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


In thinking about Singapore/San Francisco, a thought is to work towards personal car zero by promoting all bicycles, public transport, delivery trucks, etc. With the changes on Market Street and as the SF Chronicle article purport, the e-bike growth is occurring somewhat organically. In my own informal, non-scientific short-term memory, there are more bikes on the street with me. This is very likely due to confirmation bias, but I see bikes everywhere now. A few years ago, I don't remember this many bikes ridden by people not wearing spandex. A more cynical thought on the growth of e-bikes in the Bay Area is due to the economics of it all. If housing expenses eat up a growing percentage of your income, you cannot afford a car and all the related expenses (insurance, parking, maintenance, etc) in the city. Therefore, an e-bike is much more affordable.

Obviously, there is a huge incentive for the e-bike shops and manufacturers to push their products. My recurring thought after spending time in local bike shops is that some bike purchases are becoming closer to the car sales model. At $5,000 or more for an e-bike, there's discussions about financing, service, maintenance, etc. People generally don't like buying cars. I'm not suggesting bike shops simply mimic the car dealers, but rather think about the buying experience from end to end. I definitely don't want to have a financing discussion in the main showroom while surrounded by potential customers and other employees. Also new bike delivery is generally done in the service area which is already cramped and full of other bikes and parts.

I think local bike shops are due for some optimization. I also think this is happening organically in the market by those that stay in business versus close over the years. The National Bicycle Dealers Association has some possibly optimistic numbers for bike shops. At the same time, others noted the drop in bike shops nationwide. I don't know enough about the topic to really add to any conversation. I find my local bike shop amazing because the people who work there know their products inside and out. And they use their products daily (bikes, bags, locks, etc). I watched my own purchasing of gear overlap with what the sales and service people use at the shop. Seeing something well used, still functional, and learning from their 1-1 experience is great. Once you get there, the service on both the sales and actual mechanics is fantastic.

As service times stretch out, and as people rely on their bikes more for daily tasks, or just as people replace their cars with more bikes, service while you wait or service in under a day becomes more important.  I've thought about opening a co-op, white-label bicycle service center offering same day turn around on the majority of services. Co-op because the bike dealers are all part owners and everyone benefits from sharing the talent and centralization of service centers in cheaper real-estate than at the retail stores. This is what I mean by bike shops learning from car dealers. The bike shops can then sell service plans to cover their own subscription/ownership costs in the central service co-op. Especially as bikes become more computerized and electronic, the service people need to as well.

I love the Bike Kitchen model where anyone can learn to rebuild their bottom bracket or re-cable their brakes. The talent to reprogram your motor or fix electrical gremlins is less likely at an all volunteer bike shop. The population that volunteers at places like Bike Kitchen will get there, but we're not there yet. In my times volunteering there, plenty of e-bikes come and go in a night.

Overall, more people biking is better. Hills be damned.