E-bikes are being used in novel ways. In the Bay Area, Marin County cyclists have taken to riding electric mountain bikes up steep climbs to feast more easily on what matters to them most: downhills.
In San Francisco, as Brett Thurber and I tool around, there’s a poignant moment when we park our bikes on the Market Street sidewalk in front of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition. I go in, but Brett stays outside and fiddles with his iPhone. He would have liked to pop in and press the flesh with Leah Shahum, who runs the group, but he knows he must bide his time. His constituency, energetic as it is, is still small.
Clearly, the chief obstacle to that wished-for broader acceptance is price. Right now it’s anybody’s guess how and when e-bike prices will come down. The most obvious answer is that they’ll drop when demand
increases and the expense of production—mainly having to do with battery costs—
decreases. Until they do, proponents would do well to look for ways to make them available to ordinary people, not just as two-wheeled Priuses for bike freaks and prosperous first-adopters. Thurber says he’s closed a deal that connects e-bike buyers with green financing. Another sliver of light might be the pilot bike-share program that’s currently being studied far away from San Francisco at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
In a small but vigorous rollout, UT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Christopher Cherry is overseeing a campus bike-share model that will include e-bikes. The campus is large, hilly, and spread out, and its students are not exactly reluctant to reach for the keys to get around. This isn’t the campus culture of Berkeley or Madison, and a beefy, typically bombproof bike-share bike might not be enough to wean folks away from their gas-guzzler of choice. But what if an e-bike fills a necessary pragmatic niche—a populist way to get people from place to place that doesn’t require a highly fit user?
Needless to say, UT’s about-to-launch pilot is being watched closely—by potential investors, opponents, supporters, and Cherry himself, who really doesn’t know how it will turn out. Who will ride what? How many car trips will be saved? Can neophytes handle a process that involves card-swiping out a bike and paying attention to a battery charge? He realizes that e-bikes, with all their good green promise, are also more expensive. In this economy, more expensive isn’t good for the mass rollout of any consumer product.
But what if the economy gets better and gas prices stay up? The seeds have been sown. In London, Hertz is already renting e-bikes along with their Audis and Mercedes. Other cities are likely to follow, and it’s not hard to envision e-bikes pouring into Peoria and beyond. Prices would come down. The revolution would be here.
I smile when I consider the impact. The New Wheel would be a kind of birthplace of the revolution. And Brett Thurber—who was once scraping by and wishing on a dream—would be a wealthy man.
LONGTIME CONTRIBUTOR TODD BALF WROTE ABOUT BUILDING DIY SURFBOARDS IN OCTOBER 2009.