The electric-assisted bicycle may provide a solution to traffic congestion and pollution. Motorists frustrated with being trapped by traffic jams are looking for an alternative form of transportation suitable for short trips and commutes.

The desire for a greener commute is attracting more people to electric-assisted bikes. These bicycles function just like a typical two-wheeler but instead feature a battery-powered motor that assists riders. Essentially, the electric-assisted bikes combine the conventional technology of pedaling with assistance from electricity. The bicycle rides similar to a scooter. Most models have a motorcycle-type throttle that provides a boost while going up steep grades or accelerating from a stop. On some models, the motor kicks in automatically and adjusts its torque based on how hard the rider pedals.

Interestingly, federal law classifies electric bikes as bicycles. No license or registration is required as long as the bikes do not travel faster than 20 mph and their power does not exceed 750 watts. Most models have a range of at least 20 miles before needing to be recharged by an electrical outlet.

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Shown here is a policeman riding an electric-assisted bike. Photo courtesy of NREL.

Joe Conforti, a commercial film director from New York, uses a four-year-old model designed by former auto titan Lee Iacocca in the 1990s for running errands or getting to social occasions. Frank Jamerson, the former GM executive who has become a strong advocate for electric transportation, believes the trend for electric-assisted bikes is only just beginning. He helped develop the General Motor’s EV1 electric car and has been an avid follower of alternative transportation ever since.

As with automobiles, you get what you pay for regarding electric-assisted bicycles. With a few hundred dollars, you can get an IZIP mountain bike from Amazon with a heavy lead-acid battery. For $1,400, you can buy a 250-watt folding bike powered by a more -powerful, longer-lasting nickel-metal hydride battery similar to those in a Toyota Prius. $2,525 buys a 350-watt model featuring a lightweight lithium-ion battery similar to a laptop computer.

Amidst the financial crisis the U.S. bike market, and in particular the electric-assisted bike segment, is doing very well. Reports say that the number of electric-assisted bikes sold in the U.S. last year reached a record 170,000 units, as big retailers got in on this fast growing market. Earlier last year, Wal-Mart began selling bicycles from Currie Technologies, the largest maker of electric-assisted bikes in the United States in 145 stores. More recently, the world’s largest retailer expanded availability to more than 450 locations and on-line at www.walmart.com.

The Gluskin-Townley Group, which does market research for the National Bicycle Dealers Association, estimates 10,000 electric-assisted bikes were sold in the U.S. in 2007, up from 6,000 that were sold in 2006. Bert Cebular, who owns the electric-assisted bike and scooter dealership NYCeWheels in New York, reported his sales are up 50 percent this year. 70 million electric-assisted bikes are on the road today in China and the bikes are selling at the rate of 2.6 million per year.




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