Photo by Jarl Berg of Bike Friday

An Electrifying Transit Option

Rep. Peter DeFazio explores e-bikes during tour of Eugene Electric Bicycles

The first thing that grabs Peter DeFazio’s attention when he walks inside Eugene Electric Bicycles is a dog. The longtime Oregon state representative passes by a fleet of electric bicycles (e-bikes) and walks up to what appears to be a husky, then crouches down and starts to pet the dog. 

“He does this all the time,” Dan Whelan, DeFazio’s district director, tells me with a laugh. 

After getting some dog time, DeFazio stands up and directs all of his attention to the tour of Eugene Electric Bicycles, the only store between Ashland and Portland completely dedicated to e-bikes. 

DeFazio, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, says he’s interested in ways to include more electric vehicles as alternatives to cars on the road. He’s looking at electric scooters (popular in Portland on both roadways and at the bottom of the Willamette River) and e-bikes as solutions to reducing the number of cars. 

An e-bike is a pretty simple concept. It’s a normal bike with an electric motor to assist the cyclist. The type of batteries that power an e-bike varies, but Eugene Electric Bicycles has e-bikes with lithium batteries, and most models have a power source with a life that can power a ride between 20 and 60 miles. 

Depending on the model, the motor kicks in at different times — based on your cycling cadence or just ongoing. E-bikes can take on various frames, but when DeFazio sees an electric mountain bike, he says: “That’s cheating.”  

Before I get on one, I agree with DeFazio on the concept of e-bikes: It sounds like a fun ride, but doesn’t putting a motor on a bike defeat the idea of cardio exercise? 

On the way to Skinner Butte, DeFazio rides an e-bike with a passenger seat occupied by one of his staffers. He ditches the ride at the playground, saying there was a balance problem and jumps on a single-seat e-bike. Now he’s cycling a lot faster. 

Where am I? I’m somewhere in the back of the group. I don’t want to look too aggressive in trying to catch up with DeFazio. Plus, as I pedaled my e-bike along the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail to the top of Skinner Butte, one of the owners of Eugene Electric Bicycles, Tom Drakes, tells me all about e-bikes. 

Drakes says e-bikes are popular in the U.S. with older people. Because of the motor, cyclists don’t need as much leg strength for hill climbing as one might need riding a normal bike. He adds that when someone owns an e-bike, that person is more likely to take it out for a ride than a normal bike. 

I’m still not sold on e-bikes until I realize how nice it is to have some assistance in riding up Skinner Butte. I notice the motor more, allowing my legs to spin slowly.

Once I learn how to operate the e-bike properly on flat ground, I realize how fast an e-bike can go without much effort from the cyclist. I’m easily hitting 20 mph, but I refrain from going too fast on the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail; I don’t want to run over someone and cause a political crisis for DeFazio. 

Unless you’re used to the high cost of quality road bikes, e-bikes at Eugene Electric Bicycles have a hefty price tag; an e-bike will cost you at least $2,500. 

That relatively exorbitant price tag is nothing like the cost of a car, Drakes tells me. If you have an e-bike, you’re more likely to use it for an in-town commute, he adds.

For some, commuting a longer distance of, say, five miles can mean showing up to work sweaty, especially during summer. An e-bike allows a commuter to avoid a sweaty arrival, making it a practical alternative to a car, he says.  

DeFazio is also looking into e-scooters as a way to electrify transit options. Earlier in 2019, the Portland Bureau of Transportation reported that 71 percent of Portlanders used the e-scooter program for transportation purposes and 34 percent of residents used an e-scooter instead of driving — either a personal car or ride-share program. The report also found shortcomings such as fare equity, and safety and traffic concerns. 

As the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure prepares for the surface transit reauthorization bill next year, DeFazio and the committee traveled to France, Sweden, Germany and Denmark to explore different transportation methods, his staff tells Eugene Weekly. 

DeFazio says he’s going to look into subsidizing more transit options like e-bikes and e-scooters for communities, which he says will solve a lot of infrastructure problems and help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. 

Although a lithium-powered battery does make bike riding easier, DeFazio says he wants to bring back a program that introduces bike commutes to children. He says he’s going to push for more federal funds for Safe Routes to School, a program whose mission intends to teach primary school students the importance of riding bikes to school.  

After the e-bike ride, we return to Eugene Electric Bicycle. DeFazio rode different models of e-bikes and switched e-bikes with me without asking, and it seems he’s a convert. 

“I think I’m ready to buy one,” DeFazio says.