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Sept. 27, 2020

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E-bikes jolt the bicycling world

Bicycle commuter numbers may be small, but e-bike use is growing in Clark County, nationally

By , Columbian Business Editor
Published:
6 Photos
Dan Herrigstad rides his e-bike across the Interstate 5 Bridge as part of his morning commute from his east Vancouver home to the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center near the Oregon Health and Science University campus.
Dan Herrigstad rides his e-bike across the Interstate 5 Bridge as part of his morning commute from his east Vancouver home to the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center near the Oregon Health and Science University campus. Photos by Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Ten years ago, I commuted by bicycle from my St. Johns neighborhood home in Portland to downtown Vancouver. The highlight, if you want to call it that, was crossing the Interstate 5 Bridge.

Three months ago, I returned to work in downtown Vancouver. And I’m still a bike commuter. Since resuming the Portland-Vancouver roundtrip, I’ve made two important, nonscientific observations about bicycle commuting now compared with then:

• The number of bike commuters seen during my one-way, 35-minute commute is up, from low single digits to not-as-low single digits.

• Half of the bikes I’ve observed, especially before winter’s rain began, have been e-bikes.

It’s that second point that has prompted this story.

Avoiding traffic and ease of travel appear to be the primary motivations for people commuting by e-bike, also known as electric-assist bikes. Speaking for myself, cycling’s also fun, all the more so because the majority of my St. Johns-Vancouver route rolls along pedestrian/bicyclist-only paths.

Vancouver e-bike advocates extoll the virtues

I’ve been in the Vancouver bike club for 11 years. For 10 years, I rode carbon road bikes. Four months ago I bought an e-bike and I love it. I used to hate going up hills and getting dropped by the faster group. Now I can ride with anybody. Even though I don’t commute, it would be an outstanding way to commute because you don’t get all sweaty and you can climb hills in a breeze. You also can get the same workout you did on your other bike; you just keep it in the lower assist modes. A number of the older (60-plus) people in the club are switching to e-bikes, so they can still ride with the club and enjoy it. I’m 71.

— Gus Harmon

My bike is actually a recumbent, three-wheeled cycle. When I joined the bicycle club about 14 years ago, I was a two-wheel cyclist. However, after 29 years with Parkinson’s disease, I finally lost my privilege to drive a motor vehicle. Although I have been retired on disability for about eight years, it was only during the last two years that I switched to a recumbent cycle and then added battery assist. While battery capacity (I have two batteries) limit the distance and time I can ride, they elevate using a heavier but more stable recumbent cycle to a legitimate alternative to Uber or public transportation for booth commuting and everyday transportation.

— George Simpson

The primary thing I like about my e-bike is that it both encourages me to ride and enables me to keep up with younger riders. I’ve been leading bike outings for Sierra Club for many years, and some of our outings include hills. On my regular bike I’m a slow climber, always the last one to the top. On my e-bike, I reach the top when other riders do. Also, my wife is in ill health and is in a nursing home. She gets good care, but I support her in numerous other ways, so I have to keep myself in decent condition for her benefit. The e-bike helps me do that.

I use the e-bike for various errands in addition to recreational riding, although this time of year it’s a little more challenging for me because I don’t particularly enjoy riding in the rain.

What do e-bikes mean to the future of cycling?  Well, cyclists age along with the rest of the population, and as more older people (say, 50 and up) discover e-bikes, I believe they will rediscover the joy of cycling if it’s been awhile since they’ve ridden a bike. Exercise is an important health factor, and more people on bikes to me means a healthier community.  My Sierra Club outings attract a range of ages, but if an older person (like me) is riding an e-bike, they don’t worry as much about being able to keep up and they enjoy the outing more. E-bikes can be expensive, but I consider mine to be an investment in myself. Hopefully, as they become more common, the price will drop.

— Lehman Holder

I decided to take a deeper look at e-bikes because of their potential to make life easier for some of the nearly 70,000 commuters who travel between Clark County and Oregon. Would increased e-bike usage make a significant dent in the large volumes of people driving from their Point A Southwest Washington homes in to Point B Oregon jobs, plus the return trip?

Nah.

But transitioning a car commuter or two or 20 or 300 to an e-bike can’t hurt, right? Bicycling advocates in the U.S. see e-bikes as an opening for increased cycling participation. E-bikes are a minuscule part of overall U.S. bike sales, but the e-bike sales are the only segment in the industry showing robust growth. Advocates point to the growing popularity and acceptance of e-bikes in Europe, helping relieve pressure on their car-congested urban centers. Other signs of mainstream acceptance: General Motors’ exploration of e-bike production as well as endorsements of e-cycling by Oprah Winfrey and William Shatner.

It’s a shift that Jonathan Maus, publisher and editor of BikePortland.org, has been watching unfold for awhile.

“It’s sort of a quiet revolution,” said Maus, whose bicycle stable includes a cargo e-bike and who follows industry sales closely. “There’s been a huge shift toward e-bikes.”

For some, e-bikes are changing the way they perceive personal, in-town travel, said Steve Frothingham, editor of  Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

“It’s not so much a question of replacing your bike as it is replacing your car,” Frothingham said. “There are certainly people in some areas who see they can get rid of their car. Or park it and use (the e-bike) for commuting.”

There are complications. Sales of e-bikes for Clark County-based retailers are just as challenging as they are for conventional bikes because of competition from no-sales-tax Oregon. Web competitors bedevil local dealers as well. Safety is perhaps an even bigger concern than with conventional bikes, partly because e-bikes are attracting an older rider whose skills may be rusty and unprepared for the speeds an e-bike can easily attain.

Bottom line, says a national e-bike advocate, is that bicycling in general has to become safer and be perceived as being safe for a substantial increase in participation. Meantime, says a Portland State University transportation research expert, e-bikes will become a bigger player in the Portland-metro area multi-modal scene.

A choice of convenience

Earlier this year, Dan Herrigstad said a silent “uh-oh” when he heard about extensive summer road construction projects in Portland. He took action.

Herrigstad lives in east Vancouver and sometimes rode a bicycle on a 19-mile, one-way commute to his office at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center near the Oregon Health & Science University campus. It took an hour and a half.

Herrigstad, 54, had been considering the purchase of an e-bike for months. He figured he’d save a little time and effort on his commute. With road construction headaches looming, he took the plunge this spring. He’s glad he did, as he shaved a half hour off his one-way commute and still gets a sufficient workout. He also commutes more often by bike.

“I like riding my regular bike and still try to commute one day a week on it,” Herrigstad said. “For me, the e-bike allows me to commute nearly every day on it. … It gives me a decent workout and, above all, I enjoy it.”

Herrigstad has joined what he and others perceive is a trend of increased e-bikes usage, for commuting as well as recreational use.

People who ride e-bikes typically report an easier and faster experience riding than with a conventional bike. On many models, the assist can be felt with a push of the pedals. The assist increases based on the pressure place on pedaling, such as going uphill.

“It makes hills much easier,” said Dan Bendiksen, a 52-year-old Salmon Creek resident.

Earlier this year, Bendiksen purchased an e-bike for $2,299 from Cynergy E-Bikes in Southeast Portland. When weather is fair, Bendiksen commutes on the bike about three times a week to HTG Inc., in Columbia Business Center near the Columbia River, where he is a senior systems administrator.

Herrigstad and Bendiksen pedal the most typical type of e-bike — those with a battery-powered “assist” that comes via pedaling. When you push the pedals on an e-bike, a small motor engages and gives the rider a boost. The more effort applied, the faster the bike will travel — up to a limited speed assist. Most e-bikes, including Herrigstad’s, come with a power to adjust the boost setting from low, such as on flat terrain, to high, such as on a hill.

They need to be plugged in and recharged every 35 to 100 miles. Also, they’re heavier than a regular bike. The battery and all the technology add about 20 pounds.

Cost vs. benefit

Chuck Grall, 54, of Camas works as production supervisor at a semiconductor manufacturer in Gresham, Ore. He drives a Jeep Cherokee, which gets about 19 mpg. That’s about a gallon of gas each way for his 19-mile commute.

He likes his SUV just fine, he said, but “I don’t like buying gas.”

He purchased a Specialized Turbo Vado e-bike at Camas Bike and Sport this summer for about $5,000. That price is near the top of what you can to expect to pay for an e-bike. They can be priced as low as $1,500. The price goes up as the bike is outfitted with better components, particularly the battery.

Starting at the end of August and until the winter weather, Grall was riding his Specialized Turbo Vado every day but one each week to and from work.

Co-workers have not been impressed with his 38-mile roundtrip commute.

“Most of them think I’m nuts,” Grall said.

But after not riding a bicycle for years, Gall is hooked on his new habit.

“It’s a lot less stressful” than commuting by car, he said. “I could use the lower blood pressure.”

In addition to purchasing the bike, Grall also paid Camas’ 8.4 percent sales tax — about $420. He could have purchased it at retailers in Portland and avoided sales tax or even purchased an e-bike online and, theoretically, saved money that way.

“I wanted somebody who could fix the bike locally,” Grall said. “I knew these guys (at Camas Bike and Sport). I knew they’d be available to help me if I needed something.”

Ed Fischer, owner of Camas Bike and Sport, is not counting on most potential e-bike customers living near the store to be as civic- or practical-minded as Grall.

“We decided from the beginning we’d be a good, community-minded shop and give people reasons to stay local,” Fischer said, “and have faith that I serve a high-enough percentage of people who are willing to pay the tax if that’s what’s needed to keep something like this as an asset in their community.”

He’s dipping his toe into the e-bike waters cautiously. He’s aware that the segment is the fastest growing in the bike industry, but the price to pay is daunting when most e-bikes are in the $2,500-and-up neighborhood.

“We buy these bikes (and) we end up owning these bikes,” Fischer said. “It’s not like they’re on loan to us until we can sell them.

“So, you’ve got to be careful.”

Fischer is talking while sitting on a waist-high wall outside his shop, a few blocks from the largely dormant Camas paper mill. He and I had just returned from a tour on e-bikes in the neighborhood around the shop.

Taking it for a spin, safety in mind

I own four bikes but do not own a car. I ride my commuter bike at least five days a week, my road bike whenever I can, and my mountain bike rarely. Revelations in bicycling seem to be incremental. Riding a 29er — a mountain bike with large wheel diameter — was a nice surprise. Same goes for some suspension systems.

However, nothing compared to my “holy … cow” experience on one of the Specialized e-bikes from Fischer’s collection.

He’s got a hill behind the shop. I pedaled up the hill with ease. I sped up to 20 mph on flat city streets with far less effort than on any of my own bikes.

I wore a loaner helmet, but kept a wary eye out for traffic as I was unfamiliar with the territory.

Perceptions of safety may be one of the biggest impediments to e-bike sales growing more swiftly than they already have, said Morgan Lommele, e-bike campaigns manager for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and PeopleForBikes Coalition.

“We need safer places to ride,” said Lommele, whose organization is based in Boulder, Colo. “We need protected bike infrastructure, more protected bike lanes — comfortable convenient places to ride.”

And that’s happening, she said, with bike infrastructure more commonly incorporated into project developments — just not as fast as bike advocates might prefer.

But Lommele, who plays a lead role in advocating for e-bikes in state legislatures around the country including Washington’s, sees sales continue to grow. E-bike sales at independent bicycle retailers were up 70 percent this year compared with the same 12-month period last year, she said, though the segment is believed to be a low single-digit percentage of overall bike sales in the U.S.

“I don’t see the growth of e-bikes slowing down in the next five years,” she said.

John MacArthur is a believer in that statement.

MacArthur, a researcher associate in Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center, was the lead investigator for a study published in March: “A North American Survey of Electric Bicycle Owners.” The study, conducted with University of Tennessee researchers, was based on responses of 1,796 people to survey questions in 2017, compared with findings of a similar survey in 2013.

“Through our work, we’ve seen e-bikes break down barriers for cycling,” MacArthur said. “Particularly people of working age … people (interviewed in the survey) who commuted by e-bike were commuting up to an average of 9 miles. Before e-bikes, 5 miles had been arbitrary wall to cycling for commuters.”

In 2007, the average daily traffic on the Interstate 5 Bridge was 126,600 vehicles; by 2017, it had increased by 4.5 percent, to 132,300 vehicles, says the Oregon Department of Transportation. The Interstate 205 Bridge carried 139,600 vehicles in 2007 and 157,600 vehicles in 2017, a nearly 13 percent increase. Nearly 70,000 Washington residents pay Oregon income tax and only a fraction are stay-at-home workers. No one expects those numbers to go down.

Herrigstad, the east Vancouver resident who works near OHSU, has done the math.

“It works for me,” he said. “I was tired of the driving commute. With the e-bike, it takes me a little longer to get to work, but I feel good about not driving and it saves a lot of gas.”

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