I was chugging up Mission City Parkway, crossing Interstate 8 on my 30-pound street bike, when another cyclist breezed by me. She was pedaling comfortably, but was moving effortlessly up the incline, at maybe twice my speed.
How’s she doing that, I wondered, as I sweated my way to the crest of the short street. Then I spotted the rectangular black box on her bike frame. Hah, no wonder she’s not panting like me! It’s an e-bike.
Right there and then, I realized that e-bikes can be an absolute game-changer in our effort to get commuters out of their cars and on to their bikes. That’s because e-power makes even long, hilly rides to and from their workplace reasonable.
I caught up with Kimberly Loughlin, and waved her over to chat. She told me how much she loves her Rad Power e-bike. She can pedal as hard or easy as she wants, and she gets instant electric power by turning her handlebar grip. The Rad Power travels up to 45 miles on a single charge, and Loughlin said she’s never run out of juice while riding.
Loughlin lives 12 miles from her family’s Ocean Beach business, and could easily e-bike there in 40 minutes. That same ride takes me an hour, or more. She’d arrive refreshed and ready for work. I’d get there sweaty, tired and thirsty; I’d need a shower, change of clothes, snack and at my age, probably a rest break, before starting work. The ride home would be much more daunting, with that long ascent from Mission Valley to Montezuma Mesa.
If I needed confirmation of the transformative power of e-bikes, I saw it a few minutes later, on the I-15 bike path. Taxpayers spent millions to build that mile-long, barrier-protected bike route alongside the busy freeway. I’ve pedaled the uphill route from Camino del Rio South to Adams Avenue at least a dozen times in recent months, and have seen — at the most — maybe 10 other cyclists on that bike path. Total. While it might be busier on weekends and holidays, I’m quite sure that very expensive pathway has not boosted the city’s woefully low bike-to-work ridership numbers.
As I pushed hard up that unrelenting grade, a young man cruised by me on a compact, low-slung bike. Like Loughlin, he pedaled effortlessly, and moved quickly. At least once, he stopped pedaling completely and let his battery do all the work. He hadn’t broken a sweat when I caught up with him at the UPS store on Adams Avenue.
I was shocked to learn his Jetson Bolt Pro Folding Electric Bike cost just $350 (shipping and handling included) at Costco. The Bolt goes up 15 miles an hour, with a 30-mile range when you help the motor (and your health), by pedaling.
I hope e-bike use will continue to grow, because San Diego’s lagging effort to fill our bike paths with daily commuters needs real help. Many bike advocates refuse to face the reality that simply building more bike paths has not, and will not, significantly increase the tiny number of San Diegans who now bike to work.
Even in relatively flat San Diego, there’s simply too many miles — and too many hills — separating the communities where people live and work. Mission Valley separates Linda Vista, Clairemont and Mira Mesa from Hillcrest and downtown. Murphy Canyon separates Tierrasanta from Kearny Mesa. Washington Street separates Mission Hills from the Sports Arena/Rosecrans/Point Loma corridor. Fifth Avenue is a challenge to all but the fittest cyclists who live in Hillcrest and work downtown, or vice versa. You have to struggle up Pershing Drive to get home to North Park from your downtown office.
E-bikes can slay those hills, and cruise at 20 miles an hour or faster on level ground. You can carry a change of clothes, make-up, a briefcase or big purse, and lunch box in their convenient side racks. With e-bikes, weight doesn’t really matter.
Loughlin’s Rad Power bike cost $1,500, not much more than many cyclists pay for a human-powered street bike. And you can now buy a quality, full-sized e-bike for less than $1,000.
We should do all we can to make sure these new owners use their bikes for commuting, not just fun. Employers can offer safe storage and charging cords for employees, and other incentives for e-bike commuting, which helps reduce the need for parking. SANDAG can give cash prizes for frequent commuters, and recognition for companies that have the most employees who ditch their car for an e- (or human-powered) bike. Schools and non-profits can organize fundraisers to help buy e-bikes for students, whose parents now drive them to school.
But rebates and incentives for e-bike purchasers could have the biggest impact.
CalBike, a bike advocacy group, is sponsoring AB 117 , the E-Bike Affordability Bill, but as currently written, the measure has no funding and lacks even a guaranteed start date.
CalBike wants to make e-bike commuting more affordable for 10,000 Californians. The organization notes that the state has spent about $1 billion on rebates and incentives for electric vehicles, but nothing on e-bikes. So it’s circulating a petition  that asks the state to allocate an initial $10 million to underwrite e-bike purchases. Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, who represents North County, is working with CalBike to get that program off the ground.
If approved, the first financial incentives for e-bike purchasers could be available in mid-2022.
Paul Krueger is a freelance writer, editor and researcher. He recently retired after 45 years as a print reporter and columnist for local and national publications, and, more recently, as a senior producer at NBC7.