Columbus Retailers Are Capitalizing on the Booming Business of E-Bikes

Used for exercise, recreation and commuting, electric bicycles are on the rise thanks to local companies offering the trendy rides for rental and purchase.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Founder Kelly James (left) and CTO Chris Brandon of rideshare company Trip Bikes with a fat-tire e-bike

When Columbus native Kelly James and his wife began riding electric bicycles back in 2017, other cyclists would sometimes jeer at them in passing, yelling, “You’re cheating!” To which James began replying, “No, we’re winning.”

James and other e-bike enthusiasts still get the occasional side-eye from riders of standard bicycles, but the motor-assisted bikes, which have been popular for years in Europe, are catching on in the United States. According to the Light Electric Vehicle Association, the U.S. imported 880,000 e-bikes in 2021, outpacing sales of electric cars and trucks, and that number grew to more than 1 million last year.

In Columbus, riders have more opportunities than ever to rent or purchase e-bikes. The city’s CoGo Bike Share program, managed by Lyft, began offering e-bike rentals alongside its standard bicycles at docking stations in 2020. Joining CoGo is Trip Bikes, a rideshare company founded by James in 2018 (initially under the name Roam). Trip plans to launch 300 of its fat-tire e-bikes in June, with 200 more to follow in late summer. Pedego Electric Bikes, which opened in April 2022 at 170 W. Olentangy St. in Powell, also offers full- and half-day rentals, in addition to e-bikes for purchase.

Orbit City eBikes owner Tom Bennett (left) with employee Derek Wright in the Clintonville shop

Orbit City eBikes was ahead of the curve, opening on High Street in Clintonville about 10 years ago and later moving north to its current location at 4544 Indianola Ave. Orbit City founder Tom Bennett discovered e-bikes in his 40s after developing sore knees that bothered him while riding a regular bicycle. Few e-bike models existed in the U.S. in 2006, so Bennett rigged a car battery to power his bike, later upgrading to a Schwinn with a lighter, rechargeable, lithium-ion battery.

“I was able to ride my bike to work again. … And it was thrilling,” says Bennett, who estimates that he replaced more than half of his local car mileage with e-bike miles last year. “You just feel so much better than you do in a car.”

Traditionally, e-bikes have been most popular with older riders, but it’s trending younger these days, driven by commuters in the 25-to-45 demographic and families purchasing models that can carry kids and cargo. Orbit City carries brands like Benno, Urban Arrow, Cube and Gazelle, the store’s bestseller, with prices ranging from $2,499 to $8,000. Pedego offers more than 15 models of its own branded e-bikes that start at $1,995. In May, the city also plans to launch a $250,000 Smart Columbus program offering partial rebates for e-bike purchases. The federal government may soon help out, too. In March, Congress introduced a revamped version of the E-BIKE Act, which would provide a 30 percent tax credit on the purchase of a new e-bike, up to $1,500.

Derek Wright adds a child carrier to an electric bicycle at Orbit City eBikes in Clintonville.

An e-bike’s battery can power a motor in a few ways: “pedal assist” e-bikes automatically engage the motor as the rider pedals; others use a throttle on the handlebar (similar to a scooter); and some models incorporate both methods. Ohio groups e-bikes into three classes based on those powering capabilities. Class 1 e-bikes use pedal assist to take riders up to 20 mph, while Class 2 e-bikes top out at the same speed using a throttle; both are allowed anywhere regular bicycles can go. Class 3 e-bikes can go up to 28 mph with a pedal assist and are restricted from shared-use paths. (Regulations can vary depending on the municipality.) Most e-bikes have three or four levels of assistance so riders can choose how much power comes from the motor versus their legs.

James and Trip CTO Chris Brandon describe the rideshare company’s flagship electric bicycle as a cutting-edge “smart bike,” with cloud-based software that will sync to users’ phones through an app, providing turn-by-turn directions and virtual tours. The software also allows the bikes, which feature both pedal assist and throttle, to switch between classes 1 and 3 depending on location. And since e-bike injuries tend to happen at high speeds on the first ride, Trip remotely caps users’ speed for the first few rides. When batteries get low, local “Trippers” will swap them out using a Bluetooth key.

Costing $2 upfront and 49 cents per minute, Trip’s dockless e-bikes feature fat tires styled in fluorescent shades of blue, pink, orange and yellow, with foam inserts instead of air to ensure flat tires are a nonissue. Later this year, Trip hopes to have a consumer e-bike model available for purchase.

“Cheating” comments are beginning to fall by the wayside, too. A 2018 review of e-bike studies found that e-bike outings often replaced car trips, offering a physically active alternative to vehicle commutes. James, Bennett and Pedego Powell co-owner Scott Seneff also say e-bikers tend to ride more often and go longer distances than regular cyclists.

“Once you get a person off a traditional bike and onto an e-bike, it changes them,” James says. “There’s nothing like it.”

This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly and the Spring 2023 issue of Columbus CEO.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with information about the E-BIKE Act.