E-bikes are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Can they really replace cars?

By Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle

When Liza Lutzker threw her daughters a back-to-school party at the Berkeley Rose Garden, she and her husband packed all the provisions on their electric cargo bikes: two boxes of firewood, food for 30 people, a water dispenser, plates, napkins, glasses and two kids.

Then they rode 2 miles from their home on Milvia Street to the terraced amphitheater on Euclid Avenue, high in the leafy-green hills. Six years ago, Lutzker would have hauled everything in a car. Now she travels almost exclusively by foot and bike.

Her family illustrates a culture shift in the Bay Area, where e-bikes, once conceived as a luxury item, are becoming a widely accepted form of transport. Enthusiasts view them as an option for commuters or for weekend warriors who want speed and distance with less work. In the case of cargo e-bikes, they’re a solution for the types of trips that suburban parents once made in minivans: grocery shopping, school drop-off, shuttling kids to soccer games — even getting to BART, which has begun filling its parking lots with housing.

The trend is picking up globally, though it’s become particularly noticeable in Marin County, Berkeley and San Francisco. That pleases e-bike riders and merchants, even as it highlights the deficiencies of local roads, where collisions are frequent and some bicycle lanes are marked only with a picture of a bicycle.

In December, research and auditing firm Deloitte predicted that 130 million e-bikes will be sold internationally from 2020 to 2023. By the end of the year, these motor-powered devices will outnumber other electric vehicles on streets and roads, said Paul Lee, global head of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte.

This surge has emboldened people like Rob Allen, owner of Blue Heron Bikes in North Berkeley. Since opening the store in 2012, he has increased his stock of electric bikes from one to 50 and steadily tried to debunk the myth that distance cycling is solely for a rarefied group of athletes.

“There was this perception that you can’t ride far without pretending you’re a bike racer — that you have to wear some type of aerodynamic outfit,” Allen said. That’s no longer true; he and others noted that with the advent of electric-assist motors that kick in after a person starts pedaling, it’s become easy for elderly people to surmount hills or for office workers to ride to business meetings. Many of Allen’s customers are families seeking to shed a car.

But the e-bike renaissance faces challenges. Mainly, infrastructure. Many streets lack protected bike lanes — or even painted bike lanes — and bike injuries and fatalities in San Francisco and other cities remain a stubborn problem. Secure parking is scarce. Not everyone has a private garage to store an e-bike, and the vehicles are too heavy to lift up flights of stairs. Some BART elevators are too small for larger e-bikes, which inhibits people from taking them on transit. Cost is an issue: At $3,000 to $5,000, they’re too expensive for many people.

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