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 to 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.’”
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.”