Introduction (electric cars are great, but bikes are better)
As we move toward a greener world, transportation is a large part of the picture. There is an ongoing revolution involving electric cars, trucks, vans, and buses which will radically reduce CO2 and other harmful emissions. Greater development and use of electrified public transportation will also make an important contribution. However, there is a method of transportation that is even more friendly to the environment: bicycles!
Rider-powered bicycles are the greenest, but the ebike revolution of the last few years has greatly expanded the utility of bicycles. Distances that were too great, hills that were too steep, and headwinds that were too strong formerly made biking out of the question for all but young and very fit riders. There are still questions about safety, weather, and the fitness of the riders, but in cities with safe roads and trails, on good-weather days, bicycles are increasingly seen as the greenest way to commute, run errands, and shop for distances up to, say, 10 miles or so. Bikes can also be used for last-mile transportation in conjunction with public transit (see figure 1).
Ebikes for commuting
In relatively dry and warm climates like we have in the U.S. Southwest, ebikes can be your primary means of commuting ~300 days a year. Primary requirements: 1) Your commute is fewer than 20 miles each way, preferably fewer than 10 miles; 2) you have a safe route that involves separated bike trails, bike lanes on busier streets, or neighborhood streets with little traffic; 3) you have a place to keep the bike where it won’t be stolen on both ends of your commute (high-end ebikes can be very expensive, so they may be a prime target for thieves); 4) you are moderately fit, with no back or neck issues, and you are able to ride a two-wheel bike. (Note recumbent two-wheel and three-wheel bikes solve many back and neck problems when it comes to biking.)
Bicycles can also solve the last-mile problem for public transportation
Here on the Wasatch Front in metropolitan Northern Utah, we have buses, light rail (streetcars), and a heavy rail commuter line (the Front Runner) that runs the complete length of the most densely populated region between Provo, Salt Lake City, and Ogden. You can take a bicycle with you on all three means of transportation. You can get on the streetcars and the Front Runner with a bike. All the buses have a tray-type rack on the front for two bikes (see figure 1). It could be a few miles from your suburban home in Utah or Weber County to your Frontrunner station, and a mile or two to your office in downtown Salt Lake City. It’s an easy bike ride and some exercise from your daily commute. Even 5+ miles from your daily ride to and from the bus, streetcar, or Frontrunner station can be easily done with an ebike. For a short last-mile ride on a level bike trail or street, a lightweight regular bike would be preferred. Longer last-mile rides or steep hills would make an ebike worth the extra weight.
Biking for shopping and errands
When I retired from NASA in 2004 and moved winters to Lindon, Utah, and summers to Three Lakes, Wisconsin, I started riding bikes again big time. Behind our house in Lindon is an irrigation canal buried in a 10.5 ft diameter pipe and paved over with a beautiful 17.5 mile bike trail. The trail connects with the Provo River Parkway up Provo Canyon on one end and the Jorden River Parkway on the other end which goes all the way into downtown Salt Lake City. While my primary use of bikes after retirement is for recreation and exercise, I frequently use the bike trail and city streets to pick up my prescriptions at the Walgreens drive-through. I also throw on a backpack and pick up a few groceries from nearby stores.
I have fabulous long-distance safe riding in Utah. In Wisconsin, I only have to ride on a moderately busy highway for a few miles and then there are endless beautiful blacktop country roads with little traffic. Road bikes are fine for fit young people to ride on smooth blacktop trails, on low-traffic roads, and to make fairly short runs to pick up stuff at local stores. However, bumpy roads; gravel; even long gravel driveways, steep hills and strong headwinds make riding road bikes difficult or impossible for older people.
Some places are not safe for bike riding
After I got my job at NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center just outside Washington, DC, in 1974 and spent 30 years living near Annapolis, I rarely rode a bike because it was 30 miles to Goddard Space Flight Center and the 300-year-old shoulder-less former carriage roads were death to bike riders. There are some places where it is not safe to ride a bike. Two of my colleagues at NASA were killed riding bikes for transportation.
Highway bike riding safety, strategy for riding on highways
I have big mirrors on the handlebar of my mountain bike to watch the traffic behind me. The major roads in Northern Wisconsin are quite wide and have a two-foot paved shoulder outside the white line. For the first few miles, I am on a highway with substantial traffic and speed limits from 35 to 50 mph. On a road bike, I didn’t feel safe riding on the two-foot shoulder because a moment’s lack of attention and you would be skidding off the road on the gravel. Also, if cars passed you in the middle of the traffic lane, they would be going by only a few feet away.
As a bike rider, you are legally allowed to ride in the middle of the traffic lane like any slow-moving vehicle. My strategy is to ride in the traffic lane just to the left of the white border line. Then I watch in my mirror and listen for traffic coming behind me. Cars will either slow down and follow me or pass partly or completely in the oncoming traffic lane. When I see that the following car has seen me and pulled to the left to pass, I then move to the 2-ft wide shoulder lane to give maximum clearance for the car. With my mountain bikes, I know that I can safely pull off the road entirely onto the gravel if needed. In the worst case where a car has not seen me, I can safely dive off the road on the gravel to avoid getting hit. Fortunately, I have never had to do this. If a car slows down and follows me, I watch ahead and signal the following car to pass when it is safe.
Why a top-of-the-line mountain ebike is ideal for commuting, errands, and last-mile use
The mountain bike’s fatter tires and full suspension make riding on blacktop trails and highways smoother and more enjoyable. Only the newest roads and trails have no expansion cracks. Even the fabulous Murdock Canal Trail behind my house in Utah crosses numerous streets with bumps on the transitions from trail to street and back to trail.
I turned 82 years old this summer and I have a joke: I have balance issues stemming from a water ski accident 5 years ago, so if I’m walking over uneven ground, I do a good impression of a 90-year-old. However, I find that balance is not a problem on my bike and the electric motor assist makes up for my weak legs and lack of stamina, so on my ebike I feel like a 20-year-old! That’s why I’m exclusively riding electric now.
How to deal with cold weather: I bundle up with snow pants, layer up with three fleeces under a yellow shell (for visibility), put ski gloves on my hands (chemical hot pockets on the coldest days), and use a balaclava under my helmet (see figure 3). I just keep riding unless it’s raining, the temperature drops below freezing, or the trails are covered in snow.
Figure 3 shows me wearing the pack loaded with trail maintenance gear. I use the same pack to run errands and do grocery shopping. You are not going to be able to carry enough groceries to last a week, but picking up a half gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and 2 lb of flour from the grocery store a few miles away is easily doable.
Almost infinite number of bike choices
There are now almost an infinite number of choices of ebikes, depending on your health, needs, and budget. Not just street, road, mountain, and electric, but also three-wheelers and recumbent three-wheelers for those with balance challenges. Recumbent bikes in two- and three-wheel versions solve many problems for those with back and neck issues. You can get an ebike from Rad Power now for $500, or pay up to $15,000 for an electric mountain bike from Specialized with a carbon frame and bluetooth electric shifting (no wires). Less expensive ebikes have no suspension, rear hub motors, and fat tires.
A high-end mountain ebike with mid-drive, full suspension, hydraulic disc brakes, and a large battery weighs ~50 lb and costs ~$6000. If you add a carbon fiber frame to save a few pounds, you are talking about $8000. You can you go for less weight with a carbon frame and smaller battery to get the weight down to ~35 lb. Current high-end mountain ebikes have no front derailleur but have an extended-range 12-gear cassette in back. One less derailleur to worry about.
High-end road bikes are very light and have narrow high-pressure tires that have less rolling resistance. However, no matter how much you spend on a road bike, the efficiency gains are minute compared to going to an electric bike. My latest mountain ebike has a 19” wheel with a 2.2” width tire in front and a 27.5” wheel with a 2.6” width tire in back. The least expensive ebikes have 4” fat tires. If you use lower pressure, they give you a softer ride, which partially makes up for no suspension. However, the fat tire bikes are significantly heavier.
I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, so please tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.
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