At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.
I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.
There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.
San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.
Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.
Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.
So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people. Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.