Electric Bikes and Expanding the Reach of Cycling
Perhaps embracing — rather than shunning — electric bikes can help expand the community of cyclists.
Last month, I wrote about the question of whether electric bikes were legal for use on Arlington’s trails. As a result of that piece, I heard from – and later met – the man behind E-Velo Electric Bicycles. The conversation we had helped me finally accept that there may be a bigger place for electric bikes in Arlington than I’d thought.
My previous column’s question about e-bikes on Arlington’s trails was more academic than practical, really — I still haven’t heard of a single instance of anyone being hassled for riding one. But this academic question was a part of a very practical discussion I’ve been having with other cycling advocates for some time now: How do we get more people on bikes?
I’ll say it up front — e-bikes have never really held much interest for me, and I’ve certainly taken some good-natured shots at a friend who regularly used one for his commuting. I didn’t particularly understand the attraction of what I saw as adding a good deal of cost and complication to the self-sufficient simplicity that is a regular bike.
But I’ve been rethinking that for a little while now. It was prompted, in no small part, by a stay in New York late last year where I noticed that almost all of the Chinese-food deliverymen had swapped out their (incredibly annoying) mo-peds for e-bikes. The street was quieter and the smell of two-stroke engines was gone.
While I’ve often thought that many delivery jobs could be better handled on a bike, I’d never expected to see such a wholesale adoption of bikes by an entire industry. But the addition of the electric assist turned bikes into a viable alternative for users who would have otherwise opted for a motor.
And it’s that opportunity — the chance to bring those who would generally prefer a motor over pedaling into the cycling fold — that e-bikes present. I’ve always looked at e-bikes from the perspective of a cyclist. Boris Mordkovich, the head of E-Velo, thinks e-bikes are better considered from the perspective of a non-cyclist.
Boris and his partner and Anna Mostovetsky are on a cross-country tour, using their E-Velo bikes to ride from New York to San Francisco. We met for a brief chat on their way through D.C. (They were coming from Annapolis and headed up the C&O Canal to Pittsburg.) I spent much of the time peppering Boris with questions about equipment, costs and breakdown scenarios, which he patiently answered. It was only at the end I realized that I was overlooking the big story.
What Boris and Anna were doing was demonstrating that e-bikes put something as big and ambitious as a transcontinental bike trip within reach of anyone. They need not be super fit, with the capacity to pedal 80 to 100 miles a day for weeks at a time. They need not even be particularly well off – these bikes cost roughly $1,800, and the total cost of electricity for the trip? About $20. That brings bike touring to an exponentially larger population than a regular bike.
So what does any of this have to do with Arlington? Think Rosslyn. Specifically, think of the Rosslyn hill, pedaling back from D.C. I am certain that hill is the primary reason lots of Arlingtonians have never completed the Arlington Loop and wouldn’t dream of trying to commute into the district. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought twice about riding up the Rosslyn hill, but it’s a significant challenge for many.
One way to overcome that hill is to become a cyclist – keep riding, and it will get easier. Really. But not everyone wants to “become a cyclist.” They just want to get where they want to go with minimum hassle. And for some, an e-bike puts cycling on the table as a viable option. The electric assist can turn the hard slog up the Custis into a breezy pedal. Who can begrudge that?
Bikes need not and should not be exclusive to the spry and fit. E-bikes open cycling up to a larger population. Sure, they aren’t for everyone — I doubt I’ll end up with one any time soon. I think, however, they can absolutely be part of the bigger picture for getting more people out of their cars and onto bikes. There are details to be worked out, but on the whole, cycling is better off embracing — rather than shunning — e-bikes.
Arlington's own Phoenix Bikes is holding its annual fundraiser bike show Thursday, April 26. Get your tickets here. Phoenix Bikes' mission is to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs through direct participation in a financially and environmentally sustainable nonprofit bike shop that serves the community.
Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.