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Fort Worth company hopes its electric bicycles become option for commuters

Paul Jung can ride a bicycle for miles in the Texas heat without breaking a sweat.

He is president of Bodhi Bicycles, a Fort Worth company that specializes in selling electric bikes.

They look like ordinary bicycles, and for the most part they are -- except that besides the usual pedals and spokes, they have a battery and motor hidden in the frame.

Those provide a power boost on command, when the rider doesn't want a cardio workout.

Electric bikes built by Jung's company and a few other manufacturers have a top speed of 20 mph. That makes them legal on streets, trails and anywhere else bicycles are allowed.

The Bodhi battery, which is a little longer and thinner than a football, can be removed and recharged within a few hours in an electrical outlet.

As officials in Fort Worth and other cities expand hike-and-bike trails and try to make streets safer for cyclists, Jung foresees a day when large numbers of commuters pedal to work. The main barrier today, he said, is that few people are even aware that electric bikes are a viable option.

"For those who haven't ridden a bike in a while, it will feel just like it did when you were growing up," said the transplanted New Yorker, who began selling Bodhi bikes last year at a handful of cycle shops in North Texas, in Austin and out of state.

The bikes are built in China, he said, but they are assembled in Fort Worth, and the NuVinci throttle system is from Austin.

Jung recently demonstrated one of his bicycles for the Star-Telegram on Fort Worth's Trinity Trails system near Texas Christian University. He hopes to persuade more retailers to stock Bodhi bikes, but the obstacles are formidable.

While riding traditional bikes is a hugely popular form of exercise, it hasn't caught on for commuting. North Texans must deal not only with traffic but also with fickle weather such as severe storms and intense heat.

Plus, electric bikes cost more than name-brand mountain bikes and 10-speeds: roughly $1,500 to $3,000 for a typical model, depending on the manufacturer.

While that cost might not be a big deal to hard-core cyclists accustomed to paying thousands of dollars for high-performance bikes, it could be prohibitive for those looking to get back into riding or seeking an alternative to the car.

"This is not a new industry, but it hasn't really taken hold in the United States," Jung said. "The real key is getting people in the saddle of an electric bike."

Popularity rising

Dallas-Fort Worth may never have the cycling appeal of cities such as New York; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Munich.

But the region now has 237 miles of linear trails, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments is aiming for 1,668 miles by 2035.

Dedicated bike trails go a long way toward helping riders avoid car traffic and thus feel safer.

Many North Texans haven't tried cycling to work because of the weather, especially during the summer. Few employers offer workers a place to shower and change clothes, so pedaling to work doesn't seem feasible -- especially for those in business clothes.

The electric bike helps fix that.

Using simple controls on the handlebars, the rider can decide how much effort to put into the ride. At the maximum setting, the motor does all the work -- almost like a scooter -- for 10 to 20 miles, depending on steepness and other factors.

For those who want to save energy or get a bit of a workout, the motor can be turned down so it simply assists with the pedaling -- and can go much farther on one charge.

The rider adjusts the tension by twisting the right handlebar grip.

"We've taken the guesswork out of clunky gear changes and shifters," said Jung, a software engineer-turned-entrepreneur. "It's just very intuitive to ride, with or without power on demand."

For a workout -- or if the battery runs out -- the vehicle still functions as an old-fashioned bike. At about 50 pounds, it handles about as easily as a touring cycle or mountain bike.

Not cheap

Another challenge is price. Bodhi has several models, each about $2,500. Another Metroplex company, EV Tech of Addison, specializes in retrofitting traditional bicycles with motors for about $1,650.

Although the initial purchase can be too expensive for many people, Jung and other manufacturers say their electric bikes can be recharged for just a few pennies per ride. So, as an alternative to driving, an electric bike quickly pays for itself.

"Our phone rings off the wall every time gas goes up 10 cents," said Paul Bruton of Hurst, EV Tech's vice president.

It's difficult to say how many people ride electric bikes. Bruton is active with the Dallas Electric Bike Association, a group of cycling enthusiasts and advocates, and his best guess is that 3,000 people in Dallas-Fort Worth -- a region of roughly 6 million -- own electric bikes.

Bruton estimates that 80 percent of his customers want the electric bikes just for recreation, not commuting. But, he said, "The other 20 percent are making a conscious lifestyle choice. Every day they go to work on the bike, and that's a growing trend."

Room to grow

The market has enormous potential. Pike Research projects that 342,526 electric bikes will be sold in the United States in 2018, up from 105,682 this year. Worldwide, the research firm predicts, 50 million electric bikes will be sold by 2018, the overwhelming majority in China.

Electric-bike makers in China have recently come under fire for using lead acid batteries, and lead poisoning is a major problem there. But most bikes sold in the U.S., including Bodhi's, have safer lithium-ion batteries.

Officials at the council of governments agree that interest in electric bikes is growing.

The agency has organized a group of electric-vehicle stakeholders that meets periodically to discuss trends such as charging stations for electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.

Several electric-bike enthusiasts have joined the group, said Jenny Danieau, the council's senior transportation planner.

"It was centered around the light-duty plug-ins that have come out," she said. "But now we're addressing anything powered with electricity that has wheels."

Gordon Dickson,

817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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