COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

At the magical biker bar

It has been said that Gloria Steinem famously observed: A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. While the first true articulation of this notion could well be the work of an unknown graffitist, sober or not, its author gets at a nagging principle which had previously lain obscured from the Greeks, and hence the Western world: None of us, not even fish, it seems, can do without a good bike.

"But," you ask, "What of electric bicycles? Do they also fall within the principle articulated above?"

We will probe and explore this question in more depth using the unusual case of financial planner and teacher at Southwestern Community College, Frank Paiano.

Frank offers the following testament: "I live in Ocean Beach and commute to Southwestern Community College. In 1994, I started commuting two to three times per week using a bicycle. At the time, I could make it in about one hour and 30 minutes. As the years went on, it took me longer and longer to get to work and I was riding fewer and fewer times per month. By the beginning of 2009, I was hardly riding anymore and mostly driving. With much help from some knowledgeable friends, we put together (an) ... electric-assist bike, complete with high-fidelity stereo. Now, I can get to work in one hour and 20 minutes. The best part is I still get plenty of exercise."

Most triumphantly he observes: "And the total (cost for the) amount of electricity I use to get to work is approximately (4 cents). My wife and I have solar panels so the variable cost of the electricity is nothing."

Now we must dig deeper to understand the real price of an electric bike: political, academic and environmental.

In the parlance of e-bikes, "electric-assist" seems to mean that the bike was once ordinary but now has newly-attached, after-market parts which empower it to move more quickly and easily, especially up hills: by magic, as it were.

It should be noted that in California, electric-assist bicycles come under far stricter regulation, registration, helmet laws, and the like if the electric motor enables the bicycle to exceed 20 mile per hours. Hence, certain real limits are in place.

Frank's current exercise philosophy is: "No pain, no pain." His electric-assist bike was necessitated by aging, but it might well serve others who are merely interested in a healthier commute. Note that "healthier" precludes accident risks, which are real in the currently hostile, predator-prey world of cars versus bikes. The latter must and will change in time.

The political world of biking is as complex and fraught with competing factions as the Balkans: exercisers, commuters, funsters, dreamers, pragmatists, electric, nonelectric and the ever-lasting strand-cruisers, to name a few. San Diego has the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, which in turn, refers to at least 25 other bike-related organizations. They all want places to ride. They are not so settled on with whom they wish to share a path!

Frank spent about $1,800 retrofitting a $200 used bike. He did it right: a good, long-lasting motor, strong battery and a stereo system. When we spoke, his bike was in surgery awaiting some new, special spokes.

So far, he has ridden 2000 miles since August 2009, for about 50 round-trip, 40-mile commutes. His daily energy use is roughly 0.75 kWhr, costing less than a dime per round trip.

By comparison, a car getting 25 miles per gallon with $3 per gallon gasoline over a 40-week year averaging three commutes weekly and totaling 4,800 miles driven, would cost $575 for fuel alone. Frank's total fuel cost would be less than $6 dollars. Hospital bills are extra.

Nearly air pollution-free, fish benefit from a good bike.

For those who feel the urge to indulge in good old American know-how, take a look at Optibike, a very stylish mountain bike. The company proudly quotes the New York Times' description of its bicycle as "the Ferrari of electric bikes." Designed in America by the owner, Jim Turner, Optibikes are assembled at the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colo., by Optibike's dozen happy employees. Jim strives for the world's best electric bike.

They are not, however, inexpensive! The pleasure of owning an Optibike will run between $6,000 and $14,000, depending on the model and extras.

For $600 to $1000 retail, e-Zip or iRoll sell electric bikes which can get you around for pennies a day in energy costs. Take a trolley ride; visit with Mo Karimi, the knowledgeable owner of San Diego Bike Shop located in view of the Fifth Avenue Blue/Orange Line trolley stop. Take a look at a few of the practical electric bike options offered. Glimpse the future.

Note: In lonely, dark and uphill times, everything goes better with electricity.


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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2 UserComments
Eric 10:56am April 16, 2010

Great article!!

Don DiCostanzo 9:09pm April 15, 2010

Consumers buying their first electric bike should be careful when purchasing electric bikes under $1,000 as they will have limited range and may require new batteries after less than 100 cycles. It is not necessary to spend $5,000-$10,000 for a good electric bike. Pedego Electric Bikes offers high quality, stylish electric bikes that range in price from $1,000 to #2,000. http://www.pedegoelectricbikes.com