My Electric Bike is Not ‘Cheating.’ And It Could Replace Cars for Millions of People

“Hey, no fair! You’re cheating!”

The guy was wrapped head to toe in black Lyrca. He had clip-in cleats and a racing helmet. I was wearing a skirt and blue suede shoes. He was annoyed because I’d passed him. He was riding hard, I could see his effort and as I pulled out on the left, I could hear him breathing.

This stretch of road doesn’t look like much, but it’s an uphill grade. When I’m heading into town, I hit it from a right turn or a full stop, both of which kill my momentum. It’s nowhere near the gut emptying climb before you reach my house, but it’s not a coast, either. Road bike guy had probably come from the park at sea level; it’s likely been climbing for a mile already.

There would be no denying the guy was stronger than I am. I put out my back and ate my feelings the better part of the winter. He’d drop me in a second were we on the same ride.

But we weren’t. He was training on his skinny tire racing rig, I was on my electric assist commuter bike.

I turned to look back at him. “I’m riding a bike,” I said. “That’s not cheating.”

“Argh,” he growled “okay, okay.”

“Would you rather I was driving a car?” I asked.

“ARGH,” he growled again, “You’re right, I guess…”

I waved, and then, he was well behind me. I had to be at a meeting in 45 minutes, I didn’t have time to talk bicycle politics with Lycra guy. Plus, I like to think he got my point.

§

I’ve been riding an electric about three years now. I’m on my third model. I got the first one on clearance at a bike shop that was going out of business. The bike was supposed to take the pain out of my commute, but the battery would not hold a charge for long enough. I’d get six blocks from home have to drag 50 pounds of machinery up that steep hill. Eventually, I put it on Craigslist and got a newer model, an equally heavy cruiser with fat tires. I put saddlebags on it and rode it everywhere including commuted 18 miles round trip into downtown Seattle rain or shine. The weather could be a burden some days but the ride itself never was.

This spring I had a “friends and family” hookup on a European electric bike, designed explicitly for commuting. It came with all the stuff—lights, fenders, a rack for your panniers, there’s even a bell bolted to the handlebars. It’s got skinner tires than my cruiser and a control panel that tells me that I hit 30 miles an hour on that one long downhill stretch past the Luna Park, the kitschy diner with the sweetheart tattooed waitresses. That’s the bike I was riding when, dressed in a skirt and blue suede shoes, I passed the roadie in black Lycra.

I have been that guy. Kind of. I didn’t own a car. I rode a bike everywhere—I’m not exaggerating, I do mean everywhere, and sometimes, on the weekends, I would chew up 50 miles of road just because the weather was nice. I was always in cleats and bike shorts, my body fat was practically nonexistent, I ate like a teenage boy; it was awesome.

And then I crossed age 35, and then 40, and then this is a story you don’t need me to tell you. I began working primarily at home, and I moved to the top of a stupid hill. So there I was at home, eating snacks and not going anywhere and generally becoming spongy and middle-aged and honestly, kind of lazy. I admit it.

I tried for a while to ride. I’d bust out my sturdy old commuter, the same bike I’d logged 100 plus miles a week on. I’d ride into downtown Seattle for work, and then, on the ride home, I’d quit at a place where I could load my bike onto the bus for the last brutal uphill grade. The bike racks are great—I’m glad they exist—though they’re a hassle for a short person with weak upper body strength. Sometimes, they’d be full and I’d have to wait for the next bus, and then the next.

I gave up. It wasn’t fun. Riding a bike should be fun.

Everything changed when I shifted to an electric bike. If you haven’t ridden an e-bike, you might think it’s a scooter masquerading as a bike. There are models that work that way, but they also have a mode called “pedal assist.” Maybe you remember learning to ride as a kid. Some patient adult ran along with you, holding you upright. They pushed you off and you felt the momentum behind you as you launched into the world of feeling the freedom that is riding a bike. That’s how riding an electric bike feels—only it’s the bike’s motor that gives you the momentum, the whoosh feeling of moving forward, gravity on your side. Electricity made riding my bike all about that freedom again, and not all about fitness. Or my lack thereof.

My electric bike hasn’t replaced my road bike as much as it’s replaced my car. I am rarely too tired to run to the post office or down to the supermarket—it’s at the bottom of that hill—to get milk. When I need to head downtown for a meeting, I ride, knowing I won’t be wrung out and sweaty on arrival. On a gorgeous spring evening, I rode my bike to the bar to meet a friend for drinks. And yeah, I had to drink in moderation, but I have to do this if I drive, too. And my bike, it counts. Literally—there’s a bike counter on the bridge I cross to get into downtown, and it registers one more rider every time I roll past it. More bikes means more infrastructure for cyclists. More infrastructure for cyclist means riding a bike is easier and safer. Easier and safer cycling means more bikes. More bikes means fewer cars. I think we can all agree that fewer cars on the road are a good thing.

Don’t shame my electric ride. Without it, I’m another anonymous driver taking up space and fuel and resources that could be used to promote the freedom of riding a bike. We’re not on the same ride, road bike guy, but we are on the same road—and we both want to make it better.

§

1. “Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year” (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, Collectors Weekly, March 2014)

A bump to this previously featured piece at Collector’s Weekly. Pedestrians and cyclists haven’t always been second-class citizens on the road. But undoing years of car-first thinking has been fraught with conflict.

As cities attempt to undo years of car-oriented development by rebuilding streets that better incorporate public transit, bicycle facilities, and pedestrian needs, the existing bias towards automobiles is making the fight to transform streets just as intense as when cars first arrived in the urban landscape. “The fact that changes like redesigning streets for bike lanes set off such strong reactions today is a great analogy to what was going on in the ’20s,” says Fried. “There’s a huge status-quo bias that’s inherent in human nature. While I think the changes today are much more beneficial than what was done 80 years ago, the fact that they’re jarring to people comes from the same place. People are very comfortable with things the way they are.”

2. Streetfighting woman: inside the story of how cycling changed New York (Peter Walker, The Guardian, March 2016)

As New York City’s former Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan helped reclaim 400 miles of city streets for bike paths. The Guardian profiled her work.

Urban transport is, Sadik-Khan argues, amid a “Copernican revolution” in which streets are remodelled around human beings, whether walking, cycling or on buses, rather than alone inside a speeding metal box.

“In the United States we spent the last century building our cities around the car, but we damaged our cities in the process and were really getting diminishing returns on that investment,” she said.

“If city residents don’t have a choice but to drive everywhere then our cities don’t stand a chance of surviving in this century. So we really do need to provide new choices for people to get around. We need to face the fact that the way our streets are designed has, in the past, made the decision for its residents.”

The intention under Bloomberg, she says, was “kind of flipping the script in how our streets were designed and who are they designed for”.

3.What I Learned Living One Year Without a Car In Seattle (Sarah Bernard, Seattle Weekly, May 2017)

It’s not easy to give up your car, especially in a place like Seattle where the weather is often bad, the hills are steep, and our public transit leaves much to be desired. Sara Bernard admits that she doesn’t always love the ride.

When I had a car, I’d often drive to Olympia on Friday evenings to visit friends. The traffic was excruciating. I always crossed my fingers that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad this time, and it never worked. I’d always be stuck in a red-taillight-hued crawl for significant chunks of the drive, and it rarely took less than two and a half hours (without traffic, it should be about an hour and 15 minutes). I’d always arrive stiff-necked and agitated. When I no longer had a car, I learned that an express bus goes to Olympia for $3.75. I’d gaze out the window, breathe deeply, and listen to podcasts. It took two hours, but then when had a Friday-evening drive ever taken less than two hours?

For me, then, moving from car-lite to car-free was not really that painful. I’ve stood in the cold for 30 minutes waiting for a bus and been really, really mad about it. I’ve biked in the driving rain countless times, and, yes, I truly and desperately hate it—to-the-point-of-tears hate it. But somehow that soaking misery is not quite enough to make me want to spend thousands on a car, which, now that I don’t have one, seems like an utterly insane sum.


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/05/19/my-electric-bike-is-not-cheating/

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