Toronto's e-bike industry charges toward a record year, and major car makers want in

Sales at Toronto's e-bike stores are booming, and major car manufacturers say they'll soon be joining the industry. Is the city ready for more electric riders on the streets?

GM plans to introduce its first e-bikes next year, Elon Musk says he may also enter the market

Doug Beatty, left, seen here with Amego president Virginia Block, centre, and CBC Toronto's Nick Boisvert, has been riding e-bikes since 2010, but now opts for a pedal-assisted vehicle. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Like a growing number of Toronto commuters, Doug Beatty pedals to work these days with a little bit of electric assistance.

Rain or shine, hot or cold, the 16 kilometre trip to his part-time retirement job usually takes about 45 minutes. It's a breeze, he says, thanks to the extra thrust provided by his top-of-the-line Stromer e-bike.

"It's great," he said. "Whatever commute that I have, or wherever I'm going, it takes the same amount of time, no matter what city traffic is like."

As president of the Toronto Electric Riders Association since 2010, Beatty has been at the forefront of a trend that's swept through the city's cycling world: traditional bicycles equipped with a battery and motor.

The bikes — also known as pedelecs —  provide extra power to pedal strokes, making riders feel superhuman while travelling long distances or climbing steep hills.

Doug Beatty says more riders are now opting for bicycles with electric motors, as opposed to the electric scooters that were popular several years ago. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Since his group formed nine years ago, e-bike shops have popped up all over Toronto, and many traditional cycling stores have added pedal-assisted bikes to their showrooms.

At the downtown e-bike retailer Amego, sales have increased by around 50 per cent annually since the company launched in 2010. The Toronto-based e-bike retailer and manufacturer Daymak says revenue has jumped to $15 million this year, compared to $1.7 million in 2009.

At Sweet Pete's on Bloor Street, owner Pete Lilly says sales at the bike shop's growing e-bike department increased tenfold over the past year.

"We're sort of following a trend in Europe," Lilly told CBC Toronto. "They're a little bit ahead of us but we've seen the growth curve that they've had with it, and we're sort of following the same curve now."

Pete Lilly, owner of Sweet Pete's bike shop, says sales have increased tenfold over the last year. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Like an e-bike set to "turbo" mode, that growth could also see a major boost in the coming months and years.

Last week, General Motors announced plans to begin selling e-bikes in 2019, and the company has launched a naming contest for its two models.

Also last week, Tesla founder Elon Musk said he's interested in joining the burgeoning industry, though the company has not released any specifics in terms of design or release date.

"It makes it more mainstream," said Beatty of the new interest from major auto companies.

"Right now there's a whole lot of different manufacturers and a whole lot of different name brands."

One of two e-bike models GM intends to start selling next year. The company has not yet announced how much the bikes will cost. (General Motors)

Province reviewing e-bike regulations

Along with the increase in e-bike sales, people in the industry say there's been a shift in the type of vehicles people are buying.

"The big change has been the change from the old scooter style of electric bikes to bicycle style," Beatty explained.

Before switching to his electric-assisted bicycle, Beatty's first e-bike was a scooter-style model — think a Vespa or moped but with an electric engine — that required no pedalling and featured a simple twist-and-go throttle.

Despite significant differences between the two styles of vehicles, they are both considered e-bikes under Ontario law.

Under the current regulations, e-bikes must be limited to a top speed of 32 kilometres per hour, weigh less than 120 kilograms and be fitted with pedals.

As long as those requirements are met, riders do not need insurance and the vehicles are also permitted in painted bike lanes by the City of Toronto.

Cycling advocate Yvonne Bambrick says updated laws and improved infrastructure will be needed to accommodate more e-bike riders on Toronto streets. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

"You've probably seen these electric mopeds around. They have pedals on them, but you've never seen anyone use those," said cycling advocate Yvonne Bambrick, who points to concerns about the speed, weight and silent engines of those vehicles.

"A change at the provincial level would be very helpful to clarify what an electric bicycle really is," she said.

Ontario's Ministry of Transportation says it is now reviewing e-bike regulations after Ottawa announced earlier this year that the vehicles would no longer be regulated by the federal government.

"We continue to monitor the development of new vehicles, concerns regarding vehicle safety, and the effectiveness of related laws," said a ministry spokesperson in a statement to CBC Toronto. The ministry did not say when the changes would be made.

With e-bike sales booming, and other modes of electric transportation being developed, Bambrick said changes to regulations and infrastructure will have to come soon.

"Whether it's skateboard or scooter or bicycle, we need to have safe space for all these smaller vehicles to function on our roadways," she said.