Studies show that people are increasingly choosing bicycles as a healthier, greener alternative to their cars. But Vermont’s hills pose challenges that some people can’t handle. That might explain the burgeoning interest in electric-assist bicycles.
On a Brattleboro side street recently about a dozen e-bike riders met to exchange information and compares notes on their equipment. The gathering resembled one of those car meet-ups, where people open their hoods and inspect each other’s engines. But the closest thing to engines here were electric motors and rechargeable batteries.
The e-bikes are all different. Teta Hilsden rides an ordinary street bike, converted with a kit.
"This little pack here, this is the battery," she explains. "It weighs maybe two pounds. And then all of these black wires are carrying the charge up here to the hub which is the front of the wheel. When I push this tiny little button here, it helps me get up steep hills – which of course Brattleboro’s full of."
Hilsden says the bike’s motor doesn’t do all the work.
"But it’s enough that if I’m peddling and it’s working," she says. "We can get up the steepest hill in Brattleboro together."
Hilsden retrofitted a bike that originally cost about $300. She paid about $500, plus installation for her electric-assist add-on. Julia Chase spent about $3,500 on her bike.
"I have the Yuba El Mundo with the BionX electric assist on it," Chase says. "And the front basket and the handle bars in the back for my 4-year-old and whoever needs a ride."
Hilsden and Chase were both inspired by their neighbor Dave Cohen, a cycling advocate and the organizer of this e-bike gathering. Cohen rides an electric-assist long-tail cargo bike. He can carry three kids on its oversized back rack and still has room for groceries and a trailer full of camping gear.
Cohen says e-bikes could allow more people to reduce their dependency on gas-burning vehicles.
"The electric bike specifically broadens the reach of the bicycle," he says, "so that people who are elderly, people who aren’t Lycra-wearing bicyclists, people that are commuters, that want to carry their kids – we need the extra power of an electric assist system."
In Vermont, electric-assist bikes are classified as bicycles and limited to speeds of 20 miles per hour. Jon Kaplan heads the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s bicycle and pedestrian program, which encourages cycling as a means of transportation. He says he’s seen some interest in e-bikes in recent years. But the numbers are still small. Kaplan says Vermont’s hills discourage many would-be cyclists.
"So I think these certainly have the potential to encourage a few more people to use their bikes for transportation," he says.
The e-bikers at the Brattleboro meet-up say the power boost does make it easier to choose their bikes and leave their cars in the driveway. Brattleboro Representative Mollie Burke says that’s why she’s here. Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee, often uses her conventional bike for local errands.
"But I think that I would use my bike more if it had a little bit of a motor on it," she says. Burke returns from a test drive with a big smile. The e-bikers say that’s a common response. They say people who try an e-bike usually end up wanting one.
This story was updated on 9/12/2014 to reflect the correct spelling of BionX, a type of e-bike system.