Bicycling up a big old hill after a tough day of work can take a lot out of a body. At a time of day when one just wants to have fun, or even collapse, a grueling workout might not be the best prescription. Even those who desire to help the environment while getting some exercise might give up and simply take a car.
This was the situation faced by Amber Wason, a marketing and urban transportation specialist in Washington, DC. Faced with a brutal hill on her way home, she would often default to the car, or have her husband pick her up after work. Then, on a trip to China she saw electric bikes—which can work as conventional bikes but also have a small electric engine when additional power is desired. The proverbial lightbulb went off in Wason’s head (hopefully a CFL or LED lightbulb). This was the solution to her problem, and likely that of many other people.
Unfortunately, electric bikes tend to be heavy and rather complicated. In the United States, they are marketed to older people rather than the kind of young urbanites who are increasingly taking up biking. Amber put her head together with Jeff Stefanis, another young professional with a background in energy and entrepreneurialism, and they came up with Riide, a new company based in DC that produces and sells electric bikes.
Riide’s basic innovation is to get rid of gears and keep the bike lightweight and simple. The proliferation of gears on most bikes today makes repair and upkeep annoying and difficult. The Riide also includes an innovation from the green auto industry, capturing the energy from braking and feeding it back into the battery. Furthermore, by keeping their bikes simple, and by direct online marketing, Riide is able to cut the cost to only $1,800 per bike.
“No one was doing it right, targeting the urban professional,” exclaimed Wason. Tastes are changing, with cars no longer considered central for the young; Amber noted that one in three 18 to 24 year olds are not getting a license.
“One of most important things, whether creating a new restaurant or reinventing the bicycle, you want to think about who the customer is,” says Tommy Wells, Director of DC’s Department of the Environment. He adds that Riide’s bike is “intuitively easy to choose.”
I got a chance to take a Riide bike for a little spin and found out just how nice an electric engine is. The operation is simple and intuitive—where the gearshift normally is on the right, instead one can easily kick the electric engine into operation, starting with a tiny boost and accelerating to full throttle. I felt as though I were flying up the little hill I tried it on (although I never got a chance to go full speed).
My ride took place past warehouses and trucks, in Washington, DC’s light industrial district. Yet there was something unusual about this light industrial district—a bike lane separated from traffic by a row of poles. This is part of DC’s new network of bike lanes, some 70 miles all told, that makes riding a bike safe and inviting. The city has also pioneered bikesharing, launching the first such system in the U.S. in 2010 to unprecedented success.
This is the result of a revolution in city planning, moving away from a car centered paradigm. Wells explained the reasoning behind the changes: “We certainly had the era of designing the city around cars from the 1950s on.” In the past decade or so, DC has been in the forefront of changes, “as cities like ours redesigned the public realm to not just walk, not just ride,” but employ a flexible mix. The bicycling revolution is one aspect of a city in which 38% of households now don’t have a car and 88% of new households are car-free.
In a city that’s growing quickly—some 800 to 1000 people a month—moving away from cars, and the tremendous amount of space for roads and parking that go with them is crucial. “The degree to which we can get people to diversify the mode share in the public realm is how we will manage increased density in our city,” said Wells.
“DC is a city that has great adoption of bikeshare, public transportation that people use, but it also doesn’t meet everyone’s needs,” Wason explains. According to one survey, 63 percent of DC commuters are looking for alternative ways to commute, and biking is one of the most flexible. Adding electric bikes to the mix adds power to that option while still keeping environmental impact minimal compared to a car.
There is also an equity issue to providing multiple ways to get around bicycles. Electric bikes, according to Wells, are just one way to provide “more options for people can’t afford a car, are not able to drive, yet want to safely, quickly get around city”—even if those people don’t have the physical ability to pedal up steep hills. For those who cannot afford to arrive at work sweaty, an electric bike provides a clean, green commute.
Riide’s presence within the DC boundaries also reflects a revolution in light industry, particularly related to high craftsmanship, which is moving back into cities. “We’re rediscovering opportunities of manufacturing in urban areas,” says Wells, who lists other examples including microbreweries and urban farms.
DC’s growing acceptance of bicycles (and the infrastructure to go with them) extends into the city government. The city’s Urban Forestry Administration has even purchased two Riide bicycles to add to its fleet of bikes and Segways. “One way to limit the footprint and impact of a car is to do it by bicycle,” explains John Thomas, Associate Director of the Urban Forestry Administration. He adds that bicycles not only save gas but also alleviate “heat island and air pollution issues cars create in an urban environment.”
Besides fitting a forestry department’s environmentally friendly image, these vehicles are nimble when it comes to taking care of the city’s 140 thousand street trees. On hot summer days and in the city’s further (and hillier) corners, the electric engines on the Riide bikes provide a needed boost.
Of course, cars are still needed, since they can carry heavy tools and navigate through rain—but the bicycle fleet provides needed flexibility and means fewer cars purchased in the long run. The bikes “create less of a desire and need to expand the fleet—but in a big storm or emergency, you still need a car,” says Thomas.
Thomas also likes the Riide bicycles’ simplicity, which saves on maintenance time and costs. “What better use for our money than support a local company, as good as anything else on the market,” he exclaims. He sees the two bikes as just the beginning, hoping to expand the electric fleet not just in his department, but to “find other agencies in city.”
Wells is already on board, planning to add electric bikes to the transportation options for the 350 or so people who work in his department. “One of the roles of government, especially the department of environment, is to identify new entrepreneurial groups like this and see how it can help satisfy government purpose,” he says.
Riide so far has exceeded expectations. The company launched on Kickstarter on January of 2014, with a goal of raising $50,000 and selling 25 bikes. “We hit that the first day,” exclaimed Wason. As of late January, Riide has 124 preorders “with very little marketing and promotion and zero budget.” One third of these are in the local DC area, one third in California, and the rest all over the United States and Canada. Over the next year or two, the company plans “to cultivate and grow,” with “group rides, feedback, and improved customer experience,” said Wason.
Electric bikes, then, are not merely toys or the latest cool tool, but can become part of a basic (and extremely green) lifestyle. “Bikes more and more are not recreational,” said Wells, “not even commuter,” but are becoming, for many, part of daily shopping and other daily errands. Electric bikes can add a little boost to these tasks, while remaining part of a clean, green lifestyle.