L.A., meet the e-bike
In February, the public radio station KPCC staged a race to determine the fastest way to get across Los Angeles at rush hour.
[RELATED: Los Angeles electric bike resources]
Three people simultaneously left downtown’s Union Station on a Monday morning at 8:30 a.m., headed for the Santa Monica Pier – one by bike, one by car and a third by bus. The bus took 94 minutes. The car, 70 minutes. The bicyclist won, narrowly beating the driver of the car, at 65 minutes.
This past Monday, I decided I could beat them all. What did I have that they didn’t? A secret weapon, one that I believe could revolutionize Los Angeles traffic.
An electric bicycle.
Let me back up. Los Angeles is facing the following challenge: How do we create a city of strong, sustainable communities easily accessible to one another? How do we share one another’s ideas, eat at one another’s tables, experience one another’s cultures, if it takes two hours to get across town?
“City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them,” former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan writes in her indispensable new book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.” “They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space.”
Though you wouldn’t know it from this city’s lengthening commute times, Los Angeles is ever so slowly finding ways to satisfy that hunger. There’s the new Metro Expo Line extension to Santa Monica opening next week; there are a few more bike paths, and there’s the Los Angeles Department of City Planning’s visionary Mobility Plan 2035.
But what all these initiatives lack is a vehicle to fill the gap between the car, the bicycle — which for the average person can mean sweaty or strenuous commutes —and public transportation, which is never able to take you door-to-door. That’s where e-bikes come in. They top out at speeds around 20 mph, don’t require a special license or insurance, and each year are improving in battery capacity, design and range.
And they’re catching on—everywhere but here. In Europe e-bike sales are up 47 percent since 2008. In Israel e-bikes have soared in popularity. More than 700,000 were sold in Europe last year, compared to 53,000 in the United States. In China, 200 million are in use.
For most consumers in the States – including me—the barrier has been cost — most e-bikes run around $2,000. But not long ago, an eccentric inventor launched an Indiegogo campaign for a $499 e-bike, the Sondors e-bike. It has 350 watts and goes up to 20 miles on a charge, with no pedaling, up to 50 with pedaling. It is bright, fat-tired and zippy — a Tesla for the 99 percent. After my old bike was stolen, I bought a Storm.
And so, last Monday, powered up with a full charge and carrying an extra battery, I loaded the bike into my car and drove to Union Station, the starting point of the KPCC commuter challenge. At 8:30 a.m., off I went.
Getting out of downtown felt like a game of Escape the Room. The bike lane on Spring Street disappears into a construction zone near Olympic. Car bumpers zoomed past inches from my calf. Venice Boulevard heading west wasn’t a vast improvement. Small green-and-white signs announcing “Bike Route” start about three miles west of downtown and are posted every block. Sometimes white painted images of a bike and arrows on the street suggest an actual bike path, though these “sharrow” lanes, as they are called, in reality belong to turning and parking cars. I didn’t see one other bike on my entire ride. Those “Bike Route” signs might as well say, “Unicorn Crossing.”
Where San Vicente Boulevard merges with Venice Boulevard, the bike lane inexplicably continues into the middle of the street, then vanishes into the intersection. This might be the most dangerous 20 feet of bikeway in the continental United States.
I decided to take San Vicente to Olympic, then head west – a poor choice, I know, since Olympic Boulevard is basically a wannabe interstate. Near Century City, westbound traffic was beginning to coagulate, and I cruised by it. This is when I caught drivers glimpsing me with e-bike envy—which, as I have learned from zooming past traffic on Lincoln Boulevard, is a real thing.
In Santa Monica, the new Expo Line’s dedicated bike lane kicked in, and for a mile I was in nirvana. I had the path all to myself, separated from traffic. That short stretch convinced me: With protected bike paths, e-bikes would rule L.A. In a flash, I was at the Pier.
How’d I do? 74 minutes. Four minutes behind the time it took the KPCC driver to commute by car. Nine minutes behind the bicyclist who, hats off to him, must have kicked butt.
“The entire time,” the cyclist, KPCC reporter Jacob Margolis reported at the time, “I was completely out of breath. I actually did strain my quad.”
But unlike the driver, my commute cost me nothing for parking, gas or insurance—just 21 cents worth of electricity.
And as opposed to Margolis, my quads felt fine. I didn’t break a single bead of sweat. I rode 18.8 miles in 74 minutes, at an average speed of 15.24 mph – and proved that e-bikes are part of the solution to a livable L.A.
Besides, when I want real exercise, I can always e-bike to spin class.
Rob Eshman is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TRIBE Media Corp/The Jewish Journal. Follow Rob at @RobEshman.