The latest IPCC report is a call to action for climate heroes everywhere, and what could be more heroic than ditching your car in favor of an e-bike for the daily commute, especially in the inner ring suburbs where the bike lanes are few and the traffic is heavy? Well, lots of things are more heroic. Nevertheless, switching from a car to an e-bike helps at least a little bit. If you’re thinking of making the switch, here are some things to consider.
The E-Bike Difference
Before we get into the helpful hints, let’s address the question of why not use a regular old bike? CleanTechnica already covered that a few months ago, when our friends over at Rad Power provided a long term loan on their RadMini Step-Thru folding pedal-assist e-bike.
If you are in generally good physical condition and you have a fairly short, flat commute, then you don’t really need any help from electricity. Add a few miles and a hills to the mix, and an e-bike can turn a longer, more strenuous ride into a faster, more comfortable trip.
And, if you have a 20-mile round trip with loads of hills, the electric assist makes all the difference between being able to bike to work and help save the planet, or not.
With electric assist, you can pedal at a quick pace up the steepest, longest hills without too much exertion, which is important if your place of work does not look kindly upon people who leave a pool of sweat in the elevator upon arrival.
Long distance and hilly terrain are not necessarily obstacles to a bicycle commute. If you have any doubts, borrow an e-bike for a couple of days and see how it works out.
E-Bike Commuter Obstacle #1: No Bike Lanes
As you consider the distance between your home and workplace, and then consider that there is a lot of traffic and no bike lanes, you may decide that commuting on an e-bike is not for you.
That is okay! Nothing in this article is intended to advocate for commuting by bike when there are no bike lanes. It can be dangerous! However, should you choose to do so, scouting your route in advance can make all the difference between having a pleasant first-day commute and having an exercise in acute anxiety.
For example, the shortest route between me and my workplace is 9 miles on a 4-lane county road with a top posted speed of 40 miles per hour. That sounds like it would provoke a lot anxiety, considering that most drivers in my area understand the posted speed to be the absolute minimum speed, not the maximum speed.
However, street parking is not permitted along most of the route, which significantly reduces the odds of getting doored. That’s a big plus.
In addition, there are numerous lighted intersections along the way, which helps to keep the traffic speed pretty close to the posted limit.
Tractor-trailer trucks are permitted on part of the route, which is a drag. It’s also a bus route the whole 9 miles through. Fortunately, there aren’t too many trucks and the bus service in my area is terrible, which means the chances of having to dodge a bus or a truck on the way to work are slim.
Also helping things along is a reverse commute, which helps cut down on overall traffic, and the 4-lane setup gives drivers more room to maneuver past a cyclist, than, say, on a narrow one way street with parking along both sides. A generously wide shoulder is marked off in parts of the route, which also helps.
Bottom line: 4-lane roads are not necessarily to be sneezed at, bike lanes or no bike lanes, but there are some pluses and minuses.
Beware The 5:00 Evening Rush Hour Matrix
Once you have mapped out a route to work that appears to be relatively safe, the next thing to think about is getting home in one piece.
That can be a lot more difficult to figure out than the morning commute. People do many random errands after work, they shuttle their kids to after-school activities, and they are tired, cranky, and distracted.
So, a relatively peaceful 9-mile commute on a relatively calm 4-lane county road in the morning could easily become a fearsome journey riddled with chaos in the evening.
Anyways, that’s what I originally thought. After putting it to the test — actually no, I didn’t bother putting it to the test. I stuck with my original thought and mapped out a return commute mostly along 2-lane local streets where the speed limit is 25 mph. That turned a 45-minute 9-mile commute home into a 65-minute 11-mile trek up and over a mountain, which would be a formidable obstacle — except the e-bike slices through it like butter.
Some E-Bike Safety Tips You May Not Have Thought Of
Regardless of your route, if there are no bike lanes it is very important to take advantage of every opportunity to increase your odds of survival on the open road.
Knowing who has the right-of-way won’t help you. The bigger thing on the road always has the right of way, no matter what you may know, and that’s all you need to know. Keeping at least one eyeball on everything that moves, or is waiting to move, or is sitting in their car and might potentially open their door all of a sudden, is the key thing.
Visibility is the other key thing. Aside from basics like a good helmet, reflective clothing, and functioning lights, the right accessories can help make a difference, or at least they can’t hurt.
1. Wear a nice skirt or dress while riding. Nobody wants to hit the girl on the bike. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. I’m at 600 miles and counting on my daily commute in just a few months, and I guess I’ll find out when that doesn’t work any more.
2. Similarly, avoid using a helmet that looks sleek, dark, and cool. No bike helmet actually looks cool anyways. Choose one that looks really ridiculous. As long as it fits properly and conforms to federal safety standards, who cares if you look silly, as long as they notice you in time to not hit you.
3. The ultimate accessory is the bike itself. Smaller is better for lugging your bike up and down subways stairs, but the tradeoff is visibility. The bigger the bike, the more visibility you have. If you’re a suburban e-bike commuter, there are no subway stairs to climb up and down, so sky’s the limit in terms of weight and size.
Shameless pitch coming up: that’s why I love the RadMini Step-Thru from Rad Power more and more every day. It is a big, bright, shiny, retro-sassy hunk of machinery. It’s really heavy compared to other folding e-bikes, but so what? In case I ever get stuck in the rain somewhere my friend can come and get me in their car and help me fold it up and heave it into their trunk. That’s what cellphones are for.
While we’re at it, shout-out to the folks at Bicycle Tech in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, who set the RadMini up for me last fall. They tuned it up so good I haven’t had to adjust a thing since then.
Don’t Ditch Your Car…Yet
Commuting on an e-bike is great exercise and it’s a fun way to start the morning on a beautiful summer day. However, not every day is a beautiful summer day. The longer your commute, the more obstacles Mother Nature will throw down.
Riding in rain or snow for a few minutes isn’t all that difficult, but over the course of a one-hour commute the combination of bad weather and traffic will kick the safety factor up a notch. The same goes for riding at night, or heading east when the sun is rising on a cloudless morning, or going west at sunset. The comfort factor also kicks in when the weather turns cold.
The bottom line is that lots of people who “commute on an e-bike” will actually not be commuting on an e-bike for many more days than they care to admit.
Still, it’s money well spent, whether you have a few thousand to drop on a brilliantly engineered Harley-Davidson Serial 1 electric bike, or a few hundred for a clever little clip-on electric assistant which enables you to convert just about any old bike to an e-bike (thanks, CLIP!).
For the record, the RadMini Step-Thru fat-tire bike was on sale for about $1,300 last time we checked.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: RadMini Step-Thru e-bike, getting ready to roll up and over a mountain without breaking a sweat (credit: Tina Casey).
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