E-bikes picking up speed in Seattle

By Alex Cnossen
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By Alex Cnossen

Given Seattle’s affinity for tech, its traffic issues, and its hilly terrain, so-called "e-bikes" – which contain a battery and can make strenuous hills seem to disappear – would seem like a natural fit for commuters. So why aren’t they all over town? If Seattle’s $18 million bike share expansion plan is approved later this year, we just might.

The expansion – which hinges on the approval of a federal grant application by US Department of Transportation – would introduce up to 2,000 new bikes into Pronto Cycle Share’s fleet. According to Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly, at least half would be e-bikes, and “maybe all the way up to 100 percent.”

If approved, the grant would fund up to 200 additional Pronto bike stations. Pronto currently has 50 stations and 500 road bikes spread across the city. For e-bike commuter Greg Tuke, this is a step in the right direction. The University of Washington faculty member rides from his Greenlake apartment to the University’s Bothell campus three or four times a week.

On his e-bike, it’s a 45-minute commute. By car, it can take up to an hour.

“There are few things I’m a zealot about, but I would say e-bikes is one of them,” Tuke says. “They’re incredibly healthy, environmentally sound, they’re really efficient, they’re really low cost…What else do you want out of a means of transportation?”

Tuke’s been riding road bikes since college. But after a family trip to Amsterdam, his interest in e-biking grew.

“You would see 80-year-old grandmothers on these bikes, zipping along the rural roads of Amsterdam,” Tuke says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if we could get something like that here in the states?’”

He had already tried riding his road bike to work but getting sweaty was a problem. He also tried a scooter. It got him around quicker, but it felt dangerous, especially at night. So he rides his e-bike – and he’s never going back.

When it was first released, the e-bike was a flop. Internal combustion engines fitted to a bicycle’s tank would take a rider much further than a heavy battery-powered bike.

But advances in technology in the 1980s and early 90s breathed new life into the idea. Lighter batteries, smaller electronic parts, and better torque sensors helped usher in a new era of non-strenuous biking – a godsend for many crowded European and Asian cities. Though Americans have been slow on the uptake, many major U.S cities are beginning to see potential benefits – e-bikes are small, cheap and environmentally friendly.

The trick, Kubly says, is engaging with people of all ages and abilities. "Bike share systems are really good for getting people of all ages and abilities on bikes,” he says. “One of the challenges you have here in Seattle is that it’s so hilly that it makes it harder for folks who are casual bikers to get in the habit of riding a bike.”

According to Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest owner David Johnson, public preconceptions toward e-bikes are its biggest challenge. Most people think of biking as a sport or a form of exercise, he says, and it's "not thought of as transportation." Additionally, he says there is a lack of support and infrastructure for e-bikes in Seattle.

“A lot of my customers commute downtown and there’s no bike parking, nowhere to lock up a bike safely,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s owned his Ballard bike shop since 2012. He’s been commuting there from his West Seattle home for the past six years. His 2012 Stromer, a 62-pound, 500-watt e-bike, covers the 13-mile ride in about an hour.

Over the years, he’s watched sales at his store steadily increase, and expanded his inventory. In the past, his customers have been older or people with physical limitations. But technology - once again – is changing the face of e-bikes. “We’re getting younger people in here with new technology," Johnson says. "If someone steals (the e-bike), you can disable the bike and track it from anywhere (with your phone). A lot of families now are starting to think about an electric bike instead of a second car.”

The modern e-bike began to take shape roughly 10 years ago, borrowing heavily from a 1980 prototype from an Austrian company called Schachner. It featured a 16 Ah battery, boasting a range of four to thirteen miles. The first rechargeable lithium-ion battery was introduced in 1991. It revolutionized the field, decreasing the weight of most e-bikes and increasing their range to about 20 to 30 miles per charge. Johnson says many new e-bikes will get 60 miles or more per charge.

Today, companies such as Trek, Bosh, Felt and Specialized are still pushing the e-bike envelope, driving interest through innovative technology and creative e-bike designs. The city hasn’t identified a specific e-bike manufacturer they would use if the TIGER grant goes through. Kubly says that the department’s decision will be based in focus groups and customer surveys.

USDOT will announce its decision on the grant application as early as late September. Assuming they get the grant, SDOT will launch the expansion early next year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alex Cnossen

Alex Cnossen

Alex Cnossen is a Northwest native and has worked for several local publications, including KOMO, KIRO and KING-TV. He grew up in Portland and loves to run and write. Follow him on Twitter @CnossenAlex. You can also keep in touch via email at alex.cnossen@gmail.com.