Letter from America – Flop!

letter-from-america-flopMake your dreams come true! Come to the USA and leave with a small fortune.The time-honoured way to do this is to bring a large fortune with you, arrive in Las Vegas and spend a month or so gambling the nights away. If you are lucky, you will leave Las Vegas with a small fortune. If you are unlucky, you won’t have enough money left to buy breakfast.

That is one way.There is now a better method. Bring over a large fortune and open a group of electric bicycle shops. No matter how beautiful and well-run they are, your large fortune will disappear quickly. Sell out soon and you may still go home with a small fortune.Wait a bit longer and you will almost surely go broke. Many have tried and given up, sadder but wiser.

Reading the adverts in A to B gives the impression that the electric bike market is thriving in the UK. It isn’t thriving here. My local bike shop, which is a large and serious place, now has one electric bike standing in a corner in the rear of the store. It is dusty, marked down to half price, and attracts little interest and no buyers. It has been there for almost two years.This shop has tried to sell at least four brands of electrics over the years, and the results have been the same. Little interest and hardly any buyers.Why?

It isn’t this way everywhere. Chinese sources expect sales to top 4 million units this year. Japanese sources report sales of 500,000+ in 2003 and increasing steadily.The Western Europe/UK market seems to be humming along with 50,000 sales each year. And yet in the USA, with a population of 290,000,000 and bike sales of 10,000,000 units per year, electric bike sales probably don’t exceed 15,000 units annually, and that may be an optimistic estimate.

…to Americans, practical transport has two (or more) wheels…

letter-from-america-flop-3I know of only one successful electric bike shop in all of the USA. It is in our Pacific Northwest, in the state of Washington.The owner has by far the best American website in the business (www.electricvehiclesnw.com) and even he uses the website for occasional grumbles about the market. How can this lack of interest be explained?

The American mindset gives some clues.To Americans, practical, useful transport has four (or more) wheels. Anything with less than four wheels is automatically classified as a toy.We have many types of scooters for sale.There are electric-powered, gas-powered, and people-powered scooters, in both stand-up and sit-down models. Most are very cheap, many are unsafe and none are legal for street use.Transport in the USA is about cars.There are a few starving students cruising around on 50cc motor scooters, and of course there is the testosterone-crazed motorcycle crowd (also known as organ donors), but it really is all about cars. If you were to stand on a street corner of any American city, you would see rather few bikes, and you would quickly determine that the riders are on the bikes because they probably cannot afford to drive a car.You would be most unlikely to see a single electric bicycle unless you stood on that street corner for a year or so.

I am a daily bike commuter, and I see one every six months. Americans do not favour any sort of physical effort in their choices of daily transportation, and they have the waistlines to prove it.

The American Way of Life encourages this mentality. Relatively low taxes and relatively high spendable income are treasured parts of the American scene, and woe unto any politician who tries to change that. One economist has described our economic policy as, ‘private wealth and public squalor’. A low-tax policy will produce that sort of thing. The most important part of the policy is Cheap Gas. UK visitors quickly see that the price of gas in the USA is less than half the price in the UK.The difference is not the cost of gas. It is a difference in national taxation policies.

Cheap Gas encourages living far from work, endless driving, using cars for almost every activity, suburban sprawl on a grand scale and short changing other forms of transit. In the USA we ‘invest’ in highways and roads, but we only ‘subsidise’ public transit.The words are important, and they tell the story.There is very little place for the practical electric bicycle in that story. And so it goes all over America – on four gas- powered wheels, not on two electric-powered wheels.

There is, to be fair, some possibility of change.The era of Cheap Gas may be ending, whether Americans like it or not.There are also signs that many Americans are tired of endless driving and the costs involved, and are moving closer to their work, and may even be using some of those millions of bikes in their basements and garages for neighbourhood travels.The children of today zipping around on those toy electric scooters could well be the teenagers and adults of tomorrow zipping around on electric bikes.

The American Way of Life did not always revolve around cars, and expensive gas. Global warming concerns and the necessity for alternative energy sources may produce drastic changes. No one knows for sure, but some signs are out there.

In the meantime, let me offer some good advice for UK visitors. Leave your large fortunes at home. Do not bring them to Las Vegas. Do something sensible like buying nice swamp land or digging a tunnel from London to New York City.You will be happier and more successful. And do not even consider moving into the electric bicycle business here in the USA.Trust me on this. For the present, there is only one word that describes the USA electric bike scene. FLOP.