Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Fitness, finances, and environmental stewardship are just a few reasons that thousands of San Antonians ride their bikes to school and work. Many balk at cycling for even short distances in the summertime heat, but one alternative offers a solution: investing in an electric bicycle.
Robin Stallings is the executive director of BikeTexas, a nonprofit advocacy and education group that works to promote safe cycling across the state. In late May, he visited the Rivard Report's office with three "e-bikes" in tow. Equipped with removable lithium-ion batteries and electric motors, these bicycles are designed to assist riders' pedaling in order to ensure a ride that's easier, quicker, and less strenuous than their analog counterparts offer.
Our office has since been littered with locks, helmets, and electrically powered bikes being put to use for news assignments and work commutes.
Each of the bikes Stallings brought us are manufactured by eProdigy; two of them are of the tall "Jasper" model, while the third is a smaller, but slightly heavier "Banff" bicycle. They're city bikes through and through, designed with easily mountable step-through frames and a rear rack for groceries and other cargo. The racks also double as housing for their rechargeable batteries.
During his visit, Stallings showed reporter Rocío Guenther, Managing Editor Iris Dimmick, and me how the bikes work. A small dashboard computer in the middle of the handlebars can be controlled with three buttons located on the bikes' left handlebar: one that powers on the electric features, and "up" and "down" buttons for altering the amount of pedal assistance provided by the motor. The dashboard's simple LCD monitor reports speed in miles per hour, current assist level, the time, the temperature, and other details. The display's backlight illuminates the screen during nighttime rides.
The motor itself has five assist levels, from little help to maximum speed, and it kicks in as the cyclist pedals, shutting down when the brakes are engaged or the pedals stop moving. The motor assistance can be switched off, but the appeal of an e-bike is in its speed.
A built-in regulator will cut off the motor once it's moving at 20 miles per hour. Stallings explained that Texas law prohibits electric bikes from providing greater motor assistance, else the bicycle would have to be registered with the State. They also aren’t to weigh more than 100 pounds, though at about 50 pounds each, these are hefty machines. Thankfully the motor can be switched on to a low speed to help riders, say, lug the bike uphill.
I strongly prefer using an e-bike over driving my car to work each day. I've saved hundreds that I would have otherwise spent on parking and gas, and I've made a mild workout of my daily travel. I would definitely break a sweat if I made my three-mile morning commute on a regular bike, but the motor assistance makes the ride much easier than it would be otherwise. Good thing, too, since my route home is mostly uphill.
With the electric assistance on high settings, terrain is a breeze. The physical exertion going uphill on the Jasper is about equal to what I'd be doing if I were riding any other bike on a flat road. I can take the bike to work and back home three or four days in a row before having to charge the battery overnight; eProdigy's 60-mile range estimate seems overly optimistic to me, especially if you spend a lot of time on the higher assist levels – and you'll want to.
The worst thing about an electric bike is the price tag. The eProdigy Jasper retails at $2,700 and the Banff comes in at $2,600. I've seen various e-bikes range from $700 to more than $7,000 online. Consumer reviews sources like the Austin-based Electric Bike Review cut through the marketing materials and find the best value for what you're looking for, whether that's a full-suspension mountain bike or something a little simpler for the road.
But even a few thousand dollars is cheaper than a car, automobile insurance, and related maintenance and parking costs. Those interested in enjoying the benefits of a cyclist's commute, but daunted by Texas temperatures may want to consider an electric bike as an attractive alternative to driving every day.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that electric bikes weight about 60 pounds. They weigh about 50 pounds.