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Story by JOE LEARY

Based on current demand, electric bicycles are considered ‘hot wheels.’ But while the rising popularity of the e-bike is generally viewed as a modern-day phenomenon, the origin of this futuristic mode of transportation actually dates back well over a century.


With an e-bike, people can go further, faster, no matter what shape they’re in. They can now add fun to their commute, keep up with their friends, and cheerfully ride up the hills that used to inhibit them.

The first patent was granted on December 31, 1895 to Ogden Bolton Jr. His invention was a rear wheel mounted battery-powered bicycle. Fellow inventors of the era refined the concept with various versions and models. And while the e-bike continued to find support in the ensuing years, it languished on the sidelines, showing limited growth. It was shelved for a lengthy period until major industries got involved in the 1990s. Yamaha built an early prototype electric bicycle in 1993 and later created the pedalassist concept. Popularity soared with increased production and today the e-bike is a booming business.

“During the years I have been in the cycling industry I have seen interest in e-bikes grow three times year over year,” says Graham Loewen, Sales Representative of Dunbar Cycles, founded in 1928 and currently Vancouver’s oldest bike shop. “The biggest increase has been in this past year. The major spike in demand for bicycles happened because more people are trying to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. “E-bikes bring back the joy of riding and as technologies are becoming more developed and battery ranges increase, e-bikes are becoming more and more popular among working professionals who commute to work.

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“At Dunbar Cycles we do a lot of electric mountain bikes as well. Many riders look to enjoy the descent more by taking the long climb out of the ride, and as well there are lots of new riders purchasing electric mountain bikes who are trying to keep up with more experienced friends or just trying to get as many laps in as possible after work.” Noting that the customer base spans all generations, Loewen sees an ever-increasing ownership base of people utilizing the e-bike as a primary method of transportation. One such commuter is District of North Vancouver Councilor Jordan Back, whose primary motivation was to become less dependent on an automobile and the ensuing associated costs, and also for esthetic reasons and environmental concerns.

“I feel that all of us living on this beautiful planet have a duty to do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint wherever we can, and driving less is certainly one way to do it,” says Back. “I have always been someone who rides bikes, mostly for competition, so the idea of getting a bit of exercise just by running errands, travelling to the office or doing any of the other short trips that I would have otherwise used my car for was quite appealing to me.” As a sitting Councilor, Back commutes from North Vancouver to his Burnaby office.

His commute encompasses roughly 40km. He also uses this mode of transport in the majority of his travels. “I use the e-bike about 75% of the time and would probably use it closer to 100% if I didn’t need to travel as far as I do for meetings. I now have a “car light” lifestyle and the times I have to put gas in the tank are few and far between. My commute is so much fun now — and how many people can say that? My route takes me through a couple of neighbourhood parks as well as along an urban trail and a multi-use path, where I find myself greeting some of the same people every day.

The fresh air and exercise are also the perfect way to reset my day between home and work.” So who exactly is the typical or median consumer of e-bikes? “It really does span all types of people,” says Loewen. “As technologies are becoming more developed and battery ranges increase, e-bikes are becoming more common for working professionals using them to commute to work. When e-bikes were first released they were mostly just a standard cruiser or commuter bike that was designed to hold a battery and a motor in the rear wheel.

Now as technologies have been developed, e-bikes are becoming part of any brand’s line-up, batteries have become more integrated and motors are connected to the cranks. Lately, a few brands have been releasing ‘lightweight’ e-bikes containing a smaller motor and battery, decreasing the range but increasing the rideability of the bike, making them feel very similar to a non-electric bicycle underneath you.”

Jordan Back, Councillor, District of North Vancouver, enjoys daily e-bike riding as part of his routine.

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Like BMW, many bicycle and auto manufacturers are going electric, making the weekend adventures in the future far different from those of the past.

The continued growth of the e-bike is staggering and with an eye to the future one can only imagine the impact. Just a couple of years ago the electric bicycle market was estimated at around $16 billion worldwide and expected to rise an additional 10% or so within five years. By 2023 sales are now projected to reach 40 million units, generating $20 billion in revenue. With civic officials like Jordan Back onboard, perhaps more local municipalities will embrace and encourage a more eco-friendly means of transport. “In North Vancouver we are actually about to launch an e-bike share program which I think will provide the perfect opportunity for people to try them and see how practical they are as a way of getting around.”

Graham Loewen of Dunbar Cycles concurs: “I believe e-bikes are actually quite transformative in the way they are getting people out riding, and providing a viable alternative to the car for so many. I think their popularity is only going to increase for the foreseeable future, particularly as more manufacturers come on board and the price of the average e-bike comes down. As traffic congestion across major cities like Vancouver continues to get worse, building more roads or bigger roads is only going to provide short-term relief. “I believe e-bikes are an important piece of the transportation puzzle that all levels of government are trying to solve going forward.”

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