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Electric bikes are one alternative to paying the high price of gas

High gas prices today are at historic highs. And it’s an opportunity to switch from cars to clean transportation. KPBS Science and Technology reporter Thomas Fudge tells about people whose alternate mode of travel is an electric bike.

Pamela Hill smiles and rings her bike bell as she shows off her pedal-assist electric bike. She rides it from her home in Encanto to run errands at Sprouts and Target, and sometimes just for exercise.

It is a Class 1 pedal-assist bike, which means she has to pedal it, but a motor in the rear hub gives her a helpful push. She’s had the bike for going on two years.

“My world of places I would entertain going opened up vastly, just because of the amount of hills in San Diego. Now I don't worry about the hills,” Hill said.


Related: In wake of cycling deaths, San Diego ramps up biking infrastructure

Today’s historically high gas prices are creating some hardship — but also an opportunity to switch from driving cars to using cleaner transportation such as electric bikes. Reducing greenhouse emissions and improving the health of people is the goal of the San Diego nonprofit Pedal Ahead, which provided Hill with her bike.

Pedal Ahead lends e-bikes to people of qualifying income levels. People selected by the group can use the bike and eventually own it if they log enough miles. One of the sponsors, the Left Coast Fund, donated 400 electric bikes to the cause. So far, 263 bikes have been distributed, and the group hopes that the remaining bikes will be lent out by April.

Other groups funding or supporting Pedal Ahead include SDG&E, San Diego County and Uptown Bicycles in Normal Heights, the shop where people in the program get their bikes serviced.

“What I like to say is: Riding a regular bike, a nonelectric bike, is like running, and riding an electric bike is like walking — you still get a good exercise,” said Curtis Allen, the owner of Uptown Bicycles.


Allen said there were different classes of electric bikes. Some have a throttle that runs the bike entirely with the motor. With pedal assist, you still get a workout, though you may not work up a sweat.

San Diego’s challenging topography is something that prevents some people from viewing biking as a good way to get around. E-bikes are one solution to that.

“Another thing I like to say about electric bikes. It’s like riding a beach cruiser anywhere in town. So you can go along the beach and it’s very low effort. With an electric bike, you can do that anywhere in San Diego,” Allen said.

Ed Clancy is the founder of Pedal Ahead. He said the 263 riders enrolled in the program so far had cut carbon emissions a lot when you consider the miles they would have put on cars.

The carbon emissions that are being reduced by the e-bike riders and, you know, 18.3 metric tons,” said Clancy. “Our riders have logged, or gone, over 200,000 miles over 18 months."

Allen said bicycle culture was changing as more people have begun riding and as more people have come to accept electronic assistance, which can be crucial for older people or people who are not quite fit enough to scale a steep San Diego hill.

E-bikes are not cheap. They range from $1,500 to $5,000. That’s why Hill said she was grateful to Pedal Ahead for getting her one to use. How far does she go?

“Round-trip I’m comfortable going between 30 and 35 miles,” Hill said.

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