Last summer, I moved to Silicon Valley for a new job, sold my car, and bought an ebike. After riding my ebike 1000 miles, I wish I had made the switch a long time ago. Here’s how I did it and what I learned from it. And why you should make the switch too.
Why I Ditched the Car Commute
There are many reasons I decided to give up the car commute. At first, it was mostly because I was sick of sitting in a car, but as I became more serious about going carless, the reasons started to add up. Here’s a few of the major ones:
Prior to my ebike adventures, I was living in Los Angeles and spending over an hour in the car each way to work. 2 hours of my day vanished. 10 hours a week. More than an extra day of work each week, except without any work being done of course. For a typical M-F job, that’s over 500 hours a year…in the car.
I tried to optimize the time as best I could by listening to podcasts and audio books. And if you are stuck in a commute, I suggest you do the same. Still, I had difficulty concentrating and I couldn’t choose to spend my time doing something else. The opportunity cost was eating me away. I thought of all the things I could have accomplished with 500 extra hours a year. Maybe learn a new skill, write a mobile app, learn a new language. Instead I was at the wheel. This was my main motivation for ditching the car and the long commute.
There’s also the financial aspect. Cars are expensive to buy and maintain. We don’t necssarily realize it because it is spread over so many little expenses. By giving up the car, you’ll save a nice amount of cash each month that you can put toward other things or invest. The exact amount will vary widely depending on the car you have, the length of your commute, etc. Here’s how much I was spending on my car each month:
- Monthly car payment: $250
- Gas: $160
- 34 miles/day * 22 days/month = 748 miles/month, round to 800 miles
- 800 miles / 20 mpg = 40 gal of gas/ month
- 40 gal * $4 gal (darn California) = $160/month
- Insurance: $80
- Maintenance: $100
- Registration: $10
So by giving up the car, I could save at least $600 month, or $7,200 a year. If you have already paid off your car, it may look a lot cheaper, but I’ve found that maintenance is usually higher for older cars, and for newer cars, you have a lot of value tied up in the machine that you could get back by selling.
At this point, we know about how much we can save by giving up the car, but we need to replace the car with something else and compare the cost. I replaced the car with an ebike, and i’ll share the costs later on, but spoiler alert – it’s cheaper!
When I first started commuting long distance, it was a rather stressful experience. I wasn’t familiar with the route, which was mostly surface streets, or any of the traffic patterns. I needed to constantly refer to my GPS and pay close attention to road signs. As I repeated the route daily, I gradually learned the details and no longer needed a GPS. I figured as I became more comfortable, the stress level would drop. Yet, although it dropped, it quickly plateaued. I realized even when I am familiar with an area, there is a moderate but constant source of subtle stress when driving.
Turns out, driving is a major contributor to stress. The research around this is stunning. Studies have found that long commuting is “associated with increased blood pressure, musculoskeletal problems, lower frustration tolerance, and higher levels of anxiety and hostility”. Stress is really just a proxy for other problems, since it causes long term health issues.
All of this makes perfect sense when you think about it. Driving is mentally exhausting. Even in familiar areas, driving requires you to pay attention to your surroundings and constantly make micro decisions and adjustments. Many times, you are not in control and merely reacting to outside forces. Driving a car takes just enough focus to drain your mental energy that you could be spending on more important tasks. There’s no such thing as auto-pilot when you are in the driver seat.
Imagine playing a boring video game. You have to sit in a small chair, follow strict rules, you can’t crash, and you can’t stop playing until you win (reach your destination). And imagine you have to play this everyday for 2 hours. That’s the reality of commuting. I can’t imagine that stress is a good thing over the long term.
For me, I would drive an hour into the office, and by the time I arrived, I was exhausted and felt like I needed a break. But I hadn’t even started work yet. Not a great way to start a day – everyday.
Switching to an ebike
Ok, enough about why cars suck. Let’s talk about ebikes. Here’s some important things to consider when making the switch:
Before jumping in and investing a lot of money in an ebike, you need to make sure you have a viable path to work. This will vary a lot from person to person depending on your level of comfort, risk, and stamina. You want a route that is safe and easy to navigate – a route that you will WANT to take in the morning, not something you will dread and try to avoid.
For some people, this may mean you will need to move. Moving is a huge pain and isn’t always an option for various reasons. I was fortunate to be the situation of already moving to a new city, so I strategically looked for a home near a bike route.
Here are some more specific rules for how I chose a route:
Designated Bike Lane
As much as possible, I wanted a designated bike lane. These come in 3 different flavors known as Class I, II, and III. You can see some examples here. Class I bike paths are gold – a completely separate 2 lane paved path, like a mini road for cyclists only. Unfortunately, these are not especially common, since they are expensive and take up a lot of room. Class II are shared with the road, but do have a separate line marker for bikes. Class III are not real bike paths; the entire lane is shared between the car and the bike, and normally the car wins. Avoid these supposed paths if possible.
Most likely, your route will be a combination of several path classes, especially if you cross city boundaries. There are a lot of resources for finding good bike routes. Most cities will publish maps showing recommended bike routes and the class of each path. Here is an great example for San Mateo County. In general, Google Maps is a terrible resources for cyclists since it does not show the path class.
When choosing a route, obviously shorter is ideal, but I’d rather take a longer path that is safer (see above point). For example, I moved closer to the ocean that had a Class I bike path for part of the route. I could’ve found an overall shorter route, but without any good paths. Plus, the view is awesome. For max range, I would not recommend a route longer than 10 miles one way for most people, which is about 45 minutes of riding. Battery life is usually not a concern; a typical battery will give around 40 miles.
Building an Ebike
Buy vs Build
The first question to answer if whether you are going to buy a prebuilt ebike or build your own. When I was looking for an ebike in the Spring of 2018, the ebike market was still quite young and there was a huge premium on quality prebuilt ebikes that would sell for $4000-$5000. Anything under $3000 was cheap junk from China that was underpowered and would likely breakdown.
I came across several DIY communities online that were able to build solid ebikes for around $2000 all-in. They were using motor kits from a Chinese company Bafang that were much more robust and higher powered than motors on prebuilt bikes.
Since then, prebuilt ebikes have come a long way. The prices are coming down and the capability is going up. I’ve seen several decent bikes for around $3000. At this point, it is probably a toss up to buy vs build.
What I learned
I’m not a hardcore green advocate, but I appreciate doing things efficiently and find there are many benefits to not overcomplicating things such as commuting.
A car is great when you need to travel long distances or transport a lot of gear. But there’s something very wrong about using a 3000-lb machine to move a single person with a backpack several miles across town 5 days a week. It’s inefficient and completely unnecessary. So much emphasis today is put on supposedly green vehicles, yet few people consider whether a full vehicle is even needed.
An ebike is a far simpler solution and vastly more efficient means of commuting. Just for fun, let’s compare the energy usage of a Tesla to a typical ebike.
The EPA rated the Model S 90D’s energy consumption at 3.096 miles per kWh, or about 200 watt-hours per km. My 750 watt ebike motor uses a 52v battery with 13.5 Ah of capacity. On my typical round trip commute of 22km, I consume about 4 Ah of battery with light to moderate pedaling on a mostly flat path. This means I use 52v * 4 Ah = ~200 watt-hours total, or less than 10 watt-hours per km. This means on average, a Tesla uses 20 times the amount of energy as my ebike. Put another way, for a 5 day work week, one day of driving a Tesla consumes the equivalent energy to riding an ebike the entire month!
The simplicity of an ebike also means the upkeep is much simpler. An ebike doesn’t require any license, registration or insurance. I can easily charge it at home or on the go in a few hours with a standard 110v plug. Maintenance is straightforward, infrequent and most of it can be done DIY. I pump up my tires about once a month, and replace the chain and tires about every 9 months.
The “e” part of the ebike does mean it has more moving parts than a normal bike, but I have yet to have any issues with the motor or battery after a year, and I suspect it will last me at least 5 more years.
The best part about an electric bike is the freedom it brings – no other form of transportation is as flexibly or versatile. An ebike can be a bike for some of the time, but act like a light motorcycle when it needs to be. I can ride it on the road, in the bike lane, on a bike path, or on the sidewalk in a pinch – taking whatever route is the easiest. On my commute, I can easily pass by most backed up traffic, and then seamlessly transition to the dirt bike path along the bayshore. Even a motorcycle is restricted to the roads. There are few places you can’t ride your bicycle.
And when I arrive at my destination, I no longer have to worry about parking. I can usually ride straight to the door and find a bike rack nearby. Bonus if the parking would cost money.
This was the most unexpected benefit of an ebike –
I knew that a shorter commute would give me more energy in the morning, but I didn’t realize how much an ebike would boost it to another level. When most of us wake up, we feel sluggish and half-asleep, even after a great night of sleep. Our bodies are out of bed, but physically and mentally we’re still acting like we’re asleep, as if the energy is inactive. Getting up to sit down in a car only makes this worse.
Even a small amount of physical exercise sends a signal to the body that you are done sleeping and ready to engage. All the energy that has been built up the night before is suddenly unlocked and ready for use. An ebike is the perfect way to get just enough activity to kickstart this process. Instead of rolling into work half-asleep and spending the first 30 minutes waking myself up, I can go right to my desk and instantly start focusing. Going from a car to an ebike takes the same activity (commuting) and transforms it from an energy drain to an energy boost.
Going from a car to an ebike takes the same activity (commuting) and transforms it from an energy drain to an energy boost.
You would most certainly get similar results by working out in the morning, but with an ebike, you are building this habit directly into your day, forcing yourself to not skip out. As a bonus, you are combining commute with exercise, saving a time and increasing efficiency.
While the switch to an ebike has been great overall, there have been a few challenges to overcome.
- Inconsistent bike lanes: With a few exceptions, most bike lanes in the US are an afterthought, which means you’ll be riding in a separated green-paved bike lane one moment, and a few hundred yards later, it will abruptly disappear, and might reappear soon after. This normally happens at city boundaries, where two separate groups aren’t talking to each other. Just frustrating.
- Weather: While the Bay Area has great weather compared with many other places, it still receives a fair amount of rain in the winter. Riding in the rain is not fun. Even in light rain, water tends to collect on the sides of roads in the bike paths and quickly finds its way up your legs. It also takes significantly longer to brake on wet pavement. It’s not a deal breaker for me, but those are not the days I enjoy biking.
There are more reasons than ever to ditch the car, especially if you are stuck in a long commute. If you can’t tell, I’m extremely bullish on ebikes. The addition of a small electric motor to a standard bike makes commuting on this super bike accessible to just about anyone. It provides a means to exercise without the effort being a limiting factor in distance. All for a lower cost and healthier lifestyle. Time to ditch the car and get an ebike.