Many moons ago, in the pre-parenthood and pre-other things stage of life, I lived happily in a small apartment right on a bike path and just a few miles from work. Biking was recreational and an easy (occasional) choice to take to the office or go to some event. Times have changed … children, changed body weight, and living a good distance (four miles) from that bike path and roughly a good distance commute (perhaps 10 miles one-way, by bike, to my previous employer and now a 15 mile one-way commute). Biking — used for that quick hop to the grocery store when waking up to discover no milk in the refrigerator and a small amount of recreation — really wasn’t in the equation.
The new work situation, however, increased the temptation. No longer free parking. Real flexibility in work times. A great bicycle lock area in the parking lot essentially right next to a shower area. And, well, mounting concern over an aging body intersect with desires to cut another weight problem (CO2 footprint) to enhance that biking desirability.
For awhile, I’ve been contemplating investing in an electric-assist bicycle to enable leaping to long-distance commuting from the hop on the bike to buy bread riding. The $2500+ buy-in options for getting a decent quality electric bike was enough of a sticker shock that this remained idle fantasy rather than an action plan. Then, on beautiful 2011 spring day, in came a Performance Bicycle catalogue with the Schwinn Tailwind electric-assist bike on sale from $2679 to $999 (can we say clearance sale???). Okay, that got my attention … and I started to use de Google to search out Schwinn Tailwind review after review after review after review after … . Basic conclusion, across all of them: “a heavy and cumbersome bike” that should be able to enable me to do the long-range commute but “with a $3200 price tag it’s hard to justify buying this bike”. For $999, on the other hand …
Time to get to a store and see the bike in person. Have to say, I don’t think it took 15 seconds on the bike before I was in love. While heavy, the bike rode well without the electric assist and, well, it was a hoot when the electric assist hit in.
The $1200, all told, was a sizable bill. The calculation, however: every bike commute would be $15 in savings ($4.50 Metro parking, $7.60 in Metro fees, $3 in mileage costs), some Co2 not put in the atmosphere, and perhaps 1000 lost calories. All in all, not a bad calculation. 80 or so commutes and the bike would pay for itself in cash and there would be other returns on the investment.
The order went in and then a wait — an anxious wait — to get the bike.
It finally came and I rode it home on the store along a route that I wouldn’t have attempted on my old road bike affirming my choice to buy.
The next day, a Saturday, I decided to take a ride to see what it was like. Planning to do 30 minutes or so, 40 minutes later, I was on Key Bridge (from Virginia to Washington, DC), having done perhaps ten miles. And, the battery monitor showed roughly a half charge. Time to head home … and, well, the battery died out halfway home. Riding those five miles made it clear why reviewers hadn’t cheered the bike’s riding performance (certainly not uphill) without the electric assist.
Okay, the literature (depending on which item) promised 20 to 30 miles of riding and, on my first ride, it died at less than 15. Okay, I’m not in top biking shape and perhaps overly depended on the battery. But, my roundtrip commute is roughly 30 miles — no way did I want to do the return trip, with 20 lbs or so in the paniers (clothing, computer, …), without electric assist. Thus, a choice to take the unique charger with me to recharge at the office. The first trip to the office: 60 minutes as opposed to 45 or so using Metro. Not too bad, arriving with what seemed to be about a 25 percent charge. And, well, having charged at the office, the return trip went well until the battery died out about four miles from home. A doable four miles, but that up and downhill burned more calories than planned. Thinking it through, the office (over 15 miles) is about 400 feet lower than my home: trip in is downhill, trip back is uphill.
Hmmm … the current solution: a rest stop roughly halfway at a Starbuck’s, where that battery charger gets plugged in and I get recharged as well. (Note: this cuts the $15 savings to $11 per bike trip …) This works, enabling me a moment to catch my breath and arriving at home with at least some battery charge to spare.
For the first time, ever, then I was set up to participate in Washington’s Bike-to-Work Day, looking forward to meeting other bikers to learn from and ready to pick up a bike-to-work t-shirt at one of the ‘rest stops’. After threatened thunderstorms, 20 May turned out to be a beautiful day. And, I set off feeling rather great about biking in until … less than a mile from my home … a sudden jolt and ugly noise when I tried to peddle.
Stopping, I discovered that the luggage straps that came with the bike had snapped and had gotten entwined into the electric assist system.
A simple word: MERDE!
A $2700 (okay, $999, on sale) bike and one of its accessories snaps before its been used ten times? Don’t consider me, at that moment, a satisfied customer.
There went a beautiful ride, a desired t-shirt, and a day in the office. The luck: no fall, the bike could roll (this only stopped pedaling), flexible telecommuting meant no income lost, and I was only a mile from the home.
Rather than biking to work, the 20th, I worked from home and spent part of the day at Performance Bikes where the staff prioritized looking at and fixing my (near brand new) bike so that I could use it. A chance to spend a few $s (on-sale bike socks) didn’t fully compensate for the missed t-shirt but the bike was in order for riding the following Monday and got used instead of a car several times over the weekend.
And, that is what I did Monday the 23rd … I took the bike into the office. And, for the first time, I used the bike to move around town for a meeting. (Appropriately, for a session with the USGBC Center for Green Schools’ leadership.) But this is the real point about Bike to Work Day … it shouldn’t be about “a” day but an impetus to create change to foster biking-to-work as a way of life for ever more of us rather than an occasional stunt.
My professional life enables telecommuting with only perhaps half the time going into the office. Roughly, I’d been doing about 60 percent of trips by Metro and the rest by car (often dependent on late meetings, carrying things, etc). Since having the bicycle, I have yet to drive into the office and used Metro only once. I doubt that this will be the full-time experience. Honestly, across the year, with good and bad weather, my base target is for about 30-40 percent of trips are by bike and perhaps the same by Metro, hopefully cutting car trips down by half.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have even attempted this without an electric-assist bike. With the Schwinn Tailwind, doing a 3o mile roundtrip (hilly) bike commute requires exertion and is exercise but is absolutely achievable and enjoyable (rather than a travail). As I explain to people, with a 56 lb bicycle and about 25 lbs of gear (including a couple lbs for a battery recharger), the bike goes downhill really well — without an electricity assist. On level terrain, I am able to maintain good speed (range of 12-18 mph) with some electric assist. And, going uphill, the electric assist enables moving along (even with the baggage) at decent speeds with effort but not draining exertion. (There is one short stretch on the return trip that resembles Lombard Street in San Francisco — perhaps 80 feet of vertical climb in several tight switchbacks. Without the electric assist and my work gear, I’d likely walk that stretch. With electric assist, likely do this at 8 mph with effort). Very roughly, without serious measurement to back it up, I’m estimating that the electric assist is taking perhaps 30 percent of the load through the commute. Over time, I expect that this will drop as I get in better shape. The battery is rated for 2000 uses before meaningful deterioration. Perhaps, by that point, I won’t require any electric assist.
What is return on investment?
- Acquisition cost: About $1350 for bike, panniers, good lock, and some bike clothing.
- Savings: $11 each bike commute … estimated minimum, 50 times per year.
- Financial Payback: Roughly less than 2.25 years with 50 trips / year (savings $550/year)
- Non-Fiscal Issues (for me):
- Reducing carbon emissions about 1-2 tons per year: roughly $75-150 at a sensible social cost of carbon (SCC)
- Removing a commuter from Metro / roads 50 times per year: community value of $200+/year (estimated)
- Losing some weight and being in better shape. Priceless.
- Arriving at the office feeling good and without a headache (side effect of Metro for me). Priceless.
- Putting money and sweat where mouth is re need to cut carbon emissions. Priceless.
1. This was originally drafted 23 May. Related events, to be discussed in a different post, disrupted its publication.