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Pedaling to Tomorrow: Could an Electric Bike Kick-Start the Future of Transportation?

June 24, 2015
by Carl T. Hall

Emerging from the San Jose train station on my superfast electric bike, I lean into the first turn, boosted by the latest in lithium-ion battery technology. I’m headed to a business meeting at the Hayes Mansion, eight miles south of the commercial heart of Silicon Valley.

And I am late.

The built-in speedometer shows 26 mph. Pretty fast to be pedaling, even with an e-bike’s motor assisting. All systems are clicking, and my personal vision of California’s transportation system of the future, clean and efficient, seems to be rolling right along. Unfortunately, California’s transportation system of the present, in the form of a gravel truck, is merging into my lane, moving quite a bit faster than me. A construction barrier blocks the shoulder. No escape.

First lesson when preparing for the transportation system of the future: Good brakes will still be essential. European-style “e-bikes” may never be compatible with heavy-duty trucks on the same crowded patch of asphalt.

Still, signs of progress and change are all around. People are driving less, and not just because they can’t afford the gasoline or car payments. The latest data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that vehicle miles traveled peaked in 2005 in the United States, and has declined 7.6 percent since then. A 2013 U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group report declared that a six-decade trend of rising per capita driving has screeched to a halt.

“The Driving Boom is over,” the report concluded. “The unique combination of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom—from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation—no longer exists. Meanwhile, a new generation—the Millennials—is demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving.”

In today’s workforce, cloud-connected mobile platforms increasingly allow us to skip the daily grind of commuting. More people are relying more on light rail, buses, trains, bicycles, walking—anything but cars. The number of people commuting to work by bicycle, for example, increased by 39 percent between 2005 and 2011. This coincides with a return to downtown living, which has become hip again, rather than commuting from the not-so-hip suburbs.

The bike culture is changing, too, though perhaps not as quickly as we’d all like. Bicyclists, and I count myself among them, have a lot of growing up to do if we are to become fully accepted on the roads. I sometimes think I am the only cyclist who stops at all the streetlights, although I’ve been assured by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition that this is not the case. “I stop at the streetlights,” insisted Tyler Frisbee, the coalition’s policy director.

That makes two of us, at least.

One thing we all agree on is that courtesy and safety go hand in hand, whether the hands are on a steering wheel or a set of handlebars. And courtesy and safety are never more appreciated than when the other guy is in a twelve-ton truck, and you are on a 60-pound bicycle.

And so the truck driver, in my case, slammed his vehicle to a complete stop. So did I. It turned into a lovely moment. He cheerily waved me to go first.

This was progress.

Our modern era was in large part defined by cars and internal combustion engines. Automobiles have ruled our roads and scared our horses, shaped our cities and inspired our songwriters, fueled our sexual exploits and speeded up both our cops and our robbers.

Now the whole planet is showing the strain of it all. Even California, global superpower of car culture, seems revved for big changes, Ground Zero of clean-energy initiatives and Toyota Prius hybrid sales.

Not since Chryslers had fins and Dwight Eisenhower signed the federal interstate highways act in 1956, have there been so many intriguing signposts suggesting new ways (and some not so new) to get from point A to point B and beyond. The ingredients can be as prosaic and subtle as more-efficient batteries, a few more marked bike lanes, and mobile apps that take the guesswork out of timing your trip to a bus stop. Transit options could be improved with more light-rail lines and high-speed commuter trains. Self-driving prototype cars exist, and at least some components of a commercial technology are being tested, or even offered now as luxury options. Lyft, Uber, car sharing, bike sharing, private buses, commercial rockets—the new business models are multiplying, if not always to everyone’s liking.

Some things may forever be 20 or 50 years out, such as flying cars and personal jetpacks, hydrogen fuel cells and batteries that seem to run on air. No one knows where it all might lead, and it’s a safe bet that the privately owned, CO2-spewing automobile will not be extinct anytime soon. But the smartest scientists and transportation experts make a compelling case that change is coming. By definition, the future is the thing that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s coming around the bend, and you’d better get ready for it.

Marca Doeff, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has been working on lithium-ion batteries for 25 years. When she started, development of the first practical batteries of this type, with their relatively low cost and practical advantages, helped create the consumer tech revolution.

“I think today we’re on the cusp of a second revolution,” Doeff predicted, as the steady gains in battery technology enable a shift into electrification on the roads. “I’m seeing it start to happen already,” she said. “We have choices now.”

Tesla, for instance, has demonstrated the commercial viability of an all-electric luxury car priced at nearly six figures, even with a driving range considerably less than the 300 miles or more once thought necessary. At the same time, GM has shown with its Chevy Volt that even 35 miles can work with an on-board, gas-powered range extender. And now BMW claims to have hit the sweet spot somewhere in between, with its new line of i3 electric SUVs.

“Transportation is just getting interesting again,” declared David Levinson, a UC Berkeley-educated engineer and now professor at the University of Minnesota. In a post on his influential Transportationist blog he introduced such trends as “the end of driving” (self-driving cars) and Tim Ferriss’s “4-hour workweek” (computers and smartphones).

Levinson isn’t so big on bicycles, electric or solely leg-powered—at least not as a major element of mass movement in most American cities. Nor does he see high-speed rail or other ultra-ambitious megasystems moving all that many people, day in and day out. He focuses instead on the cumulative impact of more modest, but much more widespread, changes in technology and lifestyle.

The one with the greatest potential is right under our feet, and our wheels. Planners have had to design roads for peak use, carrying mostly individually owned cars sized for at least four people. But only about 1.6 people on average actually ride in those cars—hardly an efficient use of the infrastructure. Levinson sees tremendous gains as the traditional workday breaks down, and commuting patterns spread out.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers may have thought they were going to be the work-from-home generations, but numbers suggest it will be Millennial workers who reap that reward. A survey commissioned by Zipcar found young adults expressing little concern about losing access to a personal car, but their worry approached terror at the thought of being without a laptop and smartphone. Meanwhile, fewer 16- to 24-year-olds have driver’s licenses now than anytime since at least 1963.

It’s uncertain whether these trends will hold. As the U.S. PIRG study put it: “There is a chance that the differences in transportation and lifestyle habits currently demonstrated by Millennials may fade as they age. But it is also possible that cultural changes and advances in mobile technology will continue or even accelerate Millennials’ transition away from driving—with massive implications for transportation policy.”

It doesn’t require rocket science, or even better battery-powered vehicles, to start nudging the future transportation system into place. That could happen now, Levinson said, with a bit of political will, economic incentives, and a culture that encourages shorter workweeks, flexible schedules, and more working at home.

Advocates like me are eager to put cars in their proper place; if we must have them, we insist they should be green-powered, shared, and eventually self-piloting. The vision is of cleaner, human-scale cities, pleasant urban walkways, and bicycles pretty much everywhere.

“We are seeing in cities throughout the country that this is a change people want,” said the Bike Coalition’s Frisbee. In April, her Bike Coalition partners announced a big expansion of the Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) program. Launched in August 2013 with barely enough green-painted rentals to fill a couple of suburban garages, BABS will offer 7,000 more rentals (a tenfold expansion) within a couple of years. By today’s reckoning, that’s enough to give San Francisco the highest bike-share density of any American city.

Advocates say the sharing economy is a natural for convenient, low-cost two-wheeled transit, as long as the cost is indeed low and nobody has to walk too far to find the rental kiosks.

Ideally, our future ought to look something like Copenhagen or Amsterdam on summer days. Streets filled with chatting people taking their sweet old time, as if nobody has a job but everybody has plenty of money. We should be arriving everywhere we need to be, just in time, as arranged on our smartphone or wearable computer, biking or car-sharing around safely and efficiently without much of a carbon footprint.

A couple of problems need some attention, however, before such visions can be realized in the United States. Even in a region as forward-focused and open-minded (if not downright European) as the Bay Area, a person can’t always get around without a car.

Allison Wagner, 37, decided she needed a car after she moved from Oakland to San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. “I have a bike that I don’t use,” she said.

You wouldn’t exactly consider her a slouch when it comes to physical fitness. Wagner became a competitive swimmer at age 7 and for nearly 15 years held the world record in the 200-meter medley. She won a silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics.

But no way can she see relying on a bike to get around. Her work involves showing up at people’s homes to help them rehab from injuries. “I hate hills,” she said, and even if she would have an easier time navigating San Francisco than most 30-somethings, “I can’t show up to an appointment a super-sweaty mess.”

I met her the day she was trying out one of the newest high-end e-bikes with a friend. She loved the Stromer ST2. But she didn’t buy one due to the price. Sticker shock isn’t a phenomenon limited to Mercedes dealerships.

The cloud-connected ST2, complete with built-in GSM, GPS, GPRS, and a SIM card, retails for $6,990, tax not included.

As an early adopter of toys and gadgets, and an avid bicyclist since high school, I fell for e-bikes pretty hard. One short test ride at a Sunday Streets neighborhood event on Third Street in San Francisco last year is all it took.

I bought a high-end model two days later, complete with lights and a luggage carrier, a heavy-duty lock, fenders, and anti-theft keyed bolts to safeguard components. Including the service plan membership, the cost came to somewhere north of $4,000. How much north is a closely held secret due to family budget dynamics.

The car has ob­vi­ous ad­vant­ages, such as satel­lite ra­dio and great speak­ers. Mu­sic on a bike is a bad idea. It’s hard to hear the gravel trucks com­ing with ear buds in.

I bought the bike at a store on Bernal Heights called The New Wheel, owned by Cal alums Brett Thurber ’10 and Karen Wiener ’11, who met at Berkeley and eventually married just as Brett was looking for an opportunity during the last recession. Their small Cortland Avenue bike shop is one of the few where a 50-pound bike selling for a couple thousand dollars may be considered a cheap lightweight.

I still take my regular bike out on weekends and drive my car if time is short. I can rationalize taking the car, a Chevy Volt, because I charge it in my garage along with the e-bike. I also have a solar converter there, collecting power from rooftop panels.

The car has obvious advantages, such as satellite radio and great speakers. Music on a bike is a bad idea. It’s hard to hear the gravel trucks coming with ear buds in.

The e-bike works just as well as a car for my 20-minute commute to work and for trips to the store or gym. I can take it on BART and Caltrain and carry some groceries and my laptop. And if I slow down (though I rarely do), I can get at least 30 miles to a charge. So far, I’ve run out of juice only once before I managed to make it home. One advantage a bike has over a car is that when the former dies, at least you can push it home.

I first came upon the Stromer ST2 while I was searching for hot new items to write about for a holiday gift guide.

The manufacturer claims the newfangled bike has a range of up to 90 miles on a single charge—although I never got anywhere near that far in the hilly Bay Area, at speeds generally upwards of 15–20 mph. The battery rides inside a locking compartment built into the frame, and a brushless motor fits inside the rear hub. The 11-pound battery pack has about half the weight of a decent road bike.

I planted an extra battery at a friend’s house in Alameda and started riding around, taking the bike whenever possible as I went about my day job as executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Eventually, one could imagine a full-blown network of battery swaps and charging stations at strategically located cafés, hotels, and the like all around the bay—the foundation for a long-distance e-biking network.

It’s not likely to happen as fast as some of us would like. Unlike in Europe and Asia, where a substantial and growing share of new bikes sold are the plug-in variety, e-bikes have yet to take root in the U.S. But my hope is it’s only a matter of time.

Don’t confuse an electrified bicycle with a scooter or moped. The main difference is that the scooters are faster, usually powered by a throttle—more like small motorcycles than true e-bikes, which typically have smaller motors and slower speeds. The e-bike motor assists your pedaling but doesn’t replace it.

The modern electric bike reputedly originated in Japan in the 1980s, designed to help older people get around. An estimated 30 million were sold worldwide in 2012. That’s projected to increase to 47.6 million in 2018. Only about 53,000 e-bikes were sold in the United States in 2012, according to data cited by Portland State University and published in 2014. In Germany the number was 252,000.

Bicycles, electrified or otherwise, will almost certainly never claim dominance in the United States, other than perhaps a few market niches. Even in college towns like Davis or Berkeley, or in cities such as Minneapolis and Denver where commuting by bike is more and more widespread, bicycles account for a small share of the transportation total.

In San Francisco, where the bicycle lobby is perhaps as influential as anywhere and the use of bikes has doubled in recent years, the share of the transportation total is only about 4 percent. Planners have a goal of reaching 8 percent by 2018, which seems well within reach. In Portland, it’s already 7 percent. But there remains a perception that bikes and cars, let alone big trucks, just don’t mix, no matter how many bike lanes there are.

And there are other considerations holding back wider adoption of bike commuting in the U.S. For one, our cities are “nowhere near as pancake-flat as Copenhagen and Amsterdam,” Robert Cervero, a Berkeley professor of city and regional planning, wrote in an email. “Besides different histories and cultural legacies, American cities are nowhere near as land-constrained as these places, meaning many trip distances will continue to be beyond easily bikeable distance.” 

Cervero agreed that biking will increase, just not by the leaps and bounds my fellow bike enthusiasts and I hope it will.

“As cycling infrastructure continues to improve … so will the bicycle’s market share of travel, though we’re talking about from the 1 or 2 percent now recorded in America’s most bike friendly cities, to 5 or 6 percent—not the 30 to 40 percent found in Denmark and Holland.”

Still, it’s progress. And as every cyclist knows, if you keep pedaling, you eventually get there. 

Carl T. Hall is a longtime cyclist, journalist, and union organizer. As soon as he finishes his thesis, he’ll have a Master of Journalism degree from UC Berkeley.

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