Taking Charge

Put your feet up and read about the new generation of electric bikes.

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Which type of bicycle saw the biggest increase in sales over the past 12 months? You might think it was the fixed-gear bike—the stripped-down racing machine now ridden by every cycle courier and skinny-jeaned hipster worldwide. But it’s electric bicycles that have effortlessly outpaced all others in the retail stakes.

Electric bicycles, also known as e-bikes, are a hit with the elderly, eco-friendly frugalistas, and commuters who don’t want to break a sweat. A small motor drives one of the wheels, making pedaling up hills and across town a breeze.

The 1990s saw the first attempts at marketing e-bikes to a skeptical public. Because e-bikes represented new technology, many firms apparently decided to take their design cues from the Jetsons and created bicycles only a geek could love.

Yamaha was the first to get the styling right. It released its PAS (Power Assist System) bicycle in 1993, cleverly disguising the batteries to create a pleasing frame shape that Japanese commuters embraced.

Where Japan led, the world has followed. “In 2008, our hybrid bicycles were by far the fastest-growing segment of sales,” says Andrew Juskaitis, communications manager of Giant USA, adding that “Giant has quadrupled its forecast for 2009 on this type of bicycle.”

With the boom in e-bikes has come a push to attract new customers. Panasonic’s racing bicycle division has created a rugged electric mountain bike; Yamaha’s PAS Wagon Lithium is directed at the elderly and people with disabilities; and the French VéloSoleX moped has returned to Paris’s streets as the e-Solex, with styling by the late Andrea Pininfarina—transforming the e-bike from techno geek to très chic.

Tokyo-based writer Gordon Kanki Knight profiled the designers Hironao Tsuboi and Chikara Ohno for this year’s I.D. 40 (January/February 2009). He is currently at work on the Wallpaper Guide to Osaka.

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