Let us feel the mode-shift happen, as one.
The invasion of venture-capital-funded scooters has thrown San Francisco into paroxysms of muttering and orneriness, but while civic irresponsibility and poor etiquette are never pleasant things to deal with, one underlying issue remains: American society is moving away from the dominance of the private automobile, and cities are where it’s happening first. Oddly angled Limes and Birds on the sidewalk might be very annoying, but we’re hurtling toward an event horizon beyond which human-powered transportation alternatives will eat into the primacy of the car.
Electric bikes are part of that solution.
So it couldn’t be timelier that proprietors Brett Thurber and Karen Wiener of The New Wheel — an electric bike shop with locations in Bernal Heights and Larkspur — decided to throw an e-bike festival that is quite likely the first of its kind in the world. The Super Bicycle Festival (Saturday and Sunday, May 5-6, outside the Larkspur shop) includes waffles, beer from Lagunitas, coffee from Equator, demos of top-end gear, panel discussions, and opportunities to buy things in support of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. Why Marin and not S.F.? Well, it’s a lot easier to close off a parking lot up there, for one.
“San Francisco — our heart is definitely in it,” Thurber says. “But the nice thing about our Larkspur store is it’s very much connected to the Bay Area through transit and bike lanes, and the ferry drops you off right next to it. The bike lane does, too.”
“It’s going to become the transit hub for Marin that Marin never wanted,” Wiener adds.
She’s referring in part to the pushback against a bike lane across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, an idea endorsed by the mayor of Richmond and numerous transit advocates. The bridge itself spans 5.5 miles, so that might sound to some ears like a major reduction in space allocated to cars in the hopes that a very small number of super-athletes would criss-cross the North Bay twice daily. To The New Wheel’s owners, that’s where electric bikes come in.
“You’d be crazy not to commute from Richmond BART or El Cerrito to Marin, if you work in Marin — or vice versa,” Thurber says. “It will take you less time and it will save you money. [Opposition to the bike lane] is a symptom of not understanding what the future holds. We need to do a mode-shift in a big way.”
Hence the festival, which the duo hopes will not only attract local politicians but sufficient advocates to ask questions and get on-the-record answers. The U.S. has such an excellent road infrastructure already, Thurber and Wiener maintain, that getting the urbanized core of the Bay Area to European levels of transit and cycling usage as a part of overall trips is feasible as long as we also have the political will.
“We’re seeing a huge change in perspective and awareness,” Thurber says. “That has a lot to do with electric bike share — and maybe scooters.”
At the same time, historical opposition to e-bikes doesn’t only come from diehard car people. It also comes from cyclists who view them as, well, cheating. This writer and daily cyclist confesses to some skepticism about electrics, for being a sort of la-di-da status symbols that require no oomph or perspiration to operate and take up space in the bike lane. Thurber and I took a spin around Bernal Hill on a spiffy Stromer and I immediately realized how wrong I was. E-bikes aren’t glorified scooters; there’s no throttle. Instead, they’re replacements for cars. You still have to pedal, too. The battery merely gives your legs extra force, as when zipping up Anderson Street toward Bernal Heights Boulevard in one-2oth the time it would take me to huff it in the lowest gear. It’s also true that the technology and aesthetics have improved significantly since The New Wheel first opened in 2012.
“Seven years ago, the bikes were pretty good but didn’t always look that good. Now, with even a small battery, there’s antitheft systems and you can ride in a more comfortable, upright position,” Thurber says. “Climbing up Twin Peaks on a Dutch-style bike is hell, but on an electric you can be upright. All our awesome front-loader cargo bikes you can fit two kids on. … People see the technology is getting really good, and then when you get on it, it rides like the best bicycle you’ve ever ridden — and you have superpowers.”
Whereas five years ago the idea of convincing hilltop dwellers to stripe, say, Diamond Heights Boulevard with green bike lanes might have sounded absurd, the dream of connecting every S.F. neighborhood is within reach. E-bikes make commuting downtown from West Portal on two wheels possible.
Another worry is how established giants have already been eyeing the electric bike-share market. Ford owns GoBike, and Uber bought Jump Bikes only a few weeks ago. Wiener believes the independents won’t disappear so easily, partly as a dealer accustomed to making $30,000 on a sale will likely not settle for selling $3,000 bikes, and also because neighborhood bike shops guarantee responsive service and the ability to obtain parts. One likely outcome is that the bike-share companies will eat into the low end of the market, leaving The New Wheel right where it’s always been, at the mid-to-high-tier. But that will only happen if e-cyclists work toward the goal.
“The store is right at the end of a greenway,” Thurber says of the Super Bicycle’s location near the intersection of Highway 101 and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. “They converted half a tunnel to a bike lane. You can ride to San Rafael through it, and it feels very European.”
“It’s a beautiful future, if we let it happen,” he adds.
The New Wheel’s Super Bicycle Festival, Saturday and Sunday, May 5-6, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., at The New Wheel Electric Bikes, 14 East Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Larkspur. Free; newwheel.net