Are Electric Bikes Active Transportation?

Last week I rented an eZee Sprint for a three-day test ride.

I was trying to solve a specific problem. As some of you know, I live in NW Portland and commute occasionally to my employer’s offices in Wilsonville. In recent years I’ve been primarily a telecommuter, at one point telecommuting 9 days out of 10.

But some new responsibilities now have me in the office 2-3 days per week.

My typical commute is a bike-bus combo, most often riding downtown, putting my bike on the #12 to Barbur Transit and then transferring to the Wilsonville SMART system which drops me at my employers door (the somewhat faster trip on the #96 has less convenient times and in good weather the bike racks are often full). But this commute takes longer than I would like if I’m doing it more than once a week.

So I’m looking for a better answer than borrowing my partner’s hybrid…

I thought I could take out some of the transfer time (both downtown and at Barbur) by biking all the way to the transit center, timing my arrival to match that of the SMART bus. But one test trip at my slow uphill pace demonstrated that the trip was going to take more than an hour to the transit center.

So I thought an electric-assist bike might help. In fact, it did. The 350-watt eZee cut my trip time to the transit center in half, just over a half hour.

But… my lingering question is whether it’s going to reduce the amount of exercise that I get. That throttle is awfully tempting – I keep pedaling, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I was working nearly as hard as if I was doing all the work myself.

I would certainly keep my old Biria city bike, but I worry that I would use the electric more than I need to.

Does anyone have any experience at this trade-off? If so, how did it work out for you? Any active transportation experts out there? What’s the view on this?

P.S. I want to give a shout out to Wakefield Gregg at EbikesNW who gave me great support on the test ride.

35 responses to “Are Electric Bikes Active Transportation?”

  1. In my first ever comment on your blog I must say that you are a true role model for using transit to commute from NW to Wilsonville. I can’t help you though.

  2. I think it mostly matters how you feel about it. You’ve tested it out and you’ve seen how it rides and how much work you do relative to your regular bike. I don’t necessarily think it matters all that much if it meets up to some official standard of “what is active transportation” if you feel that it meets your personal goals for your transportation. You seem to be concerned that you are getting exercise, not being dependent on a motor, but simply using it as an extra boost to shorten your commute a bit. So, if you’re ok with that… My guess is that you’re still doing more work than if you were sitting on a bus :)

    I dunno, just sounds like a matter of personal priority, what you feel is more important.

  3. What are the legalities of a motor driven bike in bike lanes and on trimet?
    And on bike trails?

    I should think that that 1/3 HP would get up to some real speed.


  4. Have you thought of?:

    1) Getting a folding bike, which you can always fit on transit, thus allowing you to take the express even if the racks are full? Google BikeFriday or Dahon for starters.

    2) Kick it up a notch. Get a 18 lb road bike, invest in some lycra to keep yourself cool, and start climbing those hills at 12mph of of muscles alone. Your body will change, and the weight savings won’t all be from your bike frame, if you know what I mean.

  5. What are the legalities of a motor driven bike in bike lanes and on trimet?
    And on bike trails?

    The major differences appear to be that a helmet is required, rather than optional, and riding on sidewalks is not permitted (I’m not clear if riding on the sidewalk with the motor off is OK or not).

    Riding on bike facilities (lanes, trails) is permitted.

  6. I switch off between regular bikes, folding bikes, and ebikes. The amount of exercise I get has more to do with the amount of time I spend on the bike and less to do with the style of bike. I get the most exercise on the folder because it takes the longest. If the ebike cuts your travel time in half I reckon it would cut your exercise in half. Given a choice between an ebike and a car, however, the ebike choice is a no-brainer.

  7. I believe they have a limiter that keeps you from going more than 20mph with the assist on. That may seem fast, but on downhill stretches along Multnomah Blvd in SW I often get in to the mid-20 mph range. As for the legality, I think they are considered bikes. There was an article and discussion on the BikePortland Blog about a month ago.

  8. Riding on the sidewalk seems rather rude, awkward, and dangerous with or without a law. I already have to tell enough cyclists that sidewalks are for pedestrians, the bike lane, which I then point to, is for them.

  9. I’ve found plenty of places in our suburbs where the sidewalks are empty and there are no adequate bike lanes, where it was a no-brainer for me to be on the sidewalk.

    But of course, when I am on the sidewalk I always yield to pedestrians.

  10. riding on the sidewalk is illegal in almost every state and actually increases one’s risk for injury (drivers do not look at the sidewalk traffic as much since they assume it to be smart slow-moving pedestrians who will avoid getting hit.) getting hit by a car pulling in/out of a driveway or a car turning that didn’t look far down enough the sidewalk (in all honesty, it’d be pretty tough to see a cyclist on the sidewalk)

    so, in other words, if you want to be safe, you really shouldn’t bike on the sidewalk.

  11. Have you considered taking MAX from goose hollow to Beaverton TC and then WES to wilsonville? and then biking to your employer? (fyi i have no idea how long this would take)

  12. Don’t bike on the sidewalk, sillies. unless its at night and you have no lights (and why would you riding your bike @ night w/ no lights?). Take the lane! Additionally, Stay in the lane until you feel its safe to be passed, you don’t have to ride on the edge of the road legally ever. How close do you want the cars to get?

  13. I bike/bus commutes from MilwaukieTC to Wilsonville every work day, thats a long commute time wise and if I could bike the whole way safely in the same amount of time I would. If I used an electric bike I’d actually be biking farther than I am now with the bike bus combo so I think in that kind of situation my actual amount of excersize would increase.

  14. I’m with Dave–if you think you are getting an adequate workout, then it’s active transportation. The fitness nazis aren’t gonna come after you, you know…

  15. It is legal in the State of Oregon to ride on the sidewalk under proper conditions unless prohibited by local regulations:

    ORS 814.410 Unsafe operation of bicycle on sidewalk; penalty

    (1) A person commits the offense of unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk if the person does any of the following:

    (a) Operates the bicycle so as to suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and move into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard.

    (b) Operates a bicycle upon a sidewalk and does not give an audible warning before overtaking and passing a pedestrian and does not yield the right of way to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.

    (c) Operates a bicycle on a sidewalk in a careless manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger any person or property.

    (d) Operates the bicycle at a speed greater than an ordinary walk when approaching or entering a crosswalk, approaching or crossing a driveway or crossing a curb cut or pedestrian ramp and a motor vehicle is approaching the crosswalk, driveway, curb cut or pedestrian ramp. This paragraph does not require reduced speeds for bicycles at places on sidewalks or other pedestrian ways other than places where the path for pedestrians or bicycle traffic approaches or crosses that for motor vehicle traffic.

    (e) Operates an electric assisted bicycle on a sidewalk.

    (2) Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, a bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk.

    (3) The offense described in this section, unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk, is a Class D traffic violation. [1983 c.338 §699; 1985 c.16 §337; 1997 c.400 §7; 2005 c.316 §2]

    Note that it does indeed explicitly prohibit electric-assist bikes from using the sidewalk.

    The following section, 814.420, would seem to indicate that if a bike lane or bike path is available on or “near” the roadway, it is unlawful to use “any portion” of the roadway other than the bike lane / bike path except when turning, passing, etc. This would seem to preclude the sidewalk. “Near” is not defined… can you ride on the sidewalk on one street if a bike lane is present on another street a block away?

    In the City of Portland, ordinance 16.70.320 (E) states:

    (No person may)

    Ride a bicycle on a sidewalk, unless avoiding a traffic hazard in the immediate area, within the area bounded by and including SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th Avenue, except:

    1. On sidewalks designated as bike lanes or paths;

    2. On the ramps or approaches to any Willamette River Bridge; or

    3. In the area bounded by the west property line of SW Ninth Avenue, the east property line of SW Park Avenue, the north property line of SW Jefferson and the south property line of SW Salmon Street.

    4. For police or special officers operating a bicycle in the course and scope of their duties; or

    5. For employees of the Association for Portland Progress and companies providing security services operating a bicycle in the course and scope of their duties. These employees must have in possession an identification card issued by the Chief of Police certifying the rider has completed a training course in the use of a bicycle for security patrol.

  16. Brian:

    ORS 814.410 spells out the ways in which bicycle operation might be considered unsafe when they’re on the sidewalk… otherwise:

    “Except as otherwise specified by law, a bicyclist on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk has the same rights and duties as a pedestrian on a sidewalk or in a crosswalk.”

    There are places where bicycles are banned from sidewalks (downtown PDX being the specific example that I know about), but by default bicycles are allowed on sidewalks in Oregon.

    I’m in agreement, though, that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is much more dangerous than riding in the street, you’re much less likely to be seen by a car as you approach an intersection or a driveway. On the other hand, I think I’d rather ride on the sidewalk than ride in the lane on 99e/Grand/MLK. In suburban Portland there are places that just don’t have good bike infrastructure, I can see the sidewalk there as being the best of two bad options.

    Chris: Understanding whether or not you’ll be exercising less requires us to know how much distance you were covering when you were biking to the 12 versus how much you cover biking to the transit center. I’ve never really seen one of these electric bikes in action myself, it’s my understanding that you have to pedal in order for the bike to work (i.e. you can’t just depend on the motor); that means that even if you’re not working as hard as you’d have to work on a regular bike, you’ll still be working. If you used to do about 20 minutes worth of biking before and you’re doing 30 minutes worth of (electrically assisted) biking now, I’d guess you’re coming out at somewhere close to even. Aren’t there ways to measure calorie burn, something like a heart monitor? That’d give you a pretty definitive way of understanding the difference between the two modes of travel.

  17. I installed a 66cc, two-stroke engine on a bike to use for longer distances, 50+ miles, to compensate for lack of inter-city long haul transit.

    I chose gas over electric, because once the battery is unable to hold charge, might as well buy a new bike. Batteries are $$$.

  18. Not to be too picky… but aren’t those small engines far worse polluters than the engines on automobiles, which at least have emission control systems to reign in the filth somewhat?

    OTOH, it may well be that an auto engine with its catalytic converter may still produce more emissions than a chainsaw engine strapped to a bicycle. :)

    Also–if you put a gas-powered motor on a bike, does that legally make it a motorcycle? Just curious.

  19. Somebody’s worked up about sidewalks!

    Chris, have you test riden a modern 10-speed road bike? I’m sure you’d notice extra speed there!

    If you need room for fenders, you might test ride a 10-speed cross bike.

    I don’t think a folding bike is going to be any better than the solution you already have.

    The rest is preference.

    Congrats on keeping up such a long commute!

  20. Have you looked into installing a Stokemonkey on your everyday bicycle? ( I don’t know how easy they are to remove and reinstall, but if it’s a snap you could always plan for an active commute one day of the week and an assisted commute for the rest…and you wouldn’t have to buy a new bicycle.

  21. Also–if you put a gas-powered motor on a bike, does that legally make it a motorcycle? Just curious.

    It probably makes it a “moped”, which has its own set of classifications and regulations.

  22. Chris –

    If you wanted to simultaneously geek out and void your warranty, you could modify the battery pack, perhaps by removing cells, so that it could only hold just enough charge each day to give you the minimum amount of assist needed for your commute. Then you wouldn’t be tempted to overuse the assist feature. :-)

  23. I added an electric assist front hub to my cruiser, and have found it makes the commute much more enjoyable. Sure, I’m not getting as much of a workout, but I’m riding much more, and can peddle as much as I want to get a work out. My understanding is you’re OK on bike paths, but have to stay off the sidewalks. I’ve been OK with that thus far.

  24. Adron,

    You’re right – it is rude, awkward and (usually) dangerous. Cyclists are much more likely to get struck by a car when riding on a sidewalk. Also, if a bike lane is present, it is the preferred and designated area for cyclists, and if on the roadway, they’re required to use it. The sidewalk is not considered part of the roadway, however, and in many cases it’s completely legal for a cyclist to be on it. (it’s illegal in Gresham, and many other cities, and illegal in downtown Portland, but not the rest of Portland)


    I’d hesitate to say “almost every” – it’s legal in Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, Florida, Missouri and several other states (I didn’t have time to check all 50). Usually, state laws require cyclists to operate at pedestrian speeds when riding on a sidewalk.

    In my experience, most “cyclists” riding on sidewalks tend to be inexperienced, timid (perceiving roads as unsafe), or of that segment of the population that doesn’t care about the law. The first 2 groups can generally be encouraged off the sidewalk via education or a politely phrased request, the last group doesn’t care, won’t listen, and will likely respond to attempts with a rude gesture, harsh words, or threats.

  25. The answer is, “It depends…” Some “Ebikes” have a throttle and powerful engine that allow you to go 20mph, or more, without having to pedal at all. Others, like my Giant Twist, are electric “assist” only, and require you to pedal. Obviously, with bikes that give you the option to be a slacker, the amount of exercise you get is completely up to you. But with an electric assist bike, you’re going to have to pedal so you’re going to get *some* exercise, which is far more than you’ll get driving a car.

    The electric assist bikes like the Twist really aren’t very fast. The Twist is heavy and won’t assist you past 15mph so it won’t break any speed records. Frankly, I can ride faster on my Trek Hybrid, when my knee isn’t bothering me that is… But for those with knee problems, who aren’t in terribly good shape, or who just want to arrive at work without needing a shower, an electric assist bike gives you a bit of exercise and costs far less to operate than a car. (Even with the expensive batteries)

  26. So if getting exercise is one of the primary pretexts for bicycling; it seems that bicycle routes need to have more stop signs rather than less of them, so bicyclists can pedal more intensely and more often to build up momentum thereby getting more vigorous exercise

  27. Many who ride to work aren’t interested in “getting exercise”, especially if that means they stink when they get to the office. Not all worksites have showers available.

    Anyone who finds their ride to work insufficiently strenuous can certainly go out for an additional ride to get their workout–its beats driving your SUV to the gym, then circling round the parking lot looking for a close parking space. :)

  28. #96 has less convenient times and in good weather the bike racks are often full

    Hey, be happy it actually does run in the reverse-peak direction, and that its not as confined to the main rush hour as some other lines. And that, especially with SMART, you don’t need a bike to get to work. But if you want to ride the 96 all the way to Wilsonville (instead of taking SMART from Tualatin), then its not as great. As for the bike rack, is it even full if you go to the first stop (which you can easily do, since you’re in that direction)?

    NW Hoyt and 13th Avenue

    I actually didn’t realize the zone went that far. Unlike in Salem, there’s no signs for it.

    getting exercise

    Someone who commutes a ways already gets plenty of exercise before considering the stopping and starting.

  29. If you are looking to combine exercise and cycle commuting … wouldn’t an asymetric commute do that? F’rinstance, don’t worry about how much you are running the engine on the way to work, but leave the power turned off on the way home.

  30. [redacted]

    “So if getting exercise is one of the primary pretexts for bicycling; it seems that bicycle routes need to have more stop signs rather than less of them, so bicyclists can pedal more intensely and more often to build up momentum thereby getting more vigorous exercise”

    Now, I’ve come to expect that you’ll work “freeloading bicyclists” into almost everything.


    However flawed, that freeloading-bicyclists mantra can at least be considered a commentary on taxes, and bike funding in particular; and it’s at least based on a widely-held (however flawed) belief. It’s also taken on an almost charming consitency here…

    But this latest quote seems to get down to the essence of all of your posts about bicycles: it’s a jab directed at anyone who pulls his own weight with his own muscle on a machine with two wheels. I see in it the essential negativity that pervades all your comments about bicycles and their riders, suggesting your problem with bikes is less a policy matter and more a personal matter.

    So I guess I’ll just ask you directly: what’s behind this obsession with bicycles? Why the negativity?


    [Moderator: Mild personally-directed remarks removed. Finn, you made some good points in there, but it was all blended in with the personal stuff, leaving not much left to show. I’ve deleted several of Terry’s remarks under our policy as well, fair is far.]

  31. it seems like its an assist bike, but i cant tell. my bionx system is an assist multiplier, eg the assist levels (4 on my version) give 25% 50% 100% and 200% on top of your cycling speed. and it will assist up to 25mph (top assist is really fun coming off the stop line at lights :D), putting assist to 0 of course does allow you to go faster, and putting it negative allows regenerative assist (like your hybrid car) . so it really depends on the options allowed, i am not a fan of an e-bike you dont have to pedal, its kinda useless imho. so it depends on what you really want to do, i find i get plenty of workout on my bionx system and usually its not even assisting most of the time

  32. This is not the same type of electric bike you are discussing but I see a possibility for an electric motorcycle, that is very stable and safe besides. It would be a trike, but with an electric inwheel motor on the front wheel. With seating for two like a typical motorcycle. Heck, you could probably even extend it several feet and make sort of a electric pedicab out of it. Having only one wheel electrically powered would take the synchronization difficulties out of it.

    The Michelin active wheel electric motor takes the “unsprung weight limitation” problem out of the concept. According to them.

  33. Chris – I had the same concern as you so I took several test rides with ebikes controlled by a throttle and others with a pedal assist. I much prefer the latter and noticed more of a consistent workout with the pedal assist bikes. Using a throttle without pedaling made me feel like I was cheating and riding a slow scooter rather than a bike. When riding a pedal assist bike I kept the power level low so the assist only kicked in when I was biking up hills. I still broke a sweat but the assist helped flatten out the hills and kept me riding farther than my out of shape body would have allowed.

    I highly recommend the Giant Twist, but if you have an old bike in your garage gathering dust then simply installing a front wheel conversion kit would probably be more economical ($500-$1,000 vs $2,000 for a new ebike). Have fun!

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