This buzzword has been echoing round the corners of Net conversation, not loud yet but the voices are those that have seemed smart in the past. I joined in a few months back by acquiring a Super Commuter+ 7 e-bike from Trek Bikes. Count me among the converted. I concluded what will probably be the last episode of my Jaguar Diary with “It makes me happy… but a new car isn’t a life-changer”. Well, I’m here to tell you that an e-bike is. And I suspect this whole Micromobility thing has legs.
I’ve biked to work intermittently since I started at AWS in late 2014. But I’m fickle and wimpy. My route home has a continuous sixteen-block uphill segment, and it really hurts if you’re not pretty fit. At my age, you lose fitness faster and regain it slower. So if I went on a road-trip or got a bad cold or we had heavy snow and I didn’t cycle for a few weeks, I was back in sixteen-blocks-of-pain territory.
My doctor and my wife both said they thought the e-bike would be a good idea, and then I kept reading things on the Net about dubious velo-heads being won over. Some of those discussions included the experience of inhabiting an older body that struggles for fitness. Everyone seems to think that the exercise benefits, while not up to those you get from real do-it-all-yourself-biking, are still significant.
What it’s like · It’s important to understand that you don’t sit there motionless and cruise along like on a scooter or motorbike. If you don’t pedal, you don’t go. If you pedal harder, you go faster. The power design is smoothly intuitive; you hardly ever actually feel the electric assist directly. But for any given amount of pedaling pressure, you go a lot faster than you would on an unassisted bike. Yeah, the uphills still hurt, but less; also the pain ends faster.
It’s got ten gears and four boost levels: Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. I find myself leaving it on Eco, sometimes switching to Tour for those sixteen blocks, but using the gears a lot, maybe more than on a regular bike. There’s a nice little Bosch Purion computer, where by “computer” I mean a speedometer and boost control. The boost stops working at 35km/h, which is dead easy to hit on level ground or going downhill.
It comes with a 110V AC charger which I need to use every week or two. I have no idea how long it takes to charge, but the battery’s full in the morning. You can detach the battery and take it inside if that makes charging easier.
The write-ups talk about how you can cruise into work and arrive fresh as a daisy, no shower needed. I dunno, I get a little sweaty but then it’s geek-informal where I work, if a suit were involved a shower would be in order. On the long uphill road home, I get plenty overheated.
The Commuter+ 7 is a heavy thing with a bulging battery, a fat frame, and fatter tires, which make for a comfy ride and cushion pothole punishment. When you turn off the boost, it’s a klunker. Also, I have panniers on the back, I drop my computer into a sleeve and the sleeve into the pannier, and arrive at work sans backpack; an oddity in geekville.
Because of the panniers, I’ve given up taking the car on almost all local shopping trips. The bike gets there about as fast, I can park it right in front of any store, and with the panniers I can carry along quite a few groceries and still have room for some beers.
But how does it feel? · It feels wonderful! My commute, which is almost exactly 4km, takes me under twenty minutes from my front door to my desk at work, a bit more or less depending on whether I make or miss traffic lights. It helps a lot that Vancouver has pretty good (and getting better) bike-route infrastructure.
My commute is between near the bottom center and near the top center on that map. There are only a few blocks where cars and bikes are sharing street space as “equals”: the two between my home and where I get on the bikeway, and one block that happens to be right outside the main central-city police station. The result is I feel safe. Having said that, the one time I got hit by a car — badly, with ensuing hospital time and surgery, in 2000 — was when a stopped car suddenly lurched forward into a crosswalk; so you’re never 100% safe.
The big safety problem is the cool downhill parts of the route, where I (and my cycling-commuter peers) go like hell. That route also includes leafy residential hoods and a bridge over the ocean. It’s really pretty awesome and, as in many other ways, I’m a lucky guy.
(I do experience a certain amount of guilt while blowing by people who are obviously fitter than me just because I’m e-assisted and they’re self-powered.) (But I can learn to live with it.)
The economics · An electric bike isn’t cheap - this thing lists at $3,800 US. There are cheaper e-bike choices, but also way more expensive ones. Public transit would cost about a thousand a year and takes nearly twice as long to get there. My car is electric and thus (ignoring capital cost) close to free at these ranges, but then parking is $150/month or so if you sign up for the whole month, and $15/day and up a-la-carte. Bike parking is so far one of life’s few free offerings.
Then there are the health benefits from 40 minutes of moderate cardio workout per day, and the emotional win of spending no time either squashed into a packed train or sitting alone in a traffic-jammed auto. When you’re biking you’re moving, except for those damn red lights; we hatessss them, my precioussss.
Micromobility · This is the broader category of which e-bikes are a member, but also includes scooter variations and then the variegated two- and three-wheelers, mostly electric, I saw in Beijing.
One of the voices arguing that all this is A Big Deal is that of Horace Dediu, a long-time commentator on mobile tech and Apple, who invented the term Micromobility and organizes conferences on the subject.
Is it really a big deal? It seems to scratch humans’ built-in get-there-faster itch while paving a whole lot less of paradise. And, also as Horace says:
My mind is open. I have a hunch that e-bikes will loom large among micromobility choices; compared to stand-up options like scooters and Segways, they’re a little safer and a little faster. Also, they embody technologies that’ve been refined since the dawn of the bicycle in the early 1800s, and continue to evolve.
Anyhow, if you’re an urban traveler I strongly recommend trying one out.