GPS units to track day-to-day e-bike use. He and Cherry are seeking funding for a study that would track ebike use among up to 100 people in as many as four locations across the country. To download the report or other research concerning e-bikes, visit http://nitc.trec.pdx.edu/ research/project/564.