HELL ON TWO WHEELS ~ THE NEW YORKER

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You can learn a lot about what’s trending by reading T-shirts. A few months ago, I saw someone on the subway whose chest announced, “My other car is an eBike.” The tee was onto something: e-bikes are the top-selling electric vehicle in the United States. In 2020, Americans bought more than twice as many e-bikes as they did electric cars (score: an estimated 500,000 to 231,000). In China, e-bikes outnumber all cars, e- and not e-, Edward Benjamin, the chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, told me over the phone from his house in Fort Myers, Florida. He went on, “Can Americans change from a four-wheel culture to a two-wheel culture in the next century? I say absolutely! There ain’t enough roadway, there ain’t enough materials to build cars, there ain’t enough wealth to sustain the car culture.”

As someone who is not an influencer but an influencee, I have had an urge lately to strap on a helmet, join the traffic, and e-go with the flow. “When the pandemic came, that pretty much ripped the cover off of the e-bike business,” Shane Hall, a senior buyer for Bicycles NYC, told me one afternoon at the company’s Upper East Side operation, which was crammed with bicycles and accessories. Several of the latter sounded vaguely pornographic, such as Muc-Off dry lube, Tannus Armour inserts, and a Mudguard Mounting Kit. “Our sales were huge, especially cargo bikes—gotta get the kids to school.” (Many private schools remained open during lockdown.) “Suddenly, biking became utilitarian,” Hall said. “Some of our e-bike customers had never even ridden a bike in New York before.” Post-lockdown, the e-bike momentum has continued. What’s bad for General Motors—rising fuel prices, concern for the environment, etc.—is good for e-bikes, sales of which rose two hundred and forty per cent between July, 2020, and July, 2021. K. C. Cohen, the owner of Joulvert E-Bikes SoHo, saw a similar surge in sales. “A lot of corporate types lost their jobs and started doing deliveries,” he said. “They needed bikes and we were the first responders and allowed to stay open.”

It was in the summer of 2020 that I joined Citi Bike, the bicycle-share program serving New York City and parts of New Jersey. In February, Citi Bike had rolled out only two hundred e-bikes. By the end of the year, Citi Bike had three thousand, and had logged six hundred thousand first-time riders. One humid day this past summer, when I was huffing up Murray Hill on my pedal bike, an old guy who, I flatter myself to think, looked as if he should be the tortoise to my hare whizzed by on a hey-look-at-me, red motorized bike. Cheater!, I thought, as if he were Lance Armstrong on extra steroids. Actually, studies have shown that riders using pedal-assists—a type of e-bike that amplifies your pedal power but does not take over entirely—get more exercise than those on regular bikes, because they cycle longer and more frequently.

E-bikers, even the ones who don’t have “Life Is Better with an E Bike” mugs, are so ardent about their new transports that you’d think they’d given birth to them. Ozzie Vilela, a cherubic-looking sixty-year-old I met on Fifty-seventh Street and First Avenue, as we waited at a red light—he on a peacock-blue folding Fly Wing-2 ($850), I on my legs—told me that he’d had his bike for only three months but had already persuaded two friends to buy one. “When I ride in the morning, there are lots of parents taking their kids to school,” he said. “I’m invisible to the parents, but I can see the kids’ eyes are big. They’re thinking, Hey, I want a toy like that!” Clarence Eckerson, a videographer who lives in Queens, borrowed his wife’s Tern HSD ($3,699) and promptly bought his own. He rides thirty or forty miles a week. Carol Sterling, an eighty-five-year-old puppeteer, who has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement, e-bikes in Central Park a few times a week. “As I got older, I realized I don’t have as much stamina,” she said. “And yet I love being outside, feeling the sun on my face.”

Motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, are not permitted in New York City parks, although plenty of pedal-assists clog the paths and the drives, which is technically a violation. Asked about how the city deals with scofflaws, Meghan Lalor, a Parks Department spokesperson, said, “When safely able to enforce, we do.” In Los Angeles, John Bailey Owen, a TV writer, bought his Cero One ($3,799) after he and his wife got rid of their second car. Now he considers errands “so, so fun,” he said in an e-mail, which closed, “My ebike is my favorite purchase of all time. I love it, dammit.”

~~~ CONTINUE WITH THE NEW YORKER ~~~

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