Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

(Still) tired of mis-understanding of the potential for e-bikes

Updated: because (1) I came across an article ("Riide - Gift Guide") on the founders of the Riide e-bike  in the GW Magazine for alumni, which has a quote worth citing and mentions the cost of the bikes as about $2,000, when I said the typical cost for an e-bike is double that; (2) plus my earlier point in the comment thread about aging cyclists as another market segment.

From the article:
Sweat—lots of it—dampening summer styles and spirits, drip by drip. It's one of the chief obstacles D.C. commuters name when it comes to biking to work, says Amber Wason, BBA '07. With an eye toward easing the effects of the heat and humidty on bikers, she and Jeff Stefanis co-founded Riide, a company that makes a sustainable, single-speed electric bike.

It has the effect, she says, of "flattening the city."
I love the line "flattening the city." It's brilliant.

But unfortunately as discussed below, they miss the point of where "the city needs help becoming flat."

In the core of the city it's already flat and an e-bike doesn't make it any flatter. It's places farther from the core and in hilly areas and for older people, where "flattening assistance" becomes the killer app.

That being said, the Riide bike is attractively designed, especially in how they integrate the battery apparatus into the frame.

Yesterday's Post has an article ("Are electric bikes the wheels of the future or just the new Segways?") about e-bikes above the fold in the Style section.  It's about how some local entrepreneurs have created an e-bike, which can go up to 20 mph, and you can "cycle" without getting sweaty.

I heard a presentation by one of the principals a couple years ago, and my sense then was that they didn't have a good sense about mobility as a market and that they were focused on alternatives to the car, rather than on mobility technologies and products that are most appropriate for "center city applications."

Sweat seemed like the biggest point of differentiation for him--riding a bike gets you sweaty.  Using a e-bike, since you don't have to pedal, means you won't sweat.

He was thinking of e-bikes capturing trips by people who normally drive a motor vehicle.  But most trips in the city center made by residents are not performed by car.

Sweat isn't the deal-killer for transportational biking.  Even in DC, where it is hot and humid from about June 15th to September 15th, sweating isn't an issue much of the time when you cycle.

There is a place for e-bikes in cycling for transportation.  But I don't think it is for short trips in a city's core, especially at 20 mph.

It's for trips in places that are hilly, for longer distance trips, and for medium distance trips that some people are willing to cycle by traditional means but others won't.

Five years ago, when I came across a series of articles, "The parable of the electric bike" on e-bikes by Alan During of the Sightline Institute, I wrote this:
I don't think electric bikes will save the world. I do think that they can make bicycle commuting much more attractive to larger segments of the population. Maybe, over time, it could lead to as much as 10% of work trips by bicycle, or more. And that would be a significant contribution.
The Sightline articles discuss whether or not the electric bike will take off, why they are more efficient than electric cars, and whether or not they should be subsidized as electric cars have been (he argues no).

The Segway comparison.  The Post article compares the e-bike featured in the story to the Segway, which didn't live up to the hype that was made about the product.  Instead of transforming transportation, the Segway is mostly used to patrol campuses and large buildings like malls and airports, and in more narrow applications, such as tours for tourists.

But the Post journalist doesn't get why the Segway failed.  It was because it was a product in search of a problem--which I argue is the same issue for e-bikes in urban cores ("A Lesson in Innovation – Why did the Segway Fail").

The people most likely to travel on trips of the distances for which a Segway is seemingly efficient--pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users--didn't see much benefit from changing. Not to mention the cost--today a Segway can be bought for about $6,500.

For motor vehicle operators, while a Segway is a lot cheaper than a car, it fails to satisfy most of the demands for trips a typical user satisfies by car, including protection from the elements.

Hills.  Most cities are flat in their cores (topography and proximity to rivers and ports being the primary reasons for cities locating where they did).  For example, the core of DC is pretty flat.  The fall line starts around W Street and the hills can be pretty steep.  Riding home can be difficult.  Some people find hills they don't mind riding (e.g. Georgia Avenue or 14th Street vs. 13th Street or 15th Street or 16th Street), others may choose not to ride.

But if you could get a boost from an electric motor up one or more hills, that might make the difference between choosing to cycle regularly as your primary mode of transportation.

Long distances.  I am willing to ride 10 to 15 miles to get somewhere, and budget time accordingly. Beyond that distance, it takes too long to cycle, at least for me, because I am not a fast rider.  An e-bike could be the difference from commuting to Downtown DC from White Flint or Rockville vs. taking public transit.

When I was still involved in bike and pedestrian planning in Baltimore County, the Baltimore Sun ran a story ("Electric bicycle gives commuter a boost on 22-mile way to work") about someone using an e-bike for a 22-mile commute.

Trips of such distances are when being able to ride 20 mph, and not having to stop every few blocks at a stop sign or traffic signal, makes a big difference. But I do wonder how much of the time is spent pedaling the bike vs. riding the bike as it is propelled by its electric motor--a big reason why I cycle is for the health benefits of exercise.  You lose that with e-biking.

Medium distance.  While I am willing to ride 10+ miles for a single trip, most people aren't.  While about 51% of all trips in the United States are 3 miles or less--an easy distance on a traditional bike--13% of trips are 3 to 5 miles, which is a distance that seems long to many, so they drive rather than bike.

Having the option of an e-bike could be the difference for a larger segment of people being willing to cycle for transportation.

People less willing to cycle more generally.  And while I haven't tested this empirically, I think it might be possible to coax people onto an e-bike when they may be less willing to cycle more generally. Maybe.

[This section has been added.] Enabling cycling as you age/biking for senior citizens.  In one of my pieces about the outer city as suburban in mobility paradigm ("DC as a  suburban agenda dominated city") I made the comment about how sustainable mobility is possible in the outer city based on the experience of my own household.  We live eight-tenths of a mile from a Metro station and about 3 blocks from a bus stop--during morning and evening rush the bus goes Downtown, outside of rush it travels between the Petworth and Takoma Metrorail stations.

I cycle for most trips, including grocery shopping.  Suzanne and I walk and Suzanne uses transit to get to and from work.  We also use car share (both one-way and two-way) and occasionally rent cars.

In a comment on my piece on a listserv in Chevy Chase, the mobility lifestyle I describe was said to be achievable only by younger people.  The woman who said so is a couple years younger than I.

Seniors on a tandem, folding bike, Capitol HillWhile I do think that it will be harder to do this as I age because of the uphill climb from Downtown and the hills around where we live, e-biking could be a way towards maintaining cycling as a primary form of transportation as we age.

cf. (from other blog entries) For example, working with senior centers and retirement communities could increase biking activity by seniors.  The Ateaze Senior Center in Baltimore County has a serious biking club ("Seniors redefine a life cycle," Baltimore Sun).  Retirees in the Blue Bell community in Greater Philadelphia created the "Old Spokes" club which holds rides every couple weeks in area parks ("Freewheelers The Old Spokes, members of a bicycling club, venture from their retirement community to cruise the region's byways," Philadelphia Inquirer).

Caveat: cost.  You can buy a new city bike for $400 or less (of course you can spend a lot more too). Electric bikes cost ten times that, around $2,000 and up, although kits to add a motor to an existing bike can be purchased for much less.

The Riide people featured in the article are leasing the bikes to people for $79/month.  While that is potentially worth it for long distance cycling, it's a waste of money compared to the cost of a traditional bike capable of satisfying the biking needs of the typical city resident.

Bike share as a cost-efficient alternative.  One month's e-bike rental is almost the same cost as a year's membership in bike share.  For residents in the core, a bike share membership is a great way to add biking to their portfolio of trip options without having to own a bike.

Caveat:  weight and parking.  E-bikes are heavier than regular bikes, weighing between 50 and 60 pounds versus less than 20 pounds for a traditional bicycle.

Depending on where you live and where you park your bike, this can be a problem, if you have to take the bike inside your house or apartment in order to park.  Plus, many multiunit buildings provide bike parking that is insecure--while it sucks to have your $400 bike stolen, it would really suck to have your $4,000 bike stolen.

Marketing.  The reason that I think e-bikes have failed to take off in the market segments where they make the most sense is because of a failure to market e-bikes appropriately.

In marketing, textbooks always cover the "4 P's of marketing"--product, promotion, price, and place.

Product:  as discussed above, for the transportation need most typically suggested, short in-city trips, e-bikes are "overengineered."

Promotion:  E-bikes are being marketed for in-city use when in most cases, for trips up to 5 miles in mostly flat places, e-bikes are overkill

Price.  Compared to alternatives--owning a bike or using bike share, the price for an ebike is significantly higher. A lease cuts the monthly cost, but it is still financial overkill to use an e-bike to accomplish trips in the core.

Place is where the product is sold.  E-bikes are most likely to be useful in the suburbs.  Most e-bike shops end up being opened in city cores.  Many urban e-bike shops have failed, such as an e-bike shop in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, which got some start up funding from the Abell Foundation.  That's because they are not located proximate to their "natural" base of customers.

To be successful, e-bike shops ought to be placed in suburban centers--e.g., in the DC region in places like Rockville/White Flint, Reston, Tysons Corner--where trip characteristics are more likely to be congruent with the advantages of e-bikes over human-powered bicycles.

For example, there is a bike shop in Takoma Park, Maryland, The Green Commuter, which focuses on e-bikes and it has been open for more than 5 years.  That being said, I have seen an e-bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC only once, and I can't say I see a lot of people on electric bikes, even though I live within a couple miles of this store.

Conclusion.  Despite the arguments above, there's likely to be a niche segment of the mobility market in the city where the Riide bikes will satisfy their needs, and that's fine.  But it won't change the world or even the city.

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At 8:58 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

All your points are valid, and e-bikes will probably be a bigger hit in the suburbs rather than the central city.

I did dream about one when when riding into Foggy Bottom from Rosslyn.

A city e-bike would need a lot less range and a boost for only a few minutes. I doubt there is much a profit in selling that bike.

And yes, sweating can be controlled by slowing down. But please tell that to WABA and their demand for workplace showers.

the storage/cost/theft issue alone seems to kill them for the city. We had to sell our personal bikes this year -- no storage in the new place, I can't keep them inside for space issues, and we've had 10 bikes stolen in the past year.

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Mike Licht said...

In Manhattan, most eBikes are used for delivery of Chinese food.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt selling your bikes, that sucks. And yes, if you're in the core, especially in NYC, bike share is great in terms of offloading the costs of parking and security.

One of the ideas I've proposed -- think of Park Road between 14th and 16th St. in Columbia Heights, lined with apartment buildings, lots of bikes locked up to fences, no underground storage/parking -- is "community-based secure bike parking storage" underground, accessible by an above-ground kiosk, using the Biceberg technology from Spain.

The one problem is that only one person can use it at a time and I don't know how long it takes for a bike to be retrieved. But it can store up to 92 bikes.

I used to think bike plans from firms like Toole Design and Alta were great, but they never discuss issues such as these. And they definitely don't offer solutions and suggest pilots. At the very least, such plans need to reference global best practice in order to begin to outline a path towards better practice. They don't, so we don't move forward very fast, except on infrastructure--street-based cycle paths etc.--but not support facilities like parking and access to air.

I tried to push this for a new park in the area by The Wharf and at the Eastern Market Metro, but in the former case they weren't interested and in the latter case, there are too many different stakeholders and a lack of sector-based sub-city approaches to systematic TDM improvements.

2. wrt "showers" while I don't think we need them in every building, I do see the value for having access to them in "activity center" districts.

However, ideally, you could make special arrangements for bike commuter only memberships in health clubs and such.

I was looking at the price for an annual membership at a bike center out west, and they vary in price depending on whether or not you want regular towel service and/or a locker in addition to the base membership of secure bike parking and shower access.

That's $100 for base yearly membership, $50 more for a locker, and $150 more for towel service, so $300 for everything.

I think the need varies, depending on how far you're biking. Morning trips under 5 or 6 miles won't usually need a shower. Longer trips could. And sweaty rides back home, well, that doesn't matter either.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ah, yes, I think I've mentioned e-bikes as delivery devices, but yes, in Manhattan especially storing and protecting an e-bike as a regular cyclist not as a delivery person, would be an even more pronounced problem than it is in DC.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Mike Licht said...

What's odd about the NYC food deliveries is that eBikes are illegal in the the Big Apple:

Nevertheless, the Mai Fun must go through.

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen them in Arlington and in other places. Hate to be judgemental, but the cohort I've witnessed is likely to not have drivers licenses due to too many DUIs.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... a whole other market segment I hadn't considered. Riding a bike inebriated isn't a cakewalk. And going 20mph on an e-bike could be just as catastrophic as driving a car if you're not in control of your faculties.

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I forgot to mention another potential market segment being people as they age.

Interestingly, a couple years ago in some posts about the outer city being suburban in orientation, I wrote about a multi-modal sustainable transportation scenario (walk, bike, car sharing, transit) and someone on an elist in Chevy Chase wrote about how that was only possible for "younger people." It happens she's a couple years younger than I. I thought that was pretty funny.

In any case, as people age, e-bikes might help keep them biking (although so can tandems).

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WRT to post@ 8:53, I think the point is you don't need a license to operate one, and you still have the relative independence of not being tethered to a transit schedule or dependent on other people. Yes, 20mph on an e-bike could be catastrophic, but primarily to the e-biker and less so to others, cyclists and pedestrians excepted.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger mattxmal said...

Thank you for the summary. One more potential market segment is larger cargo-bikes for transporting multiple children.

Also, in support of your point, when already committed cyclists get an e-bike, they extend their trips or take more of them:

At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Thanks for both points. I do see a couple cargo bike users moving children in the Capitol Hill area and on the Met. Branch Trail. Cargo assist would definitely be a great boon with e-biking.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Suggests that quality e-bikes could replace a second car.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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