Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City

By Josh Feit 

With additional reporting by Maryam Noor

“There’s something I want you to try,” my friend said after we finished our burritos and stepped onto Pike St. to grab our bikes for the uphill ride home.

My pal, who used to write a bike blog in San Francisco and work at a bike shop there too, unlocked his Orbea Katu, a boutique Spanish brand, and nudged it toward me. “Let’s trade,” he said slyly—like we were 14, and he was offering me my first hit of pot. He took my banged-up 2009 Marin Kentfield, and I got on his $2,700 e-bike.

Minutes later, it seemed I actually had taken that imaginary puff of pot. I was giggling with glee as I coasted through Capitol Hill, cruising along at 18 miles an hour with the electric-assist motor doing just the right amount of work.

I was hooked. Less than a month later, I bought an e-bike. Not a fancy one like my friend’s—I’m not a bike dude like he is. I bought a basic model that replicated my pal’s ride well enough for an aging Gen-Xer like me who simply relies on bikes for commuting and meeting friends. It’s not, god forbid, for those nutso bike trips people seem take all over the Pacific Northwest. I bought the bike from Rad Power Bikes, a budget-friendly Ballard-based all e-bike company, where prices average about $1,500, but go as low as $1,000.

Rad Bikes, with its friendly superstore in Ballard, may be on the cusp of bringing e-biking to the masses; described as “the largest e-bike in the US,” they already have 1,000 commercial customers, including Domino’s Pizza, and claim 200,000 Rad bikers worldwide.

Geared up from a $150 million investment in February, and planning to double its 325-person staff this year, Rad Bikes’ sales spiked nearly 300 percent year-over-year as of April 2020, according to a report from Geekwire.

Local bike shops that sell a mix of e-bikes and pedal bikes are seeing the e-bike spike too. Thomas Swann, a technician at Greenlake’s Gregg’s Cycle, a nearly century-old Seattle shop, said, “There definitely is a boom. [E-bike sales] are way up.” Swann estimates that just five years ago, Gregg’s sold about one e-bike for every 20 pedal bikes; now, he said, that ratio is more like one to five.

“More people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street.” —Seattle Bike Blog Editor Tom Fucoloro

Swann attributes the jump in sales to new technology, namely improvements to lithium-ion batteries.  “We’ve got batteries pretty much figured out to the point that is financially available to people. Batteries are only going to get better. It’s gonna skyrocket,” he said.

The drop in prices over the last decade has put a number of more-affordable e-bikes on the market. Recent COVID-era market factors stalled the price decline earlier this year, but companies like Rad are nudging the price-point trajectory down again.

Some Seattle bike snobs might look at Rad Bikes the same way coffee snobs viewed Starbucks in the early ‘90s—like it’s besmirching a secret handshake culture. But thankfully, not all longtime bike enthusiasts scoff at the booming user-friendly e-bike trend. In fact, it was my bike buddy who eagerly steered me to Rad Power bikes because he shares my pro-city, YIMBY philosophy that human-scale cities are better for the environment and the economy. And he realizes: City Hall is more likely to get serious about building that model city when biking is a central component of life here.

Noting how giddy I was after zooming up Capitol Hill that first night trying an e-bike, my non-bike-snob-bike-snob-friend said, “Yeah, it’s amazing. They flatten the city.”

That’s the perfect way to think about electric bikes—and not just because they magically negate the hills that intrude on so many Seattle rides (including every conceivable route to my Capitol Hill apartment). They help equalize transportation, flattening out the inequities that often complicate people’s access to work, childcare, groceries, and other daily to-dos. Much sturdier and heavier than traditional bikes, e-bikes don’t flinch at additional passengers and grocery bags. “When someone says, ‘Oh, you know, cycling is great for people who don’t have children,’” Davey Oil, owner of G & O Family Cyclery in Greenwood, quipped, “I’m just like, ‘Hold my juice box, I have three kids on this bike.’”

The League of American Bicyclists ranks “Washington state, particularly the Seattle area”  No. 1  for the E-bike market.

It’s no wonder. There’s a range of options, including:

Homegrown, single-brand shops such as  Hilltopper Electric Bike Company (which also does conversions) and Rad Power Bikes.

Local retailers that simply carry different brands of E-bikes such as G & O Family Cyclery, Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest, Seattle Electric Bike, and Seattle E-Bike.

National & International single-brand outlets such as EVELO and Pedego, and VanMoof

Custom shops that’ll convert your current bike to an E-Bike such as Bike Swift.

While $1,500 for a bike still might seem Team Bourgeois as opposed to Team Budweiser, “it’s also a lot less expensive than a car,” said Anna Zivarts, local bike advocate and Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “And,” she added, “it is my car.”

Zivarts, who recently swapped her traditional cargo bike for the motorized version, said her new e-bike is perfect for her and her kid. “The main reason I like it compared to a non-e-bike is that it allows me and the kid to take routes that have less car traffic, even if they’re really hilly,” she said. “There’s no flat routes from South Seattle to downtown that aren’t MLK Blvd., Beacon Ave., Rainier Ave., or Lake Washington Boulevard, all of which have pretty fast cars.” Zivarts said she avoids those intimidating streets now by biking right up the hilly Beacon Hill greenway or through Mt. Baker. “When I was tired before the e-bike,” she said,  “I’d often risk our safety by riding one of the flatter, busier streets. Now I don’t have to make that tradeoff.”

When G & O Family Cyclery opened its doors eight years ago with a consumer-friendly focus on catering to families, it mostly sold traditional cargo bikes and kids’ bikes. Electric assist bikes made up only about 10% of their sales. “Now,” G & O owner Oil said, “it’s become 100% of the bikes we sell.”

Meanwhile, Seattle’s bike share system, those red e-bikes you see everywhere, is up by 50,000 daily rides, a near 20% increase, compared to this time last year.

It’s worth noting: E-bikes outsold electric cars 2-to-1 in the U.S. in 2020. Despite the e-bike “throttle” option, which you can use to take a break from pedaling up a particularly rough hill, they’re still great for your health, and as opposed to electric cars, e-bikes are actually green because they don’t require highways and suburban-style infrastructure.

And p.s. to the macho road warrior crowd who say riding an e-bike is “cheating”: E-bikers like me are likely to get more exercise than they do on analog bikes. The fact that biking across town is no longer so daunting means I’m going to bike a lot more.

Longtime local bike advocate Tom Fucoloro, who has been writing Seattle Bike Blog since 2010, thinks the popularity of e-bikes is good news politically.

“It’s more people,” Fucoloro said about the current spike in e-bikes. “And more people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street. More people asking ‘Well, that neighborhood has bikes lanes, why doesn’t this one?’ When there’s more people asking those questions, within a couple days, they are knocking on the doors of City Hall.”

G & O owner Oil notes that the he’s already seeing this populist political effect. “Before electric assist and electric cargo bikes became as reliable as they are now, you’d see a very specific, very homogeneous type of person at city hall to speak up on behalf of cycling,” Oil said. “And they were typically wearing recreational clothing or they were typically retirees and most of them were men. Now those public hearings are always packed with mothers and young children, good people to listen when it comes to safety. The same thing goes for disabled people. Electric-assist makes cycling more accessible to people living with disabilities and mobility challenges.”

Echoing the equity angle embodied in the idea of flattening the city, Oil concluded: “That can also help us remember that cycling isn’t only for fit and fearless people, and that’s an improvement for any community.”

The opinionated Seattle Planning Commission has been pointing out the connection between kid-friendly city design and YIMBY values for a long time. Challenging conventional wisdom that single-family areas are the best environments for children, they note that the combo of multifamily housing and public parks serves a lot more families with kids than private backyards with soccer nets. The popularity of e-bikes amplifies this way of thinking by clarifying that the public right of way can be a more universal commodity than just a network for cars.

Just five years ago, Gregg’s sold about 1 E-Bike for every 20 pedal bikes and now the shop sells about 1 E-bike for every 5 pedal bikes.

The New York Times reported this spring that sales of e-bikes grew 145 percent between 2019 and 2020 , outpacing sales of all bikes, which were up 65 percent.

The financial experts say an even bigger e-bike boom is on the way. “Thanks largely to recent improvements in lithium-ion battery technology, pricing, and power, the e-bike market is seeing a surge in interest,” a report from financial firm Deloitte noted. They add: “Between 2020 and 2023, more than 130 million electric bikes are expected to be sold globally, and in 2023, electric bike sales are expected to top 40 million units worldwide.” Indeed, estimated at a $15 billion worldwide market in 2019, e-bike sales are predicted to hit $20 billion by 2023, a 33 percent increase.

Here’s hoping the surge translates into a surge in bike lanes, an area where the the city has fallen far behind.  As Seattle Bike Blog’s Fucoloro summarized it to me: While the bike constituency is changing, the needs of bikers remains the same.

“The great thing about e-bikes,” he said, “is it doesn’t require anything special from the city. [E-bikes require] the same thing that a pedal bike needs: Bike lanes that are safe. That’s number one on everyone’s list, whether they’ve got an e-bike or pedal bike, they’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to get hit by someone driving, and I need protected spaces for that.'”

Josh@Publicola.com

2 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City”

  1. Great overview piece. We got ebikes about 3 years ago now. And while it’s not my primary means of transportation, it’s been a great thing. I had probably ridden my old mountain bike less than 20 times in the previous 26 years of living in Seattle. Put around 1700 miles on my ebike so far. Would easily be 3-5 times more if we were commuting on them every day. A friend on Bainbridge paid for her RadCity within 3 months in the money she saved in parking her car near the Bainbridge Ferry. Got more exercise too.

    Longest roundtrip we’ve made is around 30 miles. But we routinely do 10 mile roundtrips. Just changes the whole dynamic of what seems reasonable. Ride from Beacon Hill to Mercer Island for dinner? Don’t think twice about it. Pretty much the same as riding to 19th and Mercer in Capitol Hill. Very doable. Ride to White Center from Beacon Hill? Less problematic than you might imagine, even climbing up Highland Park Ave S on the sidewalk, which is apparently one of the longest, steep climbs in the city.

    We can ride from the our hose to the Husky Stadium Light Rail station in the same amount of time it would take us to walk to Beacon Hill station and ride the train there. So while it’s not as fast as a car, especially as the distances increase, it’s often time competitive with riding transit (or faster) and you get to come and go on your own schedule. And on shorter distances, it’s increasingly time competitive with driving, especially if you figure in time spent looking for parking and then walking to your destination (e.g., on Capitol Hill).

    Anna Zivarts’s comment about the Beacon Hill Greenway and Mt Baker resonated for me. We live near that. Rarely used the Greenway on a regular bike. On an ebike, it’s great. New lane on Jose Rizal Bridge has been a great improvement. Only a couple of more blocks of 12th Ave S without bike lane now up to Yesler. That said, the changes on the bridge, also make that stretch a bit less chaotic, because they’ve eliminated the option of bad actor drivers trying to pass on the right.

    That said, the stretch from Beacon Ave S and Spokane to Beacon and Columbian Way remains problematic (past Jefferson Park Golf Course and V.A. Hospital). There are ways of avoiding it (e.g., 16th Ave S past the Food Forest), but they’re sub-optimal. So it’s definitely a friction point that makes it less attractive to bike to Columbia City from Beacon Hill. Once they sort that out, there will be a very nice relatively safe route from Jose Rizal Bridge all the way to the new Columbian Way bike path down to Columbia City.

    Lack of bike access to lower Spokane Street from Beacon Hill is also a huge pet peeve of mine. If we could ride straight down onto lower Spokane from Beacon Hill, then ebiking would currently be one of the fastest ways to get in and out of West Seattle from my part of Beacon Hill. Instead, people near Spokane have to ride 1.5+miles out of our way. I hope that any redo of the WS bridge eventually fixes this issue.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop. I do think that people who question the long-term value of building out Seattle’s bike infrastructure aren’t seeing how the ebike changes the dynamics of bike use in Seattle. It’s not surprising to me that ebikes are increasingly popular here, because they solve such a core problem for many people. We’ve got a solid climate to bike in, but the hills kill the buzz for all but the most committed cyclists. Right now, ebikes seem to be more popular with aging Gen Xers and Boomers, like myself. But I see more and more younger folks riding them, as they realize that an ebike can replace 70% of what you need a car for in central Seattle, while costing a lot less.

  2. I’m a long-time commuting cyclist, but the big issue that needs to be addressed with bikes in cities is now safe storage. All the places I worked in Seattle always had secure bike barns in the onsite parking, but when I want to go run errands there’s precious little legal, safe options for locking up increasingly expensive and useful bikes, which are difficult to insure.

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