These days, it seems that $20 doesn’t buy much in the United States. Sure, you can get lunch at a decent restaurant, half a dozen lattes, or maybe even enough gas to travel from one gas station to the next. But what if I said that it only takes $20 to pay for the energy to fuel a 4,000-mile road trip from New York all the way to San Francisco?
This past April, we set out to do just that, on $20 of electricity via two electric bikes. We took a pause from our usual work (Anna is an environmental scientist in Washington and I am the New York-based co-founder and CEO of Evelo, the company that made our bikes) to depart last month on the Trans-American Electric Bike Tour, stopping at various cities along the way.
Amid rising gas prices and the slow adoption of electric vehicles, an electric bike seems to be the best-kept secret in the U.S. Although 120+ million electric bikes are on the roads in Europe and Asia, they have only begun to rise in popularity here over the past few years.
So, it’s no surprise that the first question we get from many folks we meet on the road is, “What exactly is an electric bicycle?”
An electric bicycle looks, feels, and operates like a regular bike. It’s not a moped or a motorcycle, although there is a motor and a battery integrated into the design.
You ride an electric bicycle the same way you would a traditional one – by pedaling. The difference is the option to activate the electrical system, which adds a boost of power to your own efforts. This boost makes quite a difference – it essentially flattens out hills, makes headwinds disappear, and simply makes cycling easier. It’s almost as if somebody is giving you a gentle push – although it feels a lot more natural than that!
The important difference between electric bikes and scooters and motorcycles is that the electric motor never replaces a person’s own power. Instead, the motor complements it, making it possible for the rider to cycle on their own terms and at their own comfort level.
Electric bikes remove barriers such as hills, fitness level, age, and injuries that prevent people from cycling in the first place. They make biking more accessible to a wider range of people – many of whom find a regular bicycle too difficult or impractical for their lifestyle.
We wanted to go cross-country on our bikes to generate awareness about them, but most people use a bike for recreation, commuting, and just getting around town. Considering that over half of all car trips taken in urban areas are 3 miles or fewer, electric bikes provide a really good alternative to driving a car.
Recharging the battery from a standard 110V outlet takes 4 to 6 hours and costs less than 10 cents’ worth of electricity. Those 10 cents can go a long way, since a single charge can last up to 40 miles in pedal-assist mode. Just imagine being able to ride for 1,000 miles for the cost of one gallon of gas. Or, as in our case, being able to cover the entire country on less than a $20 bill.
During our tour, we cycle anywhere from 50 to 110 miles per day. Due to the distance, we carry a few spare batteries to extend the range we can easily cover in a day. Unlike drivers of electric cars, we never have to worry about finding charging stations. Since the batteries are detachable and lightweight (under 8 pounds), we can easily park the bike for the night and bring the batteries indoors to plug them into a regular outlet. Of course, even if we use up our battery supply on a given day, we can always rely on pure human power and simply pedal.
We’ve set out on this trip to get more people on bikes and show them the technology that can make it easier. Cycling is a fantastic way to get around in your city – or even within your country – but we need to accept the fact that for many people, a regular bike can be difficult or impractical.
An electric bike removes barriers, thereby encouraging more people to explore a form of alternative transportation that is kinder to our environment. Not to mention that the potential health benefits are enormous. Our hope is that the $20 we spend to power our bikes through 4,000 miles on the tour will help get more people on bike saddles and out of their gas guzzlers.