As every Angeleno knows, transportation around our large and complex metro area can be challenging, with most of us defaulting to cars because other options often seem scarce, unsafe or otherwise less than ideal, even for short trips.
But while the city has been widening its public transportation system in recent years, to help get people out of their cars and off the too-crowded streets, it has also been looking at other modes of transport, including more personal mobility devices – like scooters, bikes and electric bikes (often called e-bikes) – to help with short trips and, especially, “first mile/last mile” connections to public transportation.
Back in March, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council held a town hall meeting focusing specifically on e-bikes as a means of urban transport, and what role they can play in our overall transportation system. With a number of transportation issues popping up locally in the last few weeks, we thought it would be a good time to catch up with this discussion.
The event was moderated by the GWNC’s Transportation Committee Chair, Conrad Starr, and included six panelists with different perspectives on e-bikes as a mode of transport:
Lindsay Sturman – Larchmont Village resident, e-bike owner, and host of the Bike Talk podcast
Marcel Porras – Chief Sustainability Officer of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation
Adam Long – Representing the Cero Bike e-bike company
Josh Cohen – A personal injury attorney with Cohen Law Partners, who specializes in cases involving injuries to cyclists and is himself an avid e-biker
Sean Eckard – Representing the Bike Keep company, which makes and sells secure bike storage systems
Madeline Brozen – Program Manager, UCLA Complete Streets Initiative, and the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA
Starr opened the program by asking, “Why e-bikes?” and noting that while some people may still think of them as a novelty, their use is rising quickly and they are now “more than just an exploding hoverboard type fad.”
Bike Talk’s Sturman then provided a more detailed introduction, saying our current urban problems seem to break down into five major categories, including housing, poverty, health, the human cost of these problems, and climate change.
And Sturman argued that e-bikes are uniquely positioned to help with all of these issues.
For example, Sturman noted that housing is prohibitively expensive for many city residents, especially where people want to live near jobs and public transportation. But Sturman said part of the reason housing is so expensive, and new housing, in particular, is so expensive to build (and then to rent or sell) is that we require builders to add parking spaces for each new unit, which increases building costs. And those costs are later passed down to owners and renters. But Sturman said that eliminating parking requirements (as is currently proposed by the state-level bill AB 1401), and helping people rely on alternate modes of transport – such as e-bikes – could significantly reduce housing costs.
Likewise, Sturman said, automotive traffic pollutes not only through tailpipe emissions, but also via rubber particles released into the air via vehicle tires. And both of those kinds of pollution, which now affect people who live nearest heavily traveled road and freeways, and who are often also the city’s poorest residents, would likewise be reduced with fewer cars on the road and more people using devices such as e-bikes. If the U.S. could encourage people to make 30% of their trips on bicycles – as the Netherlands has done – Sturman suggested we could save as much as $400 billion per year on health care.
Next, according to Sturman, 50% of all trips made by people in Los Angeles are of less than one mile, while 50% of all trips are less than five miles. And e-bikes would be ideal for trips of those lengths. They would also be especially helpful for short work commutes of 2-3 miles – which would be a comfortable distance for many people to bike to work if they didn’t have to get sweaty by riding a traditional bicycle. And biking to work or school would also provide healthy exercise for both kids and adults – another positive outcome.
Of course, Sturman acknowledged, one big reason people don’t bike more in Los Angeles – with either traditional bikes or e-bikes – is that they don’t feel safe on our crowded streets. But she said the city could solve that problem by building a huge network of protected bike lanes for the cost of just a single new freeway interchange.
City Support for E-Bikes
Next, Metro’s Marcel Porras reported that Metrol is firmly committed to e-bikes, and noted that Metro’se-bike sharing program is the only such city-run program in the country, and that Metro’s e-bikes are used more than eight times as often as its regular shared bicycles. (In fact, he said, some people will use a standard bike to get to an available e-bike if there isn’t one nearby.) Porras also said Metro has learned that older adults, women, and less athletic people all tend to be more comfortable on e-bikes than on standard bikes, though he did note that the growth in e-bike use is still more modest than the growth in the use of electric scooters, which have really taken off, especially with younger users.
According to Porras, the city wants to help provide alternatives to car travel, and the more people ride bikes, e-bikes and scooters, the safer our streets will be…not only because of the reduction in car traffic, but also because the fees the city collects from scooters are being used to fund new scooter and bike infrastructure, such as the new 7th Street corridor cycle track downtown.
Porras noted that there are still equity issues with e-bikes and scooters, however, and that scooter companies have moved away from serving low income area in recent months. To make up for this, he said the city is exploring an e-bike lending program, in which bikes could be delivered to people in underserved areas.
Types of E-Bikes
Finally among the first round of presenters, Cero Bike’s Adam Long explained that there are many different types of e-bikes, for all kinds of riders and uses, including cargo bikes (for deliveries or people who just need to carry things), smaller bikes for smaller people, and bikes made for kids to ride with their parents.
Long said e-bikes, like regular bikes, provide a “more personal” way to experience the city, and riders have the option of turning off the motor if/when they’d prefer a more standard biking experience, or more exercise. But for those who might not want to be that “hard core,” he said, the motor makes bike transport a lot more accessible for a lot more people.
But Long, too, acknowledged that many people still won’t feel safe biking on our streets. And in addition, he said, we also need to provide safe parking spaces for e-bikes (which are considerably more expensive than regular bikes and thus harder to replace if stolen), as well as a good rebate program to help with affordability.
Following the initial presentations at the town hall event, the panelists moved into a larger round table discussion, with the participants introducing themselves and their connections to e-bike issues, and the responding to specific questions posed by Starr.
The first to introduce himself was Josh Cohen, an attorney who lives in Los Feliz, has an office near Wilshire and Highland, and also takes his daughter to preschool in Atwater Village every day. Cohen said he used to drive that route every day, but then discovered it was both faster and more fun riding from the Atwater preschool to his Hancock Park office on his e-bike (which he puts on the back of his car for the short drive from home to his daughter’s preschool).
Madeline Brozen, who works for the UCLA Complete Streets Initiative, said she is particularly involved with issues of gender and transportation, barriers to various kinds of transportation, and the identification of specific tools that can help make systems work better for people. And she said that – as Cohen discovered – e-bikes seem to be a good way to blend pleasure and transit for many people. She lauded Metro’s e-bike program as a great way to give people a taste of the e-bike experience, and said e-bikes have even prompted a better mix of genders at events like Ciclavia, because more people feel safer on e-bikes than on traditional bicycles.
Sean Eckard, representing the Bike Keep storage company, acknowledged that e-bikes are expensive, but said companies like his are providing new products to provide safe parking and storage options, especially near transit, so people feel safer leaving their bikes at transit stations and using public transit, without having to bring their bikes on trains and buses.
After the introductions, Starr’s first question for the group was how apartment buildings are handling e-bike storage and charging, but Eckard said that while developers are now providing regular bike parking, and chargers for electric cars, they have not really started including e-bike chargers in their buildings.
Meanwhile, Brozen said that she has been studying various groups of people and their unmet transportation needs, and acknowledged that e-bikes are not yet part of the our current paradigm, which is built around car ownership. She suggested, however, that public/private partnerships could help in this area, similar to car-sharing programs that have been established at some affordable housing developments. She suggested that something similar, leveraging private investment, could be done for e-bike parking and charging, only open to everyone, not just residents of a specific building.
Starr next raised the question of e-bike safety.
Cohen said that anyone who has biked in Los Angeles knows the roads are “problematic.” As a lawyer who specifically represents cyclists who are victims of accidents, he said he has heard many horror stories. Personally, he said he has learned that fat bike tires are definitely the safest for urban riding, because they more easily bounce off obstructions (such as expansion joints in the road) that could send bikes with thinner tire flying. Cohen said he also prefers bike fra,es that are particularly sturdy, even if they are more expensive, for similar reasons. But Cohen also noted that most people’s homeowners’ insurance does cover bicycle theft, and uninsured motorist coverage on people’s cars also helps to protect people who may be injured while biking (or on foot), and that it covers both medical bills and lost wages. That said, however, Cohen said bikers definitely do need some kind of insurance, and even those who don’t own their own cars can get a non-operations policy, which will cover them if they are hit by someone else’s car.
On the question of how different e-bikes may differ from one another, Long explained that there are two different classes of e-bikes. One, which goes up to 20 mph, requires the rider to pedal to receive an assist from the electric motor, and the other, which goes up to 28 mph, has a throttle and does not require pedaling. Long said these Class 1 bikes are legal almost everywhere (except the Santa Monic beach bike path), but Class 2 e-bikes, which are faster and don’t require pedaling, can be ridden on streets only. Also, according to Long, some e-bikes have a “mid-drive” motor, located between the bike’s pedals, which runs very smoothly, while others have a motor in the rear wheel hub. Those models, he said, are more affordable, but don’t run quite as smoothly.
Starr asked how the various panelists chose their own e-bikes, and Brozen said she purchased her first e-bike – a cargo bike she uses for grocery shopping – from a friend who was selling it. But she said her family soon got a second, less expensive, bike, too, which opened up more opportunities for recreational biking.
Long recommended that everyone test a bike they’re considering buying, and said most e-bike shops and companies do allow that. Cohen agreed, and noted that he likes to test bikes by riding down stairs. He also noted that e-bikes bikes can really open up biking for people who aren’t in the best physical shape, noting that even though he has had hip surgery, he has no pain when riding an e-bike…and that he rides so much now, he actually turned in his car to buy a second e-bike.
Starr said he was attracted to that last point, noting that he still currently rides a standard bike, but likes the idea that as he gets older, there is another option. He did note, though, that e-bikes are heavier than standard bikes, so older people and those who live in apartments might find that less quality less optimal.