E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone

  April 06, 2024

E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone

A generation of bikes designed for smaller bodies is bolstering the booming e-bike business.

Karen Weiner and Brett Thurber have devoted their careers to e-bikes. 

In 2010, as recent college graduates, the couple decided to open a shop in San Francisco called the New Wheel that sold electric bicycles, which were a relatively new concept at the time. They believed that these new vehicles could help people get out of their cars, making cities more walkable and drastically reducing carbon emissions. 

But there was one problem. Weiner, who is under 5 feet tall, couldn’t even mount most bikes because the frames were too large for her. Meanwhile, Thurber, who is above 6 feet, could comfortably ride every new e-bike that hit the market.

E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone | DeviceDaily.com

[Photo: Jay Watson/courtesy the New Wheel]

Today, however, things have changed. Several brands now design bikes for people who have smaller builds. “It’s only now, after many years of owning the New Wheel, that I have found e-bikes that allow me to plant both my feet on the ground,” Weiner says. “These little tweaks in design make an enormous difference to making bikes more accessible.”

Weiner’s experience tracks with the broader e-bike industry. Over the past 15 years, e-bikes have gone from niche to mainstream. Much of this growth has happened over the last five years. In 2022, 1.1 million e-bikes were sold; that’s four times the number sold in 2019. This surge in sales is partly because more people took an interest in e-bikes during the pandemic as a way to get outside. But it’s also because e-bike manufacturers like Rad Power Bikes and Tern began creating models better suited for women and for people transporting their children. This has opened up e-bikes to more people than ever before. 

A new bike geometry

Joshua Hon cofounded Tern in 2011, at a time when most e-bikes looked like regular bikes with a motor and battery attached to them. These bikes tended to be higher off the ground, with very large wheels. “Most e-bikes at the time were made by 6-foot dudes who loved racing,” he recalls. “They made fast, cool-looking bikes, but accessibility wasn’t necessarily top of mind.”

Tern first became known for its foldable e-bikes, designed for urban dwellers who didn’t have a lot of space. But as Hon spoke with customers, he noticed that people with smaller builds gravitated toward the bike not for its foldability but because the lower step frame made it easier for them to get on it. 

E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone | DeviceDaily.com

[Photo: Tern Bikes]

This prompted Hon to design a bicycle specifically for smaller people. Hon’s team began working on prototypes in the mid-2010s. One of the major changes was creating a bicycle with smaller wheels, as well as a saddle and handlebars that could be adjusted to a wide range of heights. This was a complex challenge that involved redesigning the hardware and geometry of the bicycle. But it would allow a greater range of people to comfortably put both feet on the ground when they were stopped. “You would not want a mom in busy traffic with two small kids on the back to be balancing precariously on one tiptoe,” Hon says. 

The bikes that Hon’s team designed ended up looking very different from what was already on the market. The wheels were smaller and wider, while the body was much longer than a traditional bike. It also had a lower step-through. The bike looked short and squat compared to a traditional bike. On the other hand, it could accommodate a 4-foot-11 rider as well as a 6-foot-5 rider.

When Hon showed the bike to e-bike shops, many told him point blank not to make it. But he decided to go against their advice and make it anyway. He launched the GSD in 2017, and it was an instant hit. “The traditional bicycle, with its large wheels and high handlebar, was designed to optimize human muscles,” he says. “Our big unlock was that e-bikes can have a completely different geometry. They can be optimized for comfort and safety.”

The New Wheel began selling the GSD as soon as it came out. Thurber credits this design with bringing e-bikes to a much broader group of consumers. “It sparked something new,” he says. “Here was a bike that could perform well on hills and flats, but was also very comfortable because it wasn’t so big. Suddenly women and families were interested in e-bikes.”

Taking Three Kids To School

Weiner explains that it’s not enough for a bike to be adapted to smaller bodies. It also needs to be high quality and ride well. “Often when people have a bad experience with riding an e-bike it’s because it’s poorly made or it’s not comfortable,” she says. “They don’t realize that the real problem is that the bikes aren’t designed for us.”

As more consumers have flocked to e-bikes, brands have started designing for all of the new and different ways consumers might use them. Take Rad Power Bikes, for instance, which is now the largest e-bike brand in North America.

 

E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone | DeviceDaily.com

[Photo: Rad Power Bikes]

Founder Mike Radenbaugh was an early e-bike enthusiast. In his teens, he began adding motors and batteries to regular bikes, which could be used for commuting or racing. Radenbaugh was fixated on how e-bikes could replace many of the car trips people make. Some 52% of all trips are to a destination less than 3 miles away; 28% are less than 1 mile away. All of this contributes greatly to carbon emissions.

Early on, many consumers were skeptical of e-bikes’ ability to carry passengers or groceries. So in 2015, when Radenbaugh launched Rad Power Bikes, one of his first models was the Rad Wagon, which is specifically designed for transporting people. It comes with many different seating options, including padded seats for another adult; toddler and children’s seats; and even seats for pets. “We’re known for our long-tail bikes that have enough room for at least two passengers,” says Sarah Bruce Courtney, head of product development at Rad. “I have three kids, and I travel with all of them on my e-bike.” 

Designing a modular system

Rad creates modular systems that allow you to customize the bike to your needs by adding a range of attachments. There are baskets for people who might be delivery drivers, or who use the bikes largely for grocery runs. There are trailer racks for people who need to carry 100-pound loads of equipment. 

Courtney says that a big portion of the potential market for e-bikes are smaller people, who have long believed the bikes are not for them. Convincing someone to choose an e-bike over a quick car ride is a matter of making them feel comfortable. Rad does this by having smaller, fatter tires that create more stability. And much like Tern’s, many of Rad’s bikes have low step frames, so it’s easy for anybody to stand with both feet on the ground.

E-bikes are booming—and now they’re being designed for everyone | DeviceDaily.com

[Photo: Tern Bikes]

The brand has taken accessibility a step further by launching an electric tricycle in 2022. A tricycle doesn’t require the rider to balance at all, so it’s perfect for people who aren’t comfortable with cycling. It also comes with plenty of storage, so it can easily be used for trips to the grocery store. “Our goal is to get as many new people onto e-bikes as possible,” Courtney says. “We’re thinking about all the obstacles to getting someone on a bike.” 

Weiner says that the e-bike industry has come a long way in terms of accessibility. But there’s a lot the industry can do to be even more inclusive. She’s only just begun finding e-bikes that she can ride comfortably, but it would be great if there were even more options for smaller people, including children.

“Right now, our customers are coming in looking for options for their kids who are between the ages of 11 and 15,” she says. “These kids have outgrown the kid’s seats on their parent’s bikes, but there aren’t any e-bikes out there specifically designed for them. Hopefully that will change.”


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