The Rise of the Commuter & E-Bike Specialist Shop (Part 1)

Pete PrebusPete Prebus is the guy at Electric Bike Report, a website dedicated to getting the word out about electric bikes through e-bike news, reviews, guides, and general e-bike advocacy. Pete wants to encourage more people to ride bikes by providing good info about e-bikes and all the benefits (all the time) they have over driving a car. Pete has been a long time cyclist (racer, mountain, road, cyclo-cross, commuter, bike polo, etc.) and sees the e-bike as a great way to get the non-cyclist into bike commuting as well as just having fun on a bicycle.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Traditional bike shops in the US have tended to focus on recreational cycling, catering to the die-hard racer, outfitting families with bikes, and getting the college freshman on some wheels. They may have some gear and bikes that are focused on bike commuting, but is not a big deal for them.

Sanyo E-BikeBut what about potential bike commuters who aren’t necessarily crossing over from recreational cycling? They want safety and convenience, but not necessarily a strenuous workout. Electric bikes can accommodate their demand for convenience. But among many potential bike commuters, a perception persists that cycling is dangerous.

Compounding the resistance of potential bike commuters is the resistance from some of the traditional bike shops to get into electric bikes. Some of that resistance may be from the purist idea that bikes should only be pedal powered. Other shops may be unwilling to invest in developing the capacity to support the added complexity of motors, batteries, and controllers that make maintenance and repair more of a hassle. The Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA) is encouraging skeptical bike shops to consider getting into electric bikes as a way to diversify their products and customer base. LEVA contends that not only are e-bikes profitable, they provide seminars to help bike shops acquire the technical knowledge.

But a new kind of bike shop is emerging; shops that specialize in commuter bikes and e-bikes.

Some business owners have recognized a niche opportunity in the commuter and e-bike specific bicycle shop which some traditional shops seem to ignore. For this series I contacted some of the owners of these shops that I know and asked them some general questions to get their perspective on what it's like to run a commuter or e-bike specific shop.

These interviews will give us some perspective on what these stores are like, who their customers are, the shop owners thoughts on what the future holds for commuter bikes and e-bikes, and what are the hurdles to getting more people on bikes.

NYCeWheels Bike ShopTo kick things off, here is the interview with Bert from NYCeWheels in New York City.

Bert brought up some great points about how the bikes they carry really fit what their customers are looking for in a bike for the dense urban environment of New York City. It seems that the bikes and accessories that they carry take away some of the excuses that the non cyclist would have for not riding a bike.

Commute by Bike (CbB): A little background on you. Why did you decide to start your business specializing in commuter and e-bikes?

Bert: Since we’re based out of New York City, the most practical bicycle for an urban environment is a commuter bike. Folding bikes don’t take up a lot of room in an apartment, and you don’t have to lock them up outside. Electric bikes eliminate a lot of the negative aspects of riding a bike (sweat, pedaling uphill) and they’re a lot more fun to ride. Kick scooters are of course the ultimate when it comes to portability for short range commuting. We just want to encourage more people to ride bikes.

CbB: Could you give us a description of your store?

Bert: We’re a small shop on the Upper East Side that specializes in folding bikes, electric bikes, and scooters. We allow demo rides on nearly everything we sell, and we try to only carry bikes that we’d ride ourselves. We also provide service on everything that’s purchased in our store. Here is a little more:

NYCeWheelsCbB: What is your average customer like? Currently a cyclist? Hasn’t ridden a bike in years? Young, old, middle age? Environmentally conscious or not?

Bert: We’re trying to get people excited about riding a bike, so our target customer is someone who wouldn’t normally ride a bike because of what they wear to work, storage issues, or parking. Electric bikes and folding bikes make cycling more convenient, fun, practical, etc. As a result, I guess you can say we’re a “green” business, but we try not to advertise ourselves that way.

CbB: Are people looking for a bike to be their car alternative or do they just want to have fun? or both?

Bert: It depends on the customer, really. Many of our customers are shopping for a bike as their main form of urban transportation. They’ll ride it everyday and stop into our shop often for tune ups. Other customers will take a bike to a vacation home in the Hamptons and ride it a few times a year, and we’ll never hear from them again. It seems that the Brompton is the bike most used for daily commuting where a good percentage of electrics is used for recreational riding. (However, every single Chinese food delivery guy now rides electric in NYC.)

Folding Electric BikeCbB: What are your thoughts on the future of commuter and e-bikes in your town and around the world?

Bert: In the past few years, e-bikes have exploded in NYC. There are a lot of delivery guys riding e-bikes, so we’ve seen more shops pop up downtown in Chinatown to cater to them. Since batteries are improving all the time, e-bikes will be much more practical in the years to come, and are already massively popular in East Asia. Will it catch on in the US? We think so and it will certainly be great for the environment and our obesity issues.

CbB: What are some of the hurdles that you face in getting more people on bikes/e-bikes?

Bert: In New York City, the biggest hurdle is danger. People are afraid to ride on the streets, despite bike lanes, advocacy, and all of the health benefits. Though it’s become much safer in the past five years, there are still areas of New York that are very dangerous to cycle through. Learning how to ride the correct way from an experienced cyclist is a start, and sticking to the bike lanes will ensure a much more pleasant experience overall.

CbB: What accessories do most customers buy to make their commute more convenient and fun on a bike?

Bert: Our most popular accessories are helmets, lights, and bells. Anything that promotes safety is important to a local customer. However, we do sell a lot of iPhone bike mounts, which could be a dangerous distraction, so who knows what people are thinking. Bags and baskets for Brompton folders as well as storage bags and travel cases. Electric bikes usually come fully loaded so we just sell locks and helmets, maybe some rear fold-out baskets.

I love how delivery people are using electric bikes as a practical vehicle in urban environments. I think we are going to see a lot more of that in future. Check out B-Line electric cargo trikes in Portland and Fedex in Paris.

And the thing that holds a lot of people back from bike commuting: Danger! Rather, the perception of danger. You will see this emerge as a recurring theme in the other interviews in this series.

What do YOU think? Do agree with what Bert said? What are other ways we can help people overcome the fear of the dangers of bike commuting?

Stay Tuned! The second part of this article is an interview with Gary from Hybrid Cycles in West Chester Pennsylvania. He has a different take on the hurdles to getting more people on e-bikes.

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