Electric bike – Worth the cost?

Having just ticked over 1000 miles on the electric bike’s odometer (1008 actually), I thought it was time to make a post and dive into the numbers about its value.

A long, long time ago, I restored a junky, rusted road bike for $20 and turned it into a great little commuter.  It was very heavy and it had old-fashioned gear switches, but it held two saddlebags back and forth for 17.5mi per day.  Financially, it was pretty great, but I took a very challenging road to/from work because it was shorter and it didn’t have very many hills.  It also had a ton of cars and I was nearly “doored” a few times.  The other choices were some roads with tough hills, or through the park which added about a mile to the trip (both ways).  I was always a bit winded and sweaty when I got to work, especially in the summer.  In the winter, I would constantly mismanage my layers and never could find a happy medium between layers and not sweating.  When I started to hear more about electric bikes, especially the DIY version where you could outfit your existing bike, I was intrigued.

Eventually, my eye went from a DIY type to a ready-made version, because I was a bit unsure about the whole process.  I didn’t want to end up with hundreds of dollars worth of electronics and somehow get stuck having to upgrade my existing bike just to outfit it.  So, my research began!  I watched nearly every single one of Electric Bike Review‘s videos and ended up going with a Volton Alation 500w Mid-Drive.  Pretty steep.  I was going to have to make damn sure that I rode that thing everywhere.



Why the Alation 500w Mid-Drive?

  • 500w has a lot of “get up and go” and if I’m using this to commute every day, I wanted to arrive speedily
  • A mid-drive motor is opposed to the hub motor.  Instead of the motor being inside the hub of the rear wheel and turning the wheel, the mid-drive motor sits below the pedals and actually turns the chain, thus taking advantage of gearing…and having a mechanical advantage when climbing hills.  By not having the motor in the back wheel, it also makes changing flats much easier…and a local bike shop is less scared to touch the bike.  This means I can change flats myself, do basic bike maintenance myself, and still take it to a local bike shop should anything major happen.

This video goes over some of the differences between a lower-powered, hub motor style bike and a higher-powered mid-drive motor style (with the same line of bikes):

Yeah, but $2,700?

Believe me, I know.  It ended up being exactly $2699, so I just round up to $2700.  So let’s dive in and see what kind of numbers we’re actually working with here.  I plugged in my Kill-a-Watt during a full charge and then after commuting so many times, I know I can go about 20 miles before the battery starts to worry me a lot.  That’s with hitting it hard, going 20-25mph.  So what’s the cost per mile?

0.5KwH to charge @ $0.15/KwH = $0.075 per charge

$0.075 / 20 miles = $0.00375 / mile

That’s 3/10 of a penny per mile.  Pretty.  Damn.  Good.  Especially considering that the Prius (with maintenance, insurance, gas) is $0.40/mi.  The Prius is 107x more expensive to drive than the bike.  Or, in other words, if I drove once to work, I would be spending almost a half year’s commute cost of riding the bike.  Gnarly.

So, still, $2700.  Let’s figure the actual cost of those miles so far.  So far, I’ve spent an extra $174 on a helmet, a new chain, spare tires and a rear rack.  And, I’ve only gone 1008 miles.

$2,700 + 174 = $2,874

$2,874 / 1008 = $2.85/mi

So, I need to get that number below $0.40/mi so that it beats the Prius and actually makes sense to have purchased.  How many miles would I need to put on?

$2,874 / x = $0.39mi

2874 / x = 39 / 100

287400 = 39x

39x = 287400

x = 287400 / 39

x = 7,369mi

That’s pretty far.  How long is that going to take me to get there?  Having gotten the bike around mid-June and it being mid-December, I’m going to say that I go about 1000mi every 6 months.  Though, I think the miles will be higher the next 6 months because I hurt my wrist for a month and didn’t ride.  I also was a bit of a wuss when it came to rain/cold, but I’ve gotten over that.  I can revisit that number in another 6 months when I see what Moves has tracked.

7369mi / (1000mi * 2) = 3.7 years of commuting to finally be cheaper than driving the car

That’s quite a long time.  Plus, I’m sure there will be some kind of maintenance needed for the bike…but it’ll be somewhat negligible.  Maybe a new battery…and I hear those are about $250-350 which Joe from Volton once told me is roughly $400.

What’s missing from this computation is the money saved by not having to maintain the Prius as much.  I turn it on once a week to get groceries or if there’s going to be a horrible rain storm, and that’s it.  Typically it collects dust and goes ~50mi/month or 600mi/yr.  That’s a LOT less than I usually drove.  I usually drove ~600mi per month…12x more.  So, will the Prius last me 12x as long?  That’s up to the Prius Gods and preventative maintenance, but I think it’s at least going to last a bit longer than usual…I just don’t have any numbers to back that theory up, so I won’t include it.

So, more than likely, about 4 years to finally be cheaper than the car.  That’s a pretty big commitment, right there.  Do I think I’m going to make it?  Probably.  Why?

It’s so damn fun.  It’s like having bionic legs!  I don’t mind starting and stopping that much, because it’s effortless to get back up to speed from a red light.  I also feel like less of a nuisance to cars, because in medium or greater (read: rush hour) traffic, I blow them all away.

Also, since it’s so effortless to ride the commute, I can take the longer but more bike-friendly route which goes through the park and a newly minted bike path.  Instead of being inside of one lane of traffic with parked cars lined up on the right with people opening their doors…I ride on a MUCH wider and less busy road, with a parked cars lane that is only lightly peppered with cars.  Meaning, I have an entire lane to myself until I get to the bike path and the park where I really am safe.

The joy of never having to worry about traffic or tailgaters or having to turn on/off cruise control for changing traffic is so great.  Every day is the same, relaxed ride and I usually get the added bonus of going faster than the traffic.

Aside from commuting, it’s also a great way to travel around town.  Picking up small items from stores, getting ice cream or just using it to explore the city and the various bike paths for an afternoon (if you go slow, I’ve gone 40-50mi on a single charge…which is 1/10th of a penny per mile).  When traveling with friends, I typically use my saddlebags to store their locks, beer and whatever else…because I’ve got the motor humming me along effortlessly.  It’s a great “gear bitch.”  It makes them have to work less while I still work the same.

Would I buy it again?

Probably, but not if I was just going to use it to commute.  Especially if I already had to have a car.

But, I’ve found it has asserted its place as my most favorite way to travel, and there’s something to be said about that.  It’s so much fun that I find myself looking forward to riding it everywhere.  I wouldn’t have done that with a regular bike.  I wouldn’t commute 17.5mi round trip and then ride over to a friend’s house for another 18mi round trip for drinks.  With the electric bike, I can handily cover that without a sweat.  In the summer, the Prius began to collect dust.

If I lived in a very temperate area like California or Arizona, I would sell the car and just use the e-bike.  If I needed to haul something, I’d just rent a truck or find a friend.

So, yes, it hasn’t paid for itself yet.  Not by a long shot.  But, it’s given joy to my commute.  How many people can say that?  It’s also flattened and shrunk my city, while riding on a very mobile and nimble bike.  It’s just fun to skirt past cars, always have the best parking spot, be able to take shortcuts through a bike path, or meander through road construction while everybody else is stuck in their boxes.

I would also consider a DIY option more, because they seem to be much cheaper and fairly easy to assemble.  There is a great community over at Endless Sphere or /r/ebikes and some people have made some sickeningly good bikes.  Look at this one where a guy preps for winter!

Winter bike tires

Seems like a fun hobby!  I like to try to be a bit more stealthy, but I admire the DIYers out there that have the knowledge for such things.  Maybe one day I’ll be ready to build my own…and it’ll probably be when my current one dies and I have to replace the motor or something.

Until then, weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!



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