Jun 14, 2013 · 7 minutes

Last summer, my girlfriend and I spent a couple of months in Shanghai. There were many reasons it was a great experience – dumplings being chief among them – but there was one particular unexpected pleasure. Getting around Shanghai, a city of 23 million people, turned out to be pure joy. That’s because our chief form of transport was not a car or a subway train or a crowded bus. It was a motorized bike.

Riding on an electric bike, we got to enjoy the convenience of a car mixed with the efficiency of a two-wheeled vehicle that could zip in and out of traffic. We were one among many on the roads, as large groups of bicycles swarmed in ebbs and flows like schools of fish. We got to enjoy the feeling of wind rushing through our hair and the exhilaration of the road speeding by just beneath our feet. Almost silent, the quiet hum of the bike’s electrics made us feel more at one with the infrastructure of the city. It was also practically free to run – we just needed to re-charge the battery every couple of days.

It made me think: Why aren’t these bikes more prevalent in the US? How come the Chinese can see the benefit in these more environmentally-friendly vehicles but the US can’t?

Electric bikes are normal in China, more popular than actual cars. In 2012, according to a Mackenzie Wood report cited by Bloomberg, 180 million electric bikes were on the road by the end of last year. By contrast, China sold about 19 million cars in 2012. They’re popular in Europe, too. Electric bike companies sell about 380,000 bikes there per year, and 175,000 in the Netherlands alone, according to figures cited by Yale’s 360 website.

In the US, a country of 314 million people, the metrics aren’t so hot. The latest figures show that 89,000 electric bikes were sold in the country in 2011, but manufacturers have anecdotally reported an uptick since then, which likely puts total annual sales closer to 100,000. Whether it be because of over-reliance on cars, a lack of bike-friendly infrastructure, or a lack of bike-riding culture, Americans appear to have remained largely resistant to the idea of two-wheeled transport.

Still, a few startups are betting that electric bikes have a big future in the country. Carwash mogul Don DiCostanzo, for instance, has started Los Angeles-based Pedego, which sells stylish battery-powered bikes that can go for 20 miles on a single charge. Google was so taken with the bikes that it decided to offer its employees subsidized use of the vehicles for getting around its campus.

One of Pedego’s competitors is Boston-based Evelo, founded by brothers Boris and Yevgeniy Mordkovich. Boris Mordkovich, a Lithuanian who started the design e-bikes company after having worked for microloans platform Kiva and then as part of the launch team of RelayRides, had seen how popular the electric bikes were in Europe and decided someone needed to make them succeed in the US. Riders can power the bikes purely through pedaling, or they can get an electrical assist for the steep hills and long trips home. A small battery pack sits on the back of the bike and can be removed daily for charging, a process it achieves by being stuck into a powerpoint. The Evelo bikes aren’t cheap, though; they start at about $2,000.

On many fronts, the impulse for finding alternative forms of transport in the US is gaining momentum. Elon Musk, for instance, has spoken of his plans to built a “hyperloop” as a way to get quickly between cities. Musk’s company Tesla is also building a network of “superchargers” across the country so owners of electric cars don’t have to worry about running out of juice on their long road trips. Meanwhile, Google is going ahead with self-driving cars and California is pushing on with high-speed rail.

All these transport options help open Americans’ minds to the possibility that there are other ways to get from point A to point B without taking a heavy toll on the planet’s planet’s finite fossil fuel resources. (Mind you, electric bikes still rely on electricity, which itself relies mostly on fossil fuels.) While ambitious hyperloop-like projects seem like an exciting but distant solution to a problem that exists today, electric bikes could serve as a more practical middle-ground alternative to our transport woes before the hyperloop or high-speed rail come into being. Of course, while such bikes partly achieve a green-friendly objective, they’re slow compared to cars and bullet trains. But, hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere. And, after all, they’re a good deal cheaper than a high-speed rail network that takes 30 years to build and runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Electric bike proponents must also take encouragement from the rise of bike-sharing programs, such as New York’s Citibike and Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare, which have not only put thousands of bikes into circulation in some of the country’s most populated areas, but which also demand a transport infrastructure that is amenable to two-wheeled vehicles (as in, lots of bike lanes). “We see it as a really good development, because in general electric bikes typically thrive in the same communities and the same cities where bikes are popular,” says Evelo’s Mordkovich.

Electric bikes are also benefitting from modern battery technologies, which have improved the efficacy of batteries while making them smaller and therefore a more discreet and portable part of the bikes. The advent of companies such as Evelo and Pedego has also advanced the design of electric bikes, which now look sleek enough to be taken anywhere without fear of fashion failure.

However, there remain significant problems that may ultimately hold back the spread of electric bikes in this country for a while yet. American roads are crowded and big, and are still short on bike lanes. Having to detach and charge a battery might prove too much of an inconvenience for people who prefer a simple hop-on/hop-off experience. And having such an expensive piece of machinery parked in the open provides an incentive for enterprising thieves.

The cost itself, of course – $2,000 and up – is enough to turn many people off, even if they would easily save that amount in reduced gas and maintenance costs as a result of not using their cars so much. There’s also the challenge that the US is home to a very car-centric culture. Bike-riding is not as endemic in the country as it is in Europe and China, where it is a common mode of transportation alongside its motorized cousins.

But the incentives for turning to electric bikes grow ever stronger. As gas prices increase and climate change concerns mount, green-friendly electric bikes become more attractive. Meanwhile, increased awareness about fitness imperatives, driven by the likes of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, could ultimately put more butts on bike seats.

What’s perhaps more important, however, is fashion. For all the same reasons that electric bikes are becoming more viable, electric cars in the US are starting to find real traction among consumers. Elon Musk’s Tesla provides a prime example. Rated by Consumer Reports as one of the best cars it has ever reviewed, the Tesla Model S has helped shift consumer perceptions of electric cars out of the “curious” zone and into the “must have” category. Tesla’s share price has more than tripled in the last few months alone, and the fledgling company now has a market cap of more than $11 billion.

Still, few people can afford the Tesla Model S’s $60,000 price tag, and there remains some nervousness about venturing into the world of electric vehicles, a situation not helped by an infamous and uncomplimentary New York Times review that Musk ultimately saw fit to challenge. In that way, then, electric bikes can help serve as an entry point for electric transportation. It helps people get over their anxieties related to range limitations – proving that a battery that needs frequent charging is not that great of an impediment and that a single charge can actually get you a long way – while providing a more affordable way to ditch their reliance on fossil fuel-driven transport. Evelo’s Mordkovich describes electric bikes as like a “gateway drug” for Tesla hopefuls.

The US is still a long way off from attaining the electric bike-centrism of China and Europe, but the signs are more encouraging than ever that the novel form of transport will have a future here. Price remains an issue, but fashion might ultimately prove to be deciding factor.

As the country moves more enthusiastically towards sexy electric car brands such as Tesla, it might also decide to stop in at a bike shop along the way.