February 3rd, 2010

I saw this David Goodman article in the New York Times about electric bikes a few days ago, and it made me sad. If you hadn’t noticed, electric bikes are now being manufactured and ridden all over the world, but not here. Why is Hawaii ignoring this global phenomenon? Aren’t we the best suited for it?


Remember the song Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing, well there are now many more electric bikes than that, even in this the Day of the Car in China. In fact, there are now 120 million electric bikes throughout China. They are replacing conventional bikes and motorcycles.

200,000 electric bikes were sold in the U.S. last year. Best Buy is selling them in the West. They help in dealing with traffic, they’re effortless, cheap and good for the environment. Spurred by the electric bike explosion in China, electric bikes have been proliferating and are now an $11 billion global industry.

Millions are switching to electric bikes, especially the aging population. They’ve helped the bike industry because they incorporate components that require regular replacement. They cost less than $500 in China, and up to $3,000 in the West. New York has a dedicated electric bike dealer, and business is good

One kind is a standard bicycle with pedals and an electric motor that engages on command or when the cyclist pedals. These are most popular in the U.S.and Europe. In China, electric bikes have evolved into bigger machines that look more like a moto scooter.

They travel up to 30 miles per hour with a range of 50 miles. These larger models are a problem for planners. Are they green transportation or a hazard? City governments haven’t yet figured out what to do with them. While they certainly have fewer emissions, they do use lead batteries with a significant potential for environmental damage. It’s a choice.


Cycling in general has never been very popular in Hawaii. I was sad in Paris too, where I saw so many people riding bikes, and signing up for the program that allows you to ride them from one bike stand to another. It’s impressive.

At our Neighborhood Board meeting last month, someone asked if the police could keep the cyclists off the sidewalks. Other people want to keep them off the streets. Cyclists have so few friends in Hawaii, and the Hawaii Bicycling League hasn’t been able to do much about it.

I remember a jury trial involving an accident where a car struck a cyclist on the sidewalk. On voir dire, half the jurors didn’t like bikes on the sidewalk and the other half didn’t like them on the street. The case settled fast.

I also remember Frank Fasi’s bike lanes, long time passing. That was the most ambitious bike lane program we ever had, but the lanes are old and overridden. We gave up on them, didn’t we? That’s what I call a magnificent squander.

We do have the best climate and topography in the world for bike commuting, but we don’t do it. More often, motorists just don’t or can’t see them and run them over. The Dick Evans Bike Race was named for a racer I knew who was killed some years ago by a bus across Pearlridge. People are afraid of that.


No one wants to ride anymore – there are no bike lanes and it’s dangerous. I remember the way HPD once handled a peleton at Kapiolani Park – the officer thought he’d make his point by cutting in front of them and stopping. Well, they all crashed into his squad car and wound up in the hospital.

Lots of people resent cyclists. They want them to disappear. The net effect is that we don’t have much cycling in Honolulu, even though it’s a natural for bicycle commuting most days of the year. But as the city develops, without bike lanes, the chance that people will take to bicycle commuting dwindles. This possibility is all but gone.

What about the mopeds? They might have been a good choice for commuting, but it hasn’t worked out that way, and they’re used by tourists or students, but not commuters. Drivers don’t like when they’re used rambunctiously and now there’s a bill in the legislature that would crack down on them. Worse, they’re fossil fuel and noisy. Not exactly the green approach, and not exactly popular.

Can you imagine how much better the traffic would be if commuters switched to electric bikes? There would be an immediate and uplifting improvement. We’d save a fortune in gas, just plugging in at home. We’d spend less time in traffic jams and get to work faster, and we’d have less trouble parking. The bikes would be silent, fast, convenient and inexpensive to buy and operate.

Sure, you can be injured or killed on an electric bike. But if we all promised to be considerate and to respect the riders, electric bikes could be almost as safe as cars. If there are lots of electric bike riders, they would be easier to see and therefore safer to drive. Yes, there is safety in numbers.


120 million Chinese electric bicycle riders can’t be wrong. These high tech bikes are worlds better than any small commuter vehicle we’ve had before, and with their luxurious speed and range they’d be perfectly swell for city driving.

Hawaii has long had a love affair with big cars. That will undoubtedly continue. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a critical mass of people could take a chance and get out there with electric bikes. They could save money, save the environment, save time and save our city. How hard would that be?

Although there are millions of electric bikes in the world, I have not actually seen any here. So I searched Electric Bike Hawaii on Google and to my surprise I found that yes there are a number of shops that do sell them here. You can look those shops up too, and that’s probably a good place to start.

Posted in 1 | 2 Comments »


  1. zzzzzz:

    Aloha Motors tried to sell electric bikes a while back, maybe 10 years ago? I'm guessing they didn't sell enough to make a profit.

    Part of the problem is education. A lot of cyclists ride illegally, which is a major contributor to driver resentment . A lot of drivers are ignorant of laws pertaining to cyclists, and don't realize that cyclists, in general, have the same rights on the roads as drivers. HPD officers aren't well educated either; I've had encounters with some that made it very obvious they didn't know the laws they're supposed to enforce.

    Another part of the problem is that getting behind the wheel of a car turns some people, including some otherwise nice, considerate folks, into sociopaths who resent everyone else on the road, not just cyclists.

    There's a conceptually very easy way to get a lot of people on bikes, including electric bikes: Raise the tax on gasoline.

    If the Mufi Train Tax, for example, had been a gasoline tax instead of GET increase, that would have raised the price of gas by around a dollar a gallon. Our legislators are currently considering a one percentage point increase in the GET; if that were a gasoline tax instead, that would raise the price by a couple dollars or so. Add $3 to the cost of a gallon of gasoline, and you'd have a lot of people riding bicycles.

    We probably wouldn't even need a train anymore, at least not to get enough people out of cars to reduce traffic.

    Unfortunately, our lawmakers as a group are not very courageous or visionary.

  2. zzzzzz:

    Sean Hao's article in yesterday's HA made me think of this blog entry. Why not replace some cars with electric bikes? For transporting government employees within town, for example, using e-bikes would cut transportation costs tremendously.