Pete Prebus is the guy at Electric Bike Report, a website dedicated to getting the word out about electric bikes through e-bike news, reviews, guides, and general e-bike advocacy. Pete wants to encourage more people to ride bikes by providing good info about e-bikes and all the benefits (all the time) they have over driving a car. Pete has been a long time cyclist (racer, mountain, road, cyclo-cross, commuter, bike polo, etc.) and sees the e-bike as a great way to get the non-cyclist into bike commuting as well as just having fun on a bicycle.
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This is a series of articles that are based on interviews with commuter and electric bike specific shop owners to explore how their niche businesses maybe getting more people on bikes.
What better place than San Francisco for an electric bike. Those hills are insanely steep!
In this article I interview Brett from The New Wheel electric bike shop in San Francisco California. Right now The New Wheel is a "mobile bike shop."
Brett makes a good point about e-bikes getting people who may already ride, to ride more. Even as tough as some of us are, we all get lazy sometimes and want the "easy button." When we are feeling a little low on energy, the electric bike is a great way to say, "I'll still ride and leave the car at home."
Commute by Bike (CbB): A little background on you. Why did you decide to start your business specializing in commuter and e-bikes?
Brett: I started thinking about the idea of starting an e-bike business during my last semester at UC Berkeley. While I was an avid cyclist (I don’t own a car and get everywhere by bike or public transportation) I had never even tried an electric bicycle. My interest in electric bicycles really began on an intellectual level: I really liked the concept of combining a bit of leg power and a bit of battery power in a seamless way. It is the zen of doing more with less, an idea that is growing in popularity I think. I figured that e-bikes had the potential to revolutionize the way people got around, especially as cities such as San Francisco began to embrace bicycling in public policy.
I had in my mind an elegant electric bicycle that was easy to operate and maintain, and really practical for getting around San Francisco–even up the most daunting hills.
Again, at that point, I hadn’t even tried an electric bicycle before. Once I finished my History degree, I immediately began trying electric bikes, looking for a high quality, elegant bike that would work for San Francisco and inspire confidence in customers who were often overwhelmed by the variety of e-bikes available.
CbB: Could you give us a description of your store?
Brett: At the moment, The New Wheel is a mobile store. We do demos across the city at farmers markets and the like, and also offer personal test rides that can be signed up for on our website.
The personal test rides are especially nice. We have a great trailer that we hitch on the back of one of our OHM e-bikes, and then we transport our range of e-bikes to customers houses. These personal test rides work well because they allow us to spend more time with customers, and allow our customers to try out our bikes in their neighborhoods: very important in a city like San Francisco where each neighborhood has dramatically different topographies.
We get the majority of our customers from the community demos we do around San Francisco. Many customers also find us online at www.newwheel.net. Most of our servicing and support is mobile as well. All our bikes come with one full tune-up which is performed at a place and time convenient to our customers.
We carry bikes by OHM Cycles, a great company out of Vancouver that makes high quality electric bikes, and Sanyo, which produces really elegant e-bikes at entry-level prices.
My focus is on selling bikes that are of the highest quality, and that’s why I have been really happy with OHM and Sanyo’s products.
I deliver each bike we sell myself by e-bike.
CbB: What is your average customer like? Currently a cyclist? Hasn’t ridden a bike in years? Young, old, middle age? Environmentally conscious or not?
Brett: Our customers are really diverse. Generally, they are people who own a bicycle, bicycle sometimes, but would like to bicycle more often. Most of our customers have really practical uses in mind for their new e-bikes: commuting to work is generally the top reason for purchasing one of our bikes. All of our customers have at least one major hill between their house and their workplace, and so they are thrilled with being able to effortlessly get to work and back, and never break a sweat – unless they feel like a workout.
One thing that I have been really happy about is that our bikes are appealing to all age groups, young and old. I think part of the reason for this is that people are beginning to see e-bikes in a separate category from bicycles or mopeds: they are practical and simple to own and operate like a bike, and speedy and require less of a commitment to working out, like a moped.
Our number one selling bike is the OHM Urban XU700, a purpose-built electric bike with the BionX motor system. BionX systems are both throttle and pedal assist. What we have found is that initially customers will think that using a throttle is the way to go with e-bikes, but once they start riding, they are much happier with the powerful pedal assistance.
CbB: Are people looking for a bike to be their car alternative or do they just want to have fun? or both 🙂
Brett: My goal is to position our bikes as a car alternative. I’m really in to the practical and utilitarian aspects of electric bicycles. I’ve found that for those who own a car already, the e-bike offers a way to phase out their cars, but not get rid of them completely. For those who don’t own a car–and over 30% of households in SF do not own a car currently–c-bikes are another reason never to purchase one!
Obviously, our bikes are also a lot of fun: the first thing one of our customers did after purchasing his bike for his daily commute to work was to take it on a long ride up to the top of twin peaks in SF (a location featured in our promo video).
One of our customers is a Pilates instructor in San Francisco. Not only does she live atop one of San Francisco’s famous hills, but she also had to commute between a number of Pilates studios each day to teach classes. She was seriously considering a car or at least a moped as a way to make her days a little less grueling. She purchased an OHM Urban e-bike from us and has been getting around town by bike everyday since.
CbB: What are your thoughts on the future of commuter and e-bikes in your town and around the world?
Brett: I am very bullish. San Francisco is already in the midst of a biking renaissance, with trips by bike having expanded by over 40% or so in just the last four years. I think that as more cities–including San Francisco–embrace biking generally, we will see a corresponding increase in those buying electric bicycles. I am especially excited about the next generation of bike sharing that will include electric bicycles. In a city like San Francisco, I’m convinced that the combination of electric bicycle bike sharing and dedicated bike infrastructure will do wonders for urban transportation at relatively low costs.
CbB: What are some of the hurdles that you face in getting more people on bikes/e-bikes?
Brett: The biggest hurdle is safety. I talk to countless people who just don’t feel safe biking on city streets. While there have been great improvements, and things are getting ever better in San Francisco as the legal injunction that stopped the city from constructing new bike infrastructure has finally been lifted, there is still a long way to go. I think with improvements in bike safety we will see the growth of a bike culture that includes all age groups.
The lack of bicycle infrastructure in the past has stunted the development of an inclusive bicycling culture. I think as the urban landscape is redeveloped on a more human scale, we will see the rise of a broad-based bicycling culture in San Francisco on par with Amsterdam or Copenhagen–where e-bikes have already really caught on.
CbB: What accessories do most customers buy to make their commute more convenient and fun on a bike?
Brett: I am a big fan of the Burley Travoy bicycle trailer system. These trailers extend the utility of our e-bikes, bringing them on par with cars in terms of hauling ability. Customers have been really into these trailers.
It is great to see that Brett is getting the word out by being a "mobile store" and making it easy for people to check out these bikes.
Concerns over bike commuting danger come up again. Bert from NyceWheels and Elise from Cycle 9 mentioned it as well. That is three out of four shop owners that were interviewed. It is definitely a concern and a perception. Hopefully some improvements in cycling infrastructure along with some bike commuting education can overcome some of this fear.
Well that wraps up the interviews with the commuter and electric bike specific shop owners. Stay tuned for the conclusion, where I breakdown what I think we have gathered from these shop owners and if these niche shops are helping get more people on bikes.