Why I Don’t Have an E-Assist (or Why I Don’t Want a Car-Replacement Bike)

Note: I think e-bikes are amazing. I truly believe bikes can save the world, and for a ton of people that means e-bikes. This post–like everything on this blog–is simply my own experience. If you want an e-bike, you should totally get an e-bike!

For years I’ve joked my way out of answering why I don’t have an e-assist:

“I’m too rough on my bikes, it’s just one more thing for me to break.”
“I’m too stubborn to add one now and they weren’t really a thing when I got my cargo bike six years ago…and the kids were 100 pounds lighter back then!”

But the thing is, I never really thought it through. Yes, I am stubborn, and it wasn’t at all on my radar six years ago (knowledge-wise, budget-wise, necessity-wise), but that’s not it.

I Don’t Have a Car-Replacement Bike Because
I Don’t Have a Car-Based Life; I Have a Bike-Based Life.

I don’t want a life with things car distances away or with things timed such that the distances must be traversed at car speed.
I don’t want my backup plan to have to be a car.
Were my bike to break, or were myself or one of the kids unable to bike, I don’t want that to mean our only alternative is a car.
I always want my options to be walking and busing, and our bikes simply make things quicker, easier, and a lot more fun.

Right now “bike distance away” is the distance I can bike on a slow and heavy bike or that the kids can bike on their own little bikes. And if it’s farther, I want to take the bus, train, or ferry, ideally paired with bikes. If there’s ever a time we can’t bike or don’t want to bike, I want my life to support taking a little extra time to walk to the close things and bus to the far things.

Caveat: this works for me because we live in a big city (a.k.a. an Urban Cycling-friendly city) and I want to take advantage of that. Things are tightly-packed here. That means school is three blocks from home, and everything else is almost as close: a few parks, a few libraries, a few bike shops, a few grocery stores, farmers markets, art supply store, veterinarian, umm…what else does one need?…cat cafe, funky gift shop, conveyor-belt sushi a ten-minute pedal in either direction along the multi-use trail two blocks from our home.

One very important thing that makes this work as a family biker is that I’ve been biking with my kids since they were tiny and totable. I was able to build muscle, confidence, and stubbornness; they were able to grow up learning getting everywhere on bikes is an ordinary thing. Babies and toddlers are so little, light, and portable, and many conveniently grow into kids who will ride their own bikes right around the time they become too hefty to carry easily. When kids are young, they fit well on regular bikes, like my old mamabike, so it’s not necessarily a big investment to adopt a biking lifestyle.

July 2010

Nowadays my main bike is a Surly Big Dummy, one of several longtail cargo bikes available these days. It makes it easy to carry both kids and stuff. One things exceptionally terrific about longtails is that they make it easy to carry kids and their bikes, so I can carry the whole show through sections I don’t want the kids riding on their own or give them lifts when they get tired. The bike weighs about 75 pounds and is geared for hauling weight. The kids weigh about 70 and 55 pounds, but fortunately I rarely have to carry them these days. Toting one kid and his bike is fine, but they have hit a combined weight that I prefer not to carry.

Cars and me
And yes, we use cars occasionally. A year and a half ago I rented a Zipcar to take the kids snowboarding: Snowboarding for the car-free family. I’m not sure I could get us up early enough for the ski bus so we may do this again next winter, but when the kids are bigger and I’ve hopefully outgrown my phobia of waking sleeping babies too early, the bus it is!

This year we rented a car during Spring Break to stay near family in Venice Beach and easily drive up to my hometown of Santa Barbara. I dream of finding a way to visit Los Angeles without a car while still seeing my family as much as when we have wheels.

So cars for big things, but not for everyday things. Oh, and we’ve carpooled with friends three times over the last year, but that’s it for our car stuff.

I feel that I can’t write about being car-free and using cars without bringing up one specific beast: Uber.
I hate Uber.
I hate Uber because every Prius driver parked in the bike lane, running a red light, turning right on red without checking for bikes in the bike lane, staring at a phone while speeding down the street is probably an Uber driver.
I hate Uber because Uber Is Quietly Terrible For Women And Black People: Study.
I hate Uber because Why Uber’s Expansion Plans Would Make City Life Unbearable.

I started writing this blog post months and months ago so those Uber stories are dated and I’m sure there is even more horrible data available now. I’ve never used Uber and never will and it seems like there are plenty of better options out there (and please feel free to correct me/argue with me/disagree with me in the comments because I don’t understand why Uber is so popular).

One good (?) thing about my taking so long to finish this blog post is that I can put my money where my mouth is: I broke my foot four weeks ago and my bike-based life holds up to the test as I’m successfully biking with a broken foot.

Photo courtesy VisitKitsap.org

E-Bikes and me
Also thanks to the delay, I finally go around to posting about last summer’s week in Portland with an e-bike. It was awesome! That week was eye opening and I TOTALLY GET IT ABOUT ELECTRIC ASSIST NOW! We spent the week living the equivalent of a car-based life, but with a bike. Yeah, it was fun, but it also wasn’t our normal pace of life. I guess renting an e-cargo-bike in Portland is the equivalent of renting a car in Southern California. Except so much better.

Photo by Cory Poole

Perhaps there will come a day I need an e-assist to keep up my current non-e-assist-bike-paced life. That’s OK by me, but for now and the foreseeable future, this is it.

11 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Have an E-Assist (or Why I Don’t Want a Car-Replacement Bike)

  1. Did your using an e-bike briefly in P-land contribute to dissatisfaction in you and family when you returned to human power at home? My concern is partly that it would alter my expectations of myself and partly that it alters expectations of car drivers when they encounter cargo bicyclists out on the road— expecting them to accelerate faster, climb faster, and all. I am concerned about e-bikes effect on the car driving public’s expectations and, hence, their patience or lack thereof. Thanks for considering this. John Foster

    • Perhaps if we’d been on the e-bike a lot longer than a week our perspective would have shifted? But my kids are at an age (10 and 7) that they enjoy riding their own bikes so the vacation bike was truly a temporary break from the norm.

      I think there would have to be a LOT of e-bikes for expectations as a whole to change. But that’s something interesting to consider.

  2. I’ve used a bike for many years. Then started a job where the commute was only possible by car. Now that I’m that much older, my knees would appreciate the e-assist!

  3. This was a great read. It totally gave me new fuel to making my lifestyle less car centered. Of course it is already predominately that way although moving to Baltimore been a bit more challenging. Public transit here sucks so, so bad. Most of the distances for which I would have taken a bus in Portland require three transfers here and it often takes longer than biking, ugh. My hubby has become quite enamored with Uber allowing my kids to get quite enamored with it as well and start begging to take Uber when the weather is 90+ degrees which it most days in the summer. I am good as resisting most days but they do wear me down. I also just ordered some cooling neck wraps and caps. There is no bad weather just bad gear right? Hopefully that helps make them a bit more comfortable. Also, I like that you give yourself permission to say no to activities that are outside of your comfortable biking busing route. I am generally a high participator and have a hard time turning down any invite even if it is in the burbs. I want to start giving myself permission to say no to these social invites they really do make me miserable and take a huge chunk of my precious weekend hours.

    • Heh, I guess we don’t get invited to a lot of stuff. But we’ve been lucky in being able to bike/bus/bike to activities far away (like trampolines in Kirkland and roller rink in Lynnwood). And that’s usually just one bus, I have to admit I had transferring between buses. Some cities certainly make it a lot easier than others! As do some climates–sorry about the heat! I would have a lot of trouble with that.

  4. Just received my copy of _Urban Cycling_. Looking forward to reading it!

    In my experience, e-bikes make it possible for more people to live car-free-er.

    I have to work, and to the extent that I can choose between workplaces, all of my choices involve enough distance and elevation change that I can’t realistically bike without electric assist. My employer is already more enlightened than most in accommodating my kid pick-up and drop-off schedule, and I’d really be pushing my luck to add another 30-45min in each direction by removing the electric assist from the equation.

    For someone without similar time and workplace constraints, I can see why the exercise benefit and financial economy of a conventional bike would be appealing. But for me, it’s car or e-bike.

    Thanks for doing what you do. I appreciate your work.

  5. When I bought my long tail, I considered getting e-assist, but decided to try it without first. I’ve never added the assist, but sometimes fantasize about it a bit climbing up a big hill with kids and gear. Honestly, the thing that stops me the most from going for it? When I get up that big hill, I feel so proud and happy! If I had e-assist, I feel like the physical challenges of biking would be lost, as I’d totally be on that throttle the while time!

    • From everyone I know, I think if (when?) you add an e-assist, you’ll love it! But yeah, if it’s there, you’re going to most likely always use it to some degree. One thing you and I don’t have to worry about is “range anxiety” which I felt that week on the e-cargo-bike in Portland! I’m sure it gets easy to deal with in time.

      • Yes, and now I feel like I’ve done it this long without e assist, so why bother. It sure would add some longer destinations into the bike comfort zone though. Also, although 6.5 now, m still often chooses to come on my bike with the toddler. I feel like I’m rocking the 80 or so lbs of kids, but don’t know how long I’ll be able to say that.

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