NEW YORK — When Honora Wolfe and her husband moved to the outskirts of Boulder, Colo., she wanted an environmentally friendly way to commute to her job as a bookshop owner in the city.
Wolfe, 60, found her solution about a month ago: an electric bicycle. It gets her to work quickly, is easy on her arthritis and is better for the environment than a car.
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”I'm not out to win any races,“ she said. ”I want to get a little fresh air and exercise, and cut my carbon footprint and spend less money on gas. And where I live, I can ride my bike seven months out of the year.“
The surging cost of gasoline and a desire for a greener commute are turning more people to electric bikes as an unconventional form of transportation. They function like a typical two-wheeler but with a battery-powered assist, and bike dealers, riders and experts say they are flying off the racks.
Official sales figures are hard to pin down, but the Gluskin-Townley Group, which does market research for the National Bicycle Dealers Association, estimates that 10,000 electric bikes were sold in the U.S. in 2007, up from 6,000 in 2006.
Bert Cebular, who owns the electric bike and scooter dealership NYCeWheels in New York, said his sales are up about 50 percent so far this year over last. Amazon.com Inc. says sales of electric bikes surged more than 6,000 percent in July from a year earlier, in part because of its expanded offerings.
”The electric bikes are the next big thing,“ said Frank Jamerson, a former General Motors Corp. executive turned electric vehicle guru.
They're even more popular in Europe, where Sophie Nenner, who opened a Paris bike store in 2005, says motorists boxed in by traffic jams are looking for an alternative for short journeys that doesn't involve navigating overcrowded transport systems.
Industry associations estimate that 89,000 electric bikes were sold in the Netherlands last year, while 60,000 power-assisted bikes were sold in Germany.
The principle behind electric bikes is akin to that behind hybrid cars: Combine the conventional technology — in this case, old-fashioned pedaling — with a battery-powered motor.
The net result is a vehicle that rides a bit like a scooter, with some legwork required. Most models have a motorcycle-like throttle that gives a boost while going up hills or accelerating from a stop. On some models, the motor kicks in automatically and adjusts its torque based on how hard the rider pedals.
Price largely determines weight, quality and battery type. A few hundred dollars gets you 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 like those in a camera or a Toyota Prius. At the high end, $2,525 buys an extra-light 350-watt model sporting a lightweight lithium-ion battery similar to a laptop's. Most models can go at least 20 miles before plugging in to recharge.