Atlantic Cities

In Defense of the Electric Bicycle, from the Bottom of a Steep Hill in San Francisco

In Defense of the Electric Bicycle, from the Bottom of a Steep Hill in San Francisco
Ohm Sport

Make no mistake, San Francisco loves bicycles. There's been a 71 percent increase in cycling (yes, 71 percent!) in the last five years in this city. Add in the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's "Connecting the City" project, which will provide miles of new bike lanes in the near future, a five-fold increase in bike rentals, and a long-awaited bike-sharing program launching this summer and you’ve got a city made for cycling, except for one thing  …

This:

One of many daunting hills in San Francisco (this one on Dolores Street). (Photo by Allison Arieff)

Most people cite safety concerns—and rightfully so—as the number one impediment to them getting on a bike. But in San Francisco, there’s another major obstacle standing in the way: With few exceptions, there are hardly any ways through our fair city that don’t involve considerable inclines (and the quads to tackle them).

If you're only after exercise, this dilemma is easily addressed. There are amazing bike paths in the city and gorgeous trails just a few miles north, south and east, many of which err on the side of sloping rather than slalom and offer unparalleled views of the Bay Area's natural beauty.

But exercise is just one reason of many to get on a bike. And for anyone who's serious about converting to cycling as a main mode of transport, the truth is those hills aren’t going anywhere. For those of us on the far ends of the 8 to 80 spectrum that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition identifies as its constituency, that’s a real issue.

There exists now a terrific solution, however, one that seems to magically erase even the steepest of San Francisco hills as you approach them. Behold, the electric bike:

A happy customer. (Image courtesy The New Wheel)

There’s long been stigma attached to electric bikes. As Brett Thurber of San Francisco's The New Wheel explains, “The first generation electric bikes were more like mopeds than bicycles and they featured components of the lowest quality to make up for the expense of batteries and motors," he says. "If you appreciated the simplicity and elegance of a bicycle, you probably weren't going to appreciate a two-wheeler with limited reliability that was difficult to pedal and had non-standard bike parts.”

Those first generation electric bikes are still around today, and still garner the same scorn (and, explains Thurber, “The companies that sell them even invite the scorn with ad lines such as ‘cheating never felt so good,'"). But the latest electric bikes sold by retailers like Thurber and his partner Karen Wiener at their new store in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, are not only nice to look at, they're easy to operate, simple to maintain, and feature premium components. “When people see these bikes and try them out they are totally blown away,” he says. (The shop, located on Cortland Avenue, Bernal's bustling shopping street, also sells kids bikes and runs a bike shop that fixes both electric and non-electric models.)

Brett Thurber and Karen Wiener, proprietors of The New Wheel in San Francisco. (Image courtesy The New Wheel)

I’d have to agree. Recently, my friend Kirsten and I took a test ride on several different models on inclines we’d never have attempted on a regular bike. We felt like superheroes. We both live on ridiculously steep hills on the southern tip of San Francisco, and we’d long resigned ourselves to not biking around town—until now. An electric bike looks just like a "real" bike and feels like one, too. It is not a moped. There's a wide range of options available from fold-up commuter bikes to slick models that bear an awfully close resemblance to "fixies." There is no learning curve, no special new skills to learn. You shift gears when you approach a steep hill, just as you would on a non-electric bike, and seamlessly you find yourself flying (or what feels like flying) right up almost effortlessly.

The bikes aren’t cheap—approximately $2,000 and up (you can also buy a kit to trick out your existing bike for around $1,700)—but relative to car ownership? No contest. An electric bike offers up the promise of getting around town without worrying about parking, traffic, the expense of ownership (not to mention fuel) and/or waiting around for the city’s notoriously unreliable MUNI buses. And as Brett points out, for most countries bicycles are for transportation, not sport or leisure.

“In places with a large bicycle culture people ride because it is the most practical, economical, and enjoyable way to get around,” explains Thurber. “What an electric bike does is make a place like San Francisco flat, like Copenhagen.”

“Exercise,” he continues, ”Is just a happy byproduct of riding an electric bike.”

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

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