No Sweat

Are E-Bikes the Future of Transit in Houston?

They have all the benefits of bicycling, none of the back sweat!

By Morgan Kinney September 25, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It took us a moment before we understood exactly why the drivers were staring: Rather than inching down Washington Avenue on our bicycle, frantically pedaling to keep pace with the flow of afternoon traffic, we were zooming along with a casual indifference that violated every expectation of what it looks like to travel by bike.

The experience was admittedly a revelation for us, too. Like many Houstonians, we’d lusted after those electric scooters littering sidewalks in Austin and San Antonio for what seems like years. Now, with Houston BCycle having unleashed four rentable e-bikes as part of a summertime pilot program, we were out test-riding what quickly dawned as an obvious—and perhaps superior—alternative to not only scooters but, of course, cars.

These electric BCycles look nearly identical to the “classic” version, with the exception of a chunky battery pack and a small handlebar display that allows riders to toggle between five modes—off, eco, tour, sport, and, most tantalizing of all, turbo. While certain e-bikes come equipped with full-blown motors that render them ostensible Vespas, BCycle has chosen a pedal-assist version that’s comparatively tame, with a battery amplifying the power of each foot stroke. It’s extremely intuitive; riders need only unlock a bike via the BCycle app, saddle up, and prepare to effortlessly redline the thing at speeds of up to 17 mph.

Some might dismiss the appeal of any kind of bike in our car-centric city, but that would ignore a movement that only continues to grow, as evidenced by Houston’s booming bikeshare business. Almost a hundred BCycle stations are now scattered across the city, lending out hundreds of traditional bikes every day. Houstonians are already on track to take 265,000 BCycle trips by the end of 2019—a 65 percent year-over-year increase, with the largest share coming from one-way trips most often taken by commuters.

All this despite the fact that cycling in the Bayou City often feels like a trip through a solar oven, compounded by the anxiety that comes with traveling the deadliest roads in Texas. Apparently a combination of convenience, new bike lanes, and traffic fatigue has made bike sharing convenient and speedy enough for some to abandon the safety of their air-conditioned cars. E-bikes, with all the benefits and none of the back sweat, should only encourage ridership.

Our joyride felt like a glimpse of the future. We’d made sure to bring our own helmet, of course, and the e-bike’s speed and nimbleness left us at ease while we cruised down usually intimidating thoroughfares. And while riders can turn off the pedal assist to get some regular, old quad-busting exercise, a single afternoon on the battery-powered bike rendered the labor of a normal one an absurd proposition, as if someone had torn out a car’s V8, punched foot holes, and suggested we Flintstone our way to the H-E-B.

BCycle Executive Director Beth Martin has said that her non-profit organization hopes to one day replace the entirety of its “classic” fleet with the electric alternative. As they see it, e-bikes could become a low-cost, low-effort, easily accessible option for making short trips through Houston sprawl—one small component of a massive solution that’ll be required to move bodies as the city’s roadways prepare to accommodate twice the current population by 2040.

And really, e-bikes just make sense. The city’s drivers, while not known for being friendly to bikers, at least understand bicycles and recognize how they fit into our roads, something that isn’t true of more exotic options like electric scooters. Plus, after a 55-minute, 9.7-mile ride completed in the depths of August, we can honestly report that we’ve worked up bigger sweats walking across a parking lot. And you don’t even need to park them!

The whole experience left us disappointed to hear the four e-bikes would be recalled in September as officials gauge feedback to the trial and determine the logistics of a potential rollout. But we remain hopeful. C’mon, BCycle, what are you waiting for?

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