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Electric Vehicles

How E-Bikes Became the Coolest Thing on the Road

Just look at these beauties.

An e-bike in a city.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, CAKE

When I lived in New York, I regarded the electric bike as something of a pest. Not quite bicycle, not quite motor vehicle, a misfit mode of transport welcome neither in the bike lane nor in the street. To be sure, I benefited, in the form of fresh meals ferried to my stoop, from the intrepid delivery people racing up and down the boroughs on battery-powered bikes. But as a cyclist sharing the road with them, I’m ashamed to say they often brought out my inner Ratso Rizzo.

I no longer live in New York, and now (no correlation) regard e-bikes as something brighter: a thrilling forum for industrial design, a catalyst for innovative urban planning, and a preview of what an enlightened future of mobility will look, feel, and sound like. How did I get here? Truth be told, this late-blooming love affair was less a factor of technology than the increasingly magnetic lifestyle and aesthetic that accompanies this brave new way to get from here to there.

Before e-bikes conquered my heart, they colonized my feeds. Often appearing in the form of irresistibly smooth renderings, they surfaced on blogs, like Uncrate and SearchSystem, that fetishize functional design objects. Parked beside other recurring talismans of life optimization — waterproof garments, modular furniture, smart watches, probiotics — electric bikes, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles appeared as emissaries from a frictionless, emissions-free future.

The Spacebar, by Indonesian design studio Katalis, was my first crush, with its Brompton-esque foldability and flat surfaces serving “hard-drive on wheels.”

Spacebar.Courtesy Katalis

Engineered to skate silently through the crowded streets of Jakarta, it seemed the consummate creature of the city. But it wasn’t until a visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles that an e-bike properly won my heart. For that, I had to see these devices as traceless vessels into nature. I had to see Cake.

Cake Makka.Courtesy of Cake

Breezing by million-dollar hypercars, I paused at a display of electric mopeds by this curiously named Swedish brand. There is nothing confectionery about Cake. Its mainline option is bluish gray, while fatigue green suits its “Electric Bush Bikes,” designed for rangers to silently stalk poachers in African conservation areas.

Courtesy of Cake

Surrounded by this supercharged collection, these Swedish bikes were a Greta-worthy rebuke to the petroleum thirst of their American automotive neighbors.

A Swede also designed what might be America’s most interesting electric ride: the Haul ST by Globe. Erik Nohlin is the leader of design at this Specialized sub-brand, which began in the 1990s, faded, returned in 2010, and was resurrected once more in 2023 to respond to rising demand for e-bikes.

Haul STCourtesy of Specialized

If the success of the Haul ST is any indication, Globe is back for good. Launched in March, it has a low-step aluminum silhouette, BMX-style handlebars, 60-mile range, 28-mph cap, and, true to its name, an impressive payload capacity of 419 lbs. Stylistically, the most distinctive feature is the set of four hard-shell panniers, which I picture outfitting with featherlight camping gear for a multi-day tour through the countryside. And that’s just what Nohlin had in mind.

Still, the most practical application of e-bikes is urban, where distances are shorter and pollution is concentrated. One 2020 study showed that if e-bikes replaced cars in just 15 percent of urban miles, emissions would drop by 12 percent. To get there, bold new infrastructure, of the kind installed by historically bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Portland, will be necessary to protect riders and avoid conflict with drivers and cyclists.

As with any new technology, there are externalities to this quiet transport revolution. For one, e-bikes are more prone to failure, and therefore obsolescence, than traditional bicycles. Also vexing is the environmental cost of manufacturing the bikes, and mining the resources (namely copper) required to produce batteries, the engines of our clean energy transition. There’s also the risk of fire associated with the batteries, as The New York Times recently reported.

But standards and regulation always follow frontier technologies at a distance. The first (primitive) cars hit the roads in the late 1800s, for example, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that seatbelts were legally mandated in the US. If the quality of design emerging from the e-bike industry is any indication, some of the brightest minds in mobility are on the case, and it’s only a matter of time before these vehicles meet their true promise of safety and sustainability.

I say, let a thousand e-bikes bloom.

Blue
Zander Abranowicz profile image

Zander Abranowicz

Zander Abranowicz is a writer and strategist. He has contributed to Travel + Leisure, ELLE Decor, Elite Traveler, and Are.na Annual, and collaborated with photographer William Abranowicz on three books, the latest being "Country Life: Homes of the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley." Zander is also the cofounder and strategy director at Abbreviated Projects, a strategic design studio. His monthly newsletter, "Buzzcut," covers travel, style, history, and nature. You can sign up here: https://buzzcut.substack.com/

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