Why I sold my car for an eBike, part 2

It’s been a year since I sold my 2005 Mini Cooper and bought a Kalkhoff ebike. So how has it been? I’ve put somewhere in the range of 2,600–3,000 miles on it, had a few crappy moments… but on the whole, I’m really happy with my decision to sell the car and get the bike.

What’s working?
What I’d written in my initial 2 month report stands true; getting around San Francisco via ebike is a delightful, stress free way to travel. It’s a markedly different experience from anything else I’ve tried. You have the freedom to go anywhere in the city, without the sweat of a hard bike ride, or the frustrations of parking a regular vehicle. I’m reminded every day in little moments why I like riding:

Car icon designed by Jule Steffen & Matthias Schmidt,
composition designed by yours truly ;)
  1. Bypassing the line of cars stuck in traffic- I never get tired of this feeling. It happens every. single. day. City traffic is all to often caused by one car impeding the flow (usually they are trying to park, or turning the corner and waiting for pedestrians to pass) and a line of cars build up waiting behind this one car’s inability to move out of the way. While some drivers clench the steering wheel with white knuckles, or let out an angry honk, I just cruise up, and bypass the whole mess in the space between, and just keep moving. This activity alone is pretty satisfying, and I think its probably the root of a lot of frustration for drivers. As a result, I never get stuck in traffic.
  2. Keeping a consistent 15–20mph pace- Because I’m not having to stop from traffic as much, I can keep a decent pace through most of the ride. Obviously you have to stop at lights, but because I’m not dealing with traffic, I’m getting around pretty quick. There hasn’t been a single time I didn’t make a light because traffic got in the way.
  3. Enjoying the views- You may not realize it, but in a car you’re view is limited by the structure of the car. On a bike you have a much better range of vision, and on an ebike you’re not afraid to ride up a hill just to get a nice view. I feel like I’ve discovered more of the city as a result, I’ve cruised through the Presidio ‘just because it was a nice day’, ridden to the top of Bernal Heights; or cruised through Chinatown just for the sake of wandering. I’m regularly riding up 17th street because it’s the shortest way to make it home from downtown, and I can’t help but get a kick out of the people who occasionally cheer for me as I go. It’s yet another reason why I love it.
  4. Parking is not an issue- This has been demonstrated time and time again as a real benefit. I just roll up to my destination, find the nearest parking meter or bike lot, and lock it down with a simple ulock. I use Pitlocks on the wheels and seat, and haven’t had anything stolen off of the bike. One time I parked it in a not-so-great part of town, and someone tried to break the battery off, but failed. Also- Parking is Free.
  5. It’s drastically cheaper than owning a car- I had initially estimated that the cost of owning an eBike was 20x cheaper than owning a car, (after estimating $200 spent on bike services) but after a full year, I can give a more accurate analysis. It’s more like 5x-10x* cheaper on overall costs , when you factor in services and bike repairs. But the biggest point of contrast is still fuel costs, it’s actually 50x cheaper on fuel.

Here’s my cost breakdown:

One thing you notice right off the bat- I did get one massive ticket for riding at less than 7mph through an intersection when it was ‘pedestrians only’, (I wrote an article about it which you can read about here). Even when you take that ticket into account, I still spent less on all my modes of transport around the Bay Area this year than just the cost of gas in my old Mini Cooper the year before. The thing that I found most surprising about the costs last year was just how small my fuel costs were. $24 for the entire year of fuel. I actually had a hard time calculating it because I didn’t see an increase in my electricity bill. Enlisting the help of some engineer friends, we calculated that the cost came to 11¢ per battery recharge, which is almost laughable compared to any other form of transit. I can get anywhere in the city for less than 4¢. Consider that next time you consider $2.25 for public transit in SF, or the $14 Uber ride.

The shifts I had in this past year:

  1. For a brief time, I actually got paid to ride- Early in the year I decided to try out being a Task Rabbit, and having an ebike as my mode of transit made it possible for me to do a lot of odd-job things, mostly deliveries. I got pretty good at it because I could get around the city fast, I was soon elected as a Task Rabbit Elite with a wage bump and more regular gigs. I didn’t mind the work, sometimes it was actually really nice to show up at someone’s door with a present for them from friends, but it certainly doesn’t pay compared to my regular design work.
  2. Used Public Transit less- On average, I spent $10 a month on public transit, compared to $35–$45 a month the year before. While its not a great experience getting my bike on the CalTrain and BART, but I’ve done it to visit friends in the suburbs, and I enjoyed riding my bike around their neighborhoods. It felt pretty cool to be able to just cruise around Oakland, I really got a better sense of it by riding my bike around.
  3. Renting Cars, using Uber+Lyft- My Ebike doesn’t cover every trip, so on occassion I used alternate forms of transit. There were two times I rented a car (when in LA for a wedding, and to do a weekend getaway to Big Sur). I did a handful of trips to Yosemite, but I was able to carpool with friends. As for Uber+Lyft, I’ve used both once, but I much preferred riding my bike. For the sheer cost alone I do it, but there’s experiencial factors that give them some merit: i.e. out on a date, or with a bunch of friends. For the most part though, I stuck to riding my bike, and just dealing with the consequence that I couldn’t offer a ride.

What have been the downsides?

I’d be lying if I said it was all roses, there’s been a few problems:

  1. Getting rained on- Its a reality when you’re exposed, but packing a rain jacket mitigates most issues. One time it rained so hard I was just soaked through, but in 365 days, one really bad rain day isn’t so bad. I’ll take that over the guaranteed hassle of the DMV, Parking Tickets, Traffic and searching for parking.
  2. Flat tires- Unfortunately, SF has some pretty lousy roads. In the past year, I’ve had 3 flat tires, two from running over broken glass, and another from running over a sharp screw that was sitting on its head (imagine an oversized thumb tac with threading). I think the problem is that the city street cleaners don’t do a great job of cleaning the sides of the road where a bike often is relegated to riding. I’m also going to have to have the rear wheel rebuilt after hitting a ridiculously large pothole. To compensate, I’ve bought inner tube liners and an extra beefy rear tire.
  3. No passengers- One real advantage cars and motorbikes still have over my ebike is the ability to carry passengers. While there are a few ebikes on the market who can carry a passenger, they are quite large, like SUV’s of bikes, and I’m not that interested in having that big of a bike. Frankly, carrying another passenger is only an occasional need, a larger bike would mean it would be trickier to get my bike up stairs, in elevators, etc; but it sure would be nice if I could have an extended seat like a scooter that let me bring a +1. A larger motor would probably be necessary to make that work well.
  4. Exposure to danger- I’ve had a handful of close calls from reckless drivers- one guy quickly put his car in reverse for 20 ft through the bike lane on Market St to get to a parking spot, forcing me to swerve into the car lane to get out of the way. One time a car raced around me and cut it so close that his car almost brushed my leg. Another time a woman blatantly drove out of turn at a 4 way stop sign, forcing me to slam on the brakes as I entered it. I actually caught up to the last two people at the light to tell them how dangerous their actions were. Both had initially defended their actions, but after explaining my stance, they both apologized, citing they were in a hurry. While these were definitely scary moments, I think the risk only reduces with more city infrastructure to protect cyclists (hopefully the city is putting the $515 they took from me with that ‘bogus ticket’ to improve infrastructure). I would love to see less cars in the city, and I think ebikes are part of that solution.
I find it telling that I didn’t even have to design this icon, that apparently it happens enough to warrant James Keuning of the Noun Project to design it.

5. Falling off my bike- The one real accident I had was entirely on my own, without a single car in sight. Last December I was riding down a dark, steep, private street, I stood up out of the saddle to look for cars as the road merged, and didn’t see that the painted line at a stop sign was actually a speed bump. It was one of those super abrupt ones that are designed to get the attention of a car, and on my suspension-less bike it was enough force to topple me over. I ended up with a hairline fracture to my elbow and about $75 of repairs to the bike. It sucked, but I look at this as more of an issue with roads being designed for cars, with bikes as an afterthought.

6. Repairs- I have ridden my bike pretty hard, almost every day. Unfortunately I don’t have an accurate measure of how many miles I’ve put on it, but my calculated guess it’s around 2,600–3,000 miles; and as a result it was bound to have some repairs. I was frustrated when it was my 2nd time going to fix a flat in a span of 10 days, and surprised that the headset needed to be replaced, but I’ve been so pleased by the great service I’d received at The New Wheel. The bike has had a handful of repairs, but they have made it painless with great service. I bought the $200 service membership with The New Wheel and haven’t regretted it. They’ve stopped off at my house to drop things off, even driven me home when the bike was in the shop. The bike is under warranty for 2 years, so even though I had engine troubles about 7 months in, Kalkhoff just gave me a brand new motor, free of charge.

Common Questions I get:

Isn’t it cheating? Why not just use a regular bike?
Its not as hard as a regular bike, but thats kind of the point. I wouldn’t ride as often if I had to rely on my road bike. I know that because I’ve had a beautiful, custom made road bike for 10 years, and I’ve put more miles on this ebike in just one year. Who wants to work up a sweat just before going to a meeting, much less a first date? I’d rather have an ebike to assist me; the costs in fuel are minimal, but the extra boost is a huge factor. Years ago, I researched why people who had bikes opted to use their car instead: the most common problem was that it was just too much effort. Riding their bike meant bringing a change of clothes, which meant that they had to pack that in, and often meant more time just getting to their destinations because of prep time & clean up. I think that ebikes are this happy balance between getting places easily and quickly, while being drastically more energy efficient than any other motorized form of transit.

Why an ebike and not a scooter?
When I share my enthusiasm for my ebike with others, this question is usually among the first to came up. While a scooter does have some fine qualities- greater fuel efficiency than a car, the ability to have a passenger, quite honestly- I didn’t even bother to look at scooters when I was selling my car. In my mind, it was more of the same issues I had with cars- it doesn’t change that you still have to look for parking, pay meters, pay for gas, and not to mention the cost of insurance. On top of that, they aren’t quite as as traffic free as bikes; they can’t use bike lanes. Personally, I think scooter riders look a bit silly just sitting on top of one, especially if you’re over 5'7 and have to hunch a little (as I often see guys doing on their scooters). As for Motorcycles, as cool as they look, I’ve had way too many friends get hurt on them, I think they offer too much potential risk.

What about Uber or Lyft?
While they do have some merits, like getting your friends together to go somewhere, or getting to the airport with ease, I don’t find this to be a very cost effective mode of transit. $9 each way for UberX? I went on over 300 trips around the city on my ebike for less than the cost of 4 rides via UberX.

Or how about Scoot?
If you’re not familiar, Scoot is a service for you to rent a scooter. They are parked in various locations throughout the city, and offer $2 for each ride. I haven’t actually tried Scoot, and $2 each way seems like a pretty sweet deal, but I love the convenience of having my bike ready to roll whenever. Its a different experience when you can just pick up and go whenever you want.

What do I think is next for Ebikes?

I think the utility of cars is rather limited for city transit. It’s good for moving around larger items, or for getting out of the city, but ebikes are just so much more efficient, so much more pleasant for city travel. I anticipate seeing more and more of them, but I think they still have more work ahead to win over a larger audience. Ebikes are just getting around to being nicer styling, and having smarter components. Bikes like the Stromer ST2 are a step in the right direction, with 2x the power of my bike, a smart integrated interface, super bright headlights and a 48 volt battery that weighs only 5kg. If it came with a belt drive (for greater durability) and a front fork suspension (to avoid those pesky potholes and the occasional abrupt speed bumps), I would buy it in a heartbeat.

This past year has been a real shift for me, I’ve wholeheartedly joined the bike to work movement. While it’s had its issues, its my belief that ebikes are an opportunity that’s emerging with a huge potential to change the way we get around. The NY Times recently wrote an article on how Europe is leading the charge on the ebike adoption rate, noting that the fanfair has not been as strong in the US. Its my hope that my story will help you find your own reason to give an ebike a try. I’m convinced that once you do, you’ll see the delight outweighs the downsides.

Sorry cars, you’re not as desirable as you used to be.

I once reveled at car designs. I actually went to college thinking I wanted to design cars, but I’ve since parsed out that my passions lie more in designing with problem solving for people as the core function of design; and frankly I think car design has largely been a styling exercise over outdated tooling and techniques. Its my belief that are cause more problems than they solve. Think about how many people are killed every year as a result of them, or how much fuel is spent moving around a 3,000lb vehicle with less than 300lbs of people and cargo. Think about the inefficiency of that. We commonly accept the Toyota Prius as an ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘fuel efficient’ way to get around at 48–51 MPG, but when you convert my ebike into the MPG paradigm, I’m doing about 1,200 MPG.
Cars are a lot of power wrapped up in metal, and are not well designed to handle the infrastructure of cities. Consider how much space we assign to parking lots. Sure, there’s some innovation emerging from cars and car services, driverless systems could do a lot to reduce accidents, but none of that changes the fact that cars are just not very scalable. Consider this image that depicts the space needed for 60 people to travel by car, bus, and bike:

Now consider this ad that wishes to sell the idea of commuting by car:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiprDsiDvIQ

They want you to associate this car as fun through the fantasy of getting to work by car and bypassing traffic, but whether you own your car or use a car service, it’s pure fantasy to think you could bypass traffic, unless you’re a bike.

In summary it’s my belief that Ebikes are just the smarter way to get around; while there’s some downsides, the benefits far outweigh them. I can’t help but feel satisfied with my choice. I feel like everyday I’m rewarded with small moments of satisfaction. It’s like everywhere I go, I get that ‘whee’ feeling that I’m on a downhill; and it’s simply delightful. I implore you to try one for yourself, it may just change your life.

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