Riding an Electric Bike is Good for You and the Planet

Freedom on two (or three) wheels.

E-bikes make it possible for people of all ages, abilities, and incomes to get around town via a carbon-free means of transportation. And it is good exercise.

As a kid, I rode a bike to and from school and around our neighborhood. Back then, I never thought of bike riding as being an environmentally friendly transportation method or that it was a form of exercise. For me riding a bike was about freedom and fun.

There was never a time when I did not own a bike but as the years passed I rode less and less. I held onto my last bike for years because I had every intention of getting back into the habit of riding it…someday.

Driving a Car to Take a Walk

I thought my bike riding aspirations might become a reality when my spouse and I moved from Southern California to Cambria a small town on the California Central Coast.

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean two miles from our house sits the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve a beautiful swath of land crisscrossed with hiking paths. It seemed like it would be a wonderful place to take a daily walk (it is). I naively thought we would ride our bikes there, take a walk, and ride back home. The daily walks materialized but the biking riding did not.

I blame our driveway.

Our house is perched at the end of a long steep driveway (with a turn halfway up) that we share with our next-door neighbor. It leads onto a steep street. Driving my car up the driveway the first time was a daunting experience that has only gotten moderately less so in the twelve years that we have lived here. Riding a human only powered bike up these asphalt inclines was and still is not within my ability.

I remember one of my sons said to me some years ago something along the lines of “Isn’t it hypocritical for you to drive a car someplace so you can go for a walk?”

No, I do not think it is hypocritical. Environmentalists are people, too. We do not always make environmentally friendly choices and we also know how to justify our actions (just like everyone else).

In May 2013, while I was writing a post about National Bike Month, I became interested in trying bike riding again. But I did not do it. Occasionally, since then, I have looked longingly at my bike hanging upside down from a rafter in our garage.

But the driveway and street have persisted in their steepness. It seemed more and more likely that my bike riding days had come to an end.

Then I discovered electric bikes.

National Drive Electric Week

I think I had been aware that electric bikes existed but I had not really thought about one in conjunction with myself until I joined the SLO Climate Coalition.

Last summer the Coalition’s decarbonized transportation team was preparing to host two events in San Luis Obispo for National Drive Electric Week that would showcase electric cars and electric bikes. To support the team, I wrote a post entitled Electric Vehicles are Good for People and the Environment with information about U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, electric cars and bikes, and National Drive Electric Week.

Researching this topic had me pondering the possibility of riding a bike again.

My spouse and I are striving to live more lightly on Earth and to reduce our transportation carbon footprint. So far this has mostly been accomplished by working out of our home, combining errands, and walking as many places as possible.

We have not replaced our gasoline-powered cars with electric versions because we are hoping that other transportation methods will make car ownership obsolete and besides it does not fit within our current budget.

I got to thinking “Maybe we could ride electric bikes for all the stuff we need to do where we live and to places where we like to walk.” My vision expanded to “And we could take bikes on the bus to San Luis Obispo and then ride them to run errands, go to meetings and appointments, and for fun and other activities.”

Determined to test ride an electric bike, I marked my calendar for the Ride & Drive event scheduled for Saturday, September 14.

Mayor Heidi Harmon with SLO Climate Coalition Leaders at 2019 Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon paused from her test ride of an electric cargo bike from BoltAbout to pose with SLO Climate Coalition leaders (left to right) Justin Bradshaw, Eric Veium, and Barry Rands at National Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA on September 14, 2019.

That day BoltAbout and Wally’s Bicycle Works both had booths and a variety of electric bikes for people to try out.

First, I tried an electric bike from BoltAbout that was similar to the model they lease with an option to buy. After not having been on a bike for many years, I was pleased that I did not fall off. When the pedal-assist motor kicked in, I zoomed by the people in the parking lot checking out the electric cars.

At Wally’s booth, I spotted a bike that looked easier for me to get on and off so I asked if I could try that one. It was a Votani electric bike. The seat was comfy and I could see and work the controls. What I really liked was being able to sit up straight while riding it. After a couple of circuits around the parking lot, I was thinking “This is the bike I want.” We thanked Wally and took one of his business cards.

This is me on my Votani electric bike test ride at National Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA on September 14, 2019.

Testing an E-Bike at Home

Now, I was seriously considering buying an electric bike but I did not want to buy a bike until I had tried riding it up and down our driveway and the street.

The next week we showed up at Wally’s Bicycle Works store in San Luis Obispo. Wally remembered us. I asked him if I could rent the Votani bike for a week. He let me do it free of charge.

At home, I dusted off my bike helmet and then proved to myself that I could ride the bike down and up our driveway and the street. Going down was terrifying and going up was difficult. I figured it would get easier as I rode more and got in better bike riding shape.

One day during the test week, coming up the driveway, I crashed into the curb and fell off. An instant before I hit the ground, I knew I was falling but there was not a thing I could do about it. My spouse came running down the driveway. Laying there I could feel myself going into shock. I was badly hurt.

I will spare you the gruesome details but I had some serious cuts on my left knee and elbow and the next day enormous bruised patches appeared all over the left side of my body. It took weeks for me to heal and I will have some nasty looking scars on my knee forever.

I am definitely not someone who enjoys tacking chances with my body so it would have not been out of character for me to take the bike back to Wally’s and call it day.

Strangely, I was more determined than ever to buy an electric bike and to learn how to ride it. I had been afraid of falling off and getting hurt. But now that I had fallen off and gotten hurt, it was as if I had overcome some kind of mental hurdle. I did not need to worry about it anymore because it had already happened.

A few days later we took the demo bike back to Wally’s and he ordered a new one for me. My spouse walked out of the store that day pushing a Raleigh electric bike equipped with saddlebags.

Wally of Wally's Bicycle Works with My New Votani E-Bike
This is Wally the owner of Wally’s Bicycle Works posing with my new Votani electric bike equipped with saddlebags.

A week later I picked up my new electric bike and that is when the adventure really began. If you are interested, you can read about it in the next post.

Start your own electric bike adventure by visiting a local bike shop or bike-share kiosk and taking one for a spin.

Featured Image at Top: An electric bike control panel is shown mounted on the handlebars – photo credit iStock/123ducu.

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Ditch Your Car for the Day and Take the Bus

Try it.

Taking the bus instead of driving your car is an eco-friendly inexpensive way to get around. It could actually be more convenient than a car, at least sometimes.

What went through your mind after reading the first sentence? “I already ride the bus to work.” or “Thanks for the reminder. I’ll look up bus schedules online right now.” or “Fine you take the bus but I do not want to.”

If it was the latter, I hear you. I am certain that I have had the same thought many, many times.

But the climate crisis has disrupted my thinking. I believe our society needs to change the way we live, significantly, even radically to live more lightly on Earth, now, not at some distant point in the future. To me, that means trying new things and doing things that are not in my comfort zone.

Sure taking the bus is not a revolutionary action but for me it is new and outside of my comfort zone (I’ll explain why later).

My spouse and I live in Cambria a small town (population 6,000) on the California Central Coast. San Luis Obispo (population 47,000) about 35 miles away is the biggest city in our county. We already walk a lot to get around and for pleasure. To minimize trips to San Luis Obispo in our gasoline-powered car we strive to combine errands, appointments, meetings, entertainment, and other activities.

We had not been on the bus in our county until a recent warm day in September. That day we took the bus to the “big city” to run errands. This post recounts our experience. I hope after reading it you will consider trying out the bus service where you live.

The brief overview below illustrates the significance of the transportation sector as it relates to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Transportation is the moving of people, animals, and stuff from point A to point B via cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, trains, ships, and other vehicles.

U.S. GHG Emissions by Sector in 2017 Pie Chart

As you can see from this chart transportation represented a whopping 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Over half of these emissions came from passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans. Source – U.S. EPA.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018, petroleum products (gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) accounted for 92% of the energy used for transportation in the United States of which 54% was gasoline.

U.S. GHG Emissions from Transportation 1990-2017
This timeline shows that there is a huge opportunity for improvement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in the United States. Source – U.S. EPA.

A small percentage of vehicles have transitioned away from petroleum products to natural gas (a “less bad” fossil fuel) or to biofuels which are made from plants grown on agricultural land that could be used to grow food. Electricity represents only 1% of the energy used for transportation.

Bus Alternative Fuel Transition Chart 2008-2018 - APTA
Most buses in the U.S. run on diesel and natural gas, but hopefully more and more rapid transit agencies will switch to electric buses.

Our Day on the Bus

If I was a more adventurous sort of person, I might have decided to try the bus on the spur of the moment. But I am one of those people who usually plan ahead and I like to have some idea about what to expect in new situations.

Therefore, I did some advance research on the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (RTA) website. I discovered bus service from and to Cambria is infrequent and that on the way to San Luis Obispo we would need to transfer to another bus in Morro Bay.

Deciphering the schedule was a bit challenging but I eventually figured it out. The legend on the route map indicated that there are timed stops where the bus always stops and untimed stops where the bus will stop if someone is waiting to get on or a passenger wants to get off. I learned about fares and that you can pay in cash on the bus (exact change only), use a smartphone app (my phone is too old), or buy passes online.

The RTA website had a handy video for first-time bus riders that showed how to plan your trip, pay on the bus, and to let the driver know you want to get off at an untimed stop which you do by pulling on the cord that runs along the top of the windows.

My spouse and I both work out of our home and have fairly flexible schedules. We decided to take the bus for a day trip to run errands in San Luis Obispo.

Waiting at Route 15 Bus Stop on Main Street in Cambria, CA

We opted for a mid-morning bus. The nearest timed bus stop is three-quarters of a mile from our house, but since I had done research ahead of time, I knew there was an untimed bus stop a quarter of a mile away. We arrived at that stop at 10:45 a.m. to wait for the bus.

Small San Luis Obispo RTA Bus

At 11:05, the small route 15S bus pulled up and we got on. There were seven people already on board. Photo – SLO RTA.

San Luis Obispo RTA Bus Pass

I fed $11.00 into the machine next to the driver and the machine spit out two paper passes that were printed on paper board with a readable strip. We would swipe these passes each time we boarded a bus that day.

We sat down in the front so I could talk to the bus driver and buckled up. I was surprised that the bus had seat belts. (I also knew that the front seats in a bus are designated for elderly or disabled people so I was prepared to move if needed.)

Our driver was a friendly man named Alan who seemed to know some of the passengers. When I asked him how long he had been driving the route 15 bus, he said 16 years. Before that, he had driven a tour bus at Hearst Castle. Alan joked that his son has told him that he is driving his life away. He said that he thought driving a bus was his calling.

The bus traveled along Highway 1. After the hilly terrain flattened out, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean for several miles.

We arrived in Morro Bay a few minutes beyond the scheduled time of 11:33 a.m. The full-size 12S bus was waiting for us so we walked off one bus and directly onto the other bus. We swiped our passes, found seats, and sat down (no seat belts on this bus). There were ten or so other passengers when we got on the bus.

At 12:08 p.m., we arrived just two minutes late at the outdoor San Luis Obispo transit center near City Hall. The county buses pull up in one section and the San Luis Obispo city buses line up across the intersection.

Hot Fudge Sundae from McConnells in San Luis Obispo, CA

Now we were in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo so it was easy to walk around completing our various errands. We treated ourselves to ice cream at McConnell’s (to be truthful I had a hot fudge sundae).

My understanding of the schedule meant that we needed to take the 12N at 2:33 p.m. in order to make our connection in Morro Bay with the 15N at 3:00 p.m. so we arrived at the Transit Center with about 15 minutes to spare.

San Luis Obispo County RTA Bus with Bike on Bike Rack
This photo of one of the full-size RTA buses shows a bike on the bike rack. Photo – SLO RTA.

We sat on one of the benches observing buses coming and going. I watched one man ride up on a bike and then hoist it onto the bike rack at the front of the bus. It is low to the ground but I doubt I could lift a bike up that far.

When the 12N arrived, we got on, swiped our passes, and found seats in the middle of the bus. This bus did not leave right on time because apparently, we were waiting for another bus to arrive. When it did, some passengers got off that bus and walked over to board our bus. We headed out at 2:36 p.m. with about 20 passengers.

The 15N bus with Ernesto at the wheel was waiting for us when we arrived in Morro Bay at 3:02 p.m. (2 minutes late). We swiped our passes for the last time and sat down among the handful of passengers already on board.

As we approached the untimed stop across from the one where we had started our journey, I saw three people waiting to get on. Ernesto let us off at 3:41 p.m. and we walked back to our house arriving at 3:50 p.m.

Whew, we had successfully taken the bus from Cambria to San Luis Obispo and back. Next time, perhaps we will try getting around San Luis Obispo on the city bus.

Bus Benefits and Drawbacks

Riding the bus that day was a good experience all around.

The buses were clean and comfortable. When I asked the bus drivers questions, they answered politely with varying levels of enthusiasm. The passengers ranged in age from college students to seniors and we did not encounter any obnoxious or unruly behavior.

Our trip was relaxing and hassle-free. With the bus driver handling the driving, we were free to sit back enjoying the scenery and talking with each other. In San Luis Obispo, we did not need to navigate a parking garage or search for street parking. We saved the cost of parking, avoided wear and tear on our car, and did not have to pay for gas.

We usually walk around downtown San Luis Obispo even when we drive our car there but the bus required extra walking between our house and the bus stops. I think this a good thing.

For us, the limited schedule is a major drawback. We could take the bus to San Luis Obispo to attend an evening meeting, which we do almost weekly, but we would have no way of getting back home. I doubt that expanding bus service to our small town is even on the county’s radar screen but I suppose I could try to find out.

Now that you have read this post you might be wondering why I even wrote it since it seems that we will not be ditching our car in favor of the bus for most trips to San Luis Obispo.

I wrote it because living more lightly on the planet requires changing how we live our daily lives. If we don’t try new things, how will we ever change? How will we figure out what needs to be done to make riding the bus a workable solution for more people?

Perhaps there is a wonderful bus service where you live. You won’t know unless you try it.

Featured Image at Top: This photo shows 69 volunteers, 69 bicycles, 60 cars, and one bus gathered in Canberra, Australia to recreate a world-renowned photograph taken more than 20 years ago to demonstrate the advantages of bus and bicycle travel in congested cities. Photo credit – Australia Cycling Promotion Fund.

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