Boomers and e-bikes were made for each other

Spending time on a bunch of different e-bikes has changed my outlook. From MNN, March, 2019.

Gazelle makes a gorgeous step-through electric bike. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Almost a year ago I wrote that we should worry about boomers on e-bikes, noting that “older, male Dutch e-bikers are dying in shocking numbers.” It turned out not to be entirely true; statistically it had nothing to do with the e-bikes. Older people fall more often, but e-bikes don’t appear to be any worse than regular bikes or even walking. Researcher Paul Schepers tells De Telegraaf:

“Four years ago I did the same research and then the conclusion was that people riding electric bikes were at greater risk than those who had to pedal. We thought the weight of the bikes led to more accidents. But we have new figures now and they tell us that this isn’t the case if you compare the number of accidents and factor in age, frequency and distance.”

This is good news, because more and more aging boomers are getting on e-bikes. I spoke with a bike specialty retailer at the Toronto Bicycle Show who told me that her market boiled down to essentially two groups: aging baby boomers (who have the disposable income) and Uber Eats drivers (who see the opportunity to double their income.)

But boomers should be careful what they buy. The Dutch researchers found that “older cyclists are more likely to struggle with getting on and off their bikes, and e-bikes for the elderly need to be designed so that people can reach the ground with their feet.”

This Gazelle bike done up like a traditional utility bike. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

That’s what Dutch E-bikes have, like this one designed by Gazelle, a company that has been making bikes for 125 years. Dutch bikes have a comfortable upright position, a relatively low seat, step-through design and full chain guards. In The Netherlands, they also have skirt guards on the rear wheel so that dresses don’t get caught or dirty, but the Gazelle rep told me that American buyers don’t know what that guard is and think it looks weird, so they don’t import it. I worried also about the battery being over the rear wheel, so high that it might change the bike’s center of gravity, but he said it was only 6 pounds and I would never notice it.

In fact, the Gazelle in the top photo, which also has a rear carrier battery, just won a German design award:

The Ami C8 HMS features an upright seating position and higher steering wheel placement for added comfort, typical of Gazelle bicycles. The motor is positioned low down and in the middle of the frame in order to improve stability and road holding. When announcing the award, the jury said: “The striking slope of the handlebars has been executed superbly. The relatively low height of the bike also makes it easier to mount, a feature that is especially useful for people with age-related limited mobility.”

Electric bike sales in the Netherlands now exceed sales of regular bikes. In fact, according to Floris Liebrand of transport organization RAI Vereniging, the differences between them is disappearing. Daniel Boffey writes in The Guardian:

Liebrand said there had been a change in the Dutch mindset as electric bikes have moved on from being seen as the choice of older people. “In the future we will not talk about e-bikes, but just bikes,” he said. “E-bikes will be the new normal, I think, within 10 to 15 years. We think that all bikes will be supported by small engines.”

Not everyone is convinced about electrification; Urban cycling expert Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize is alienating a lot of people with his strong denunciation of them. (He often uses strong and provocative language — just read what he said about me once — but we have since reconciled.) Mikael worries, as I used to, that electric bikes won’t play nice in the bike lanes. But it’s a losing battle; what we should be demanding instead is tighter standards on maximum power and speed, and for pedelec rather than throttle controls, like they have in the European Union.

‘A city bike that also happens to have a motor’

The author having a fine time on a Big Easy cargo bike. (Photo: Paul for Lloyd Alter)

I was recently in Minneapolis to test e-bikes as a guest of Surly, the company that just introduced the Big Easy cargo bike. This is the pickup truck of electric bikes, a long-tail cargo bike that can hold a lot of stuff. (I wrote about it in more detail on TreeHugger.)

Civia e-bike in the snow. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

However another brand is Civia, which makes an electric bike that appears to be designed for baby boomers. They are about the simplest e-bikes you can get that have the Bosch mid-drive, which is so smooth that you really don’t know it’s there — except for the fact that you’re moving so quickly with very little pedaling effort. As one reviewer noted on

I was especially impressed on moderate climbs, where it felt like I hitched a ride on an escalator for a speedy cruise to the top. On flats and rolling roads, you’ll feel power boosts or the motor cut out as you push into the pedals or ease up, especially above the 20 mph max pedal assist. Takeoffs at stop signs are more gradual than instant, but at times you’ll also forget you’re powered at all — not because the Parkway doesn’t snap to, but because the motor is so quiet (a key feature of Bosch’s Active Line unit), the ride so even-keeled, and the bike so light.

The gears are in the faux leather hand grip, the top bar is lower to make it easier to step over if you’re not willing to go full step-through. Reviewer Jennifer Sherry describes it in exactly the terms that I have thought an e-bike should be: “a city bike that also happens to have a motor.” This is, I hope, the future of e-bikes: simple to operate, not too heavy, nicely balanced and easy to accessorize with fenders and carriers.

Young people, including Amanda O’Rourke of 8 80 Cities (center), discuss aging in cities on a panel at the expo. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I recently attended the City Building Expo, which included a panel about aging in cities and presented an interesting anecdote.

I was there as a moderator of another panel at this student-run event, and I was probably one of the two oldest people there. Amanda O’Rourke — who run an organization called 8 80 Cities, named for the mantra that cities should work for everyone from ages 8 to 80 — made the point that it’s critical that cities be walkable for older people. I pointed out that the oldest people there had both arrived on bikes; Amanda agreed, noting that many older people ride bikes because it’s easier on their knees and hips and they can go much farther. In my mind, the episode backed up this premise: It was the boomers who were out there on our bikes, despite the winter weather. And it will be the boomers who will be riding bikes in the coming years.

Boomers check out the bikes. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It was clear, looking at the crowds at the bike show, that baby boomers will be at the forefront of the e-bike revolution, and they’re going to need cyclable cities. Good e-bikes plus good bike infrastructure equals a whole lot of healthier, happier baby boomers.

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