After living in San Francisco for 3 years, I decided it was time to remove the last facet of my life from Los Angeles, my 2005 Mini Cooper. To replace my primary mode of transport, I bought a Kalkhoff electric bike.
Why did I want to get rid of my car?
1. Keeping a car in SF is expensive
It’s not just the cost of gas that’s rising. As a 28 year old male, insurance is not cheap. That along with regular car maintenance, parking fees, and gas combined, I was easily spending $5,000+ annually. While it’s nice to think that at any given time you might head out for a weekend trip, it was costing me to have this occasional perk.
2. Driving and parking in the city is frustrating
There’s two aspects of driving in a city that distinguish it as a miserable experience; traffic and parking. There’s no doubt that a car is a faster ride on the open road (car ads strive to remind you of that experience) but I was using my car mostly in the city, for commutes less than 4 miles, and over steep hills. It was how I got to my gym on the other side of the city, or how I picked up specialty groceries from my favorite Indian shop.
There’s a regular lag of traffic at lights (mind you, it’s not nearly as bad as LA traffic, but that’s a whole other beast), then there’s the battle for street parking, or the cost premiums for a parking lot. Other than my regular trips to the gym, I opted for public transport to spare myself from the hassle that comes with city driving.
3. Having a car was more burden than benefit
I was getting tired of paying for repairs, parking tickets, and registration fees; all to not use it very much. On average, I was driving it less than 13,000 miles annually. Sure, it was nice to think that at any time I could just get out of the city, but it seldom happened. Weekend trips to Yosemite with friends were often in their bigger cars, and regular transport around the city was easier by public transport. As it turned out, I was paying for the option of having a car, but using public transport as my primary means for around the city. I really found myself questioning the utility of my car after shelling out $6,000 for a new transmission and flywheel (among other charges), and decided it was time to sell.
Just before I sold my car, I had checked out a lovely little bike shop by the name of The New Wheel, and tried one of their electric bikes. For clarity sake, an electric bike or ‘ebike’ is a pedal assisted bike; it has a motor and battery pack, and each pedal push you give it boosts a little more than what you do on your own. It’s almost completely silent, and really nothing like the obnoxiously loud mopeds you occasionally see around. My initial pre-ride judgment was that this was a heavier bike than any I’d ridden before (45lbs versus my sub 20 road bike) and I was doubtful any motor would make a big difference.
But… I was delighted by the store owner’s enthusiam about their products, and gave it a try. After a peppy ride around the hills of Bernal Heights, I was excited by the prospects. It felt like a whole new way to get around, hills were a breeze and you could keep up with cars without breaking a sweat. It felt almost magical to be going this fast with this little effort. I went back home by bus, and within a few days I had sold my car.
All of this was a rather hasty decision on my behalf, I wasn’t really sure how this was going to pan out. I was reacting to the frustration of owning a car, but I really didn’t know what the alternative was going to look like. Initially I was feeling a bit nervous about my decision. It was a real pain to get to my gym (2 different buses, and the frustration of missing one). Later that week I rented an eBike from The New Wheel and spent the day trying it out.
My primary concerns with testing it out were whether or not it was going to be able to handle the steep hill of 17th street, how well the battery would perform, and how hard would it be to get into my apartment. It passed the test, with flying colors, and I took the plunge and bought the $3,500 Kalkhoff Sahel.
While I’ve enjoyed my bike, I wanted to make sure I experienced it thoroughly before reviewing it, and I write this blog after 2 months of ownership.
So why am I happier with an eBike?
1. Owning an ebike significantly cheaper than a car
You have far less costs involved with an eBike, and for me this was a big deal. No Insurance fees, no parking fees, no DMV registration, far cheaper repairs and fuel cost. I was so aggravated at owning a car and shelling out cash for something I was seeing less and less utility in, and my eBike really took up the reigns of filling in when I did want to get around by car.
As it turns out, it’s more than 20x cheaper in annual fees:
2. I actually get around the city faster by eBike
This is the key difference. On top of it being more affordable than a car, it’s actually getting me places in less time. There really is no comparison with other forms of transport within the city.
Faster than by Bus? No problem. You have to wait for your bus to arrive, and make a dozen stops along the way, all to get within walking distance of your destination. An eBike gets you right to where you want to go, and on your schedule.
Faster than a regular bike? Yup. A bicycle has the nimbleness to get right up to the front at each light, but there’s really no comparison when it comes to speed. On an eBike, you’re able to accelerate right off the start, and then maintain a higher speed, even over hills. With traditional bikes, people shell out money to optimize their ride for speed and efficiency. This typically means wearing cycling shoes and riding road bikes (thin tires, light bikes). While there’s something wonderful about getting on a bike and traveling under your own power, the downsides of road bikes for urban transport are clear.
You typically have clip-in shoes, which are awkward to walk in, and require another set of shoes for walking around. Then you have the challenges of dodging potholes on your super thin tires, and the risk of getting them caught in SF’s streetcar tracks (I’ve been there, it’s not pretty). Finally, the posture is really optimized for speed, you’re tucked down for aerodynamics, it’s harldy a pleasant ride for around town. One of my favorite new activities is to ride up to one of these spandex clad riders who are anxiously track-standing at the front of a light and blow right past them, sitting fully upright with a full pack of gear on me.
Faster than a car? Surprisingly, yes.While this sounds counterintuitive because I’m riding slower than cars can drive (the pedal assist easily gets you to a top speed of 25-MPH) there’s more than just top speed that factors into the overall time. While the cars line up for the light, I move right up front in the shoulder or bike lane. It’s like there is no traffic.Then when I get to my destination, parking is a cinch. I have my bike rigged with a seat and wheel lock kit that replaces quick releases, so I only worry about locking the frame to a stationary object.
How much faster is it? I’ve done several comparisons where I would ask Google maps to estimate the times for various forms of transport. Generally speaking, the closest time comparison to an eBike is with a car; I usually get places a few minutes faster than Google suggests for a car, and on top of that I’m not searching for parking. It’s surprising how fast you can get around when you can bypass most traffic and keep a consistent pace of 20-MPH. Here’s a map of one of my regular destinations, going from my house to the climbing gym.
3. I’m more mobile, so I experience more of the city.
With the supreme ease of parking my eBike, I’ve found myself going around the city on a whim. One day I decided to ride down to Tartine’s to get a fresh loaf of bread, and found that I could make it there in less than 9 minutes from my house. While that is also possible on a regular bike (the ride there is all downhill from my house), getting back would be a hassle through “The Wiggle” a series of roads that is considered the flattest route traversing East/West in SF. Instead, I just headed straight back the way I came, cruising up 17th ave at 10mph. The trip back was less than 15 minutes.
I find it delightful that I can just cruise around, and if I see something interesting I can stop and see. It’s just not that easy to park a car in SF, and you really can’t cover as much ground on a regular bike. As a result of being more mobile within the city, I’ve tried new restaurants, went into more shops, it’s been really pleasant way to experience the city.
4. I get some exercise, but I’m not sweaty
Any bike commuter would highlight showing up sweaty to a meeting as one of the downsides to commuting by bike; but with some assistance you’re far less likely to burn up. It’s not completely effortless, but it’s like putting in a brisk walk but making it halfway across the city.
I’ve actually hauled a fair amount of gear on my bike, and it’s been almost comical how much you can carry and still pass a regular cyclist.
Since owning my eBike, I have averaged 38 miles of riding a week, riding about 350 miles thus far. It’s not quite the same energy expense as a traditional bike, but its certainly more activity than sitting in public transport or a car.
All of these factors combined, its easy to say that I’m really happy riding my eBike, it’s just a pleasant ride. That said, no vehicle is perfect:
I think an eBike is the best way to get around a city. I genuinely enjoy riding more than driving. I see cars differently now, as less functional for day to day city commuting. I cruise by the line of cars stopped in traffic and I think, it doesn’t have to be like this, there is a better way. I implore you to try one out, and if you live in San Francisco, go see the friendly people at The New Wheel, and try out their bikes for a spin!