E-bikes are booming, whether or not we’re ready

Sales have spiked the past several years. In Snohomish County, they’re expected to gain popularity.

The daily work commute is a breeze for Mara Wiltshire, if a bit breezy.

From her Northwest neighborhood home to the Snohomish County campus in Everett, it’s about two miles and a little downhill. But when she visits her parents who live on Rucker Hill, the pedal assist of her Norco Scene VLT electric bicycle comes in handy and turns an arduous trek or an unnecessary drive into a quick jaunt.

“It’s like a regular bike, just easier to ride,” Wiltshire said. “It’s kind of cool, it’s stealthy, it doesn’t make any noise.”

She’s a recent convert to the biking life after she took a demonstration ride in March thanks to Eric Smith of Bayside Bikes. It was the first time she had been on a bicycle in decades.

Wiltshire bought the e-bike, as they commonly are called, the next day. With a cost around $2,500, the bike was a major expense for her and her family, which they made as an “environmental choice” to reduce her emissions that contribute to climate change.

“I hadn’t even been on a regular bike in like 20 years,” she said. “It was so fun.”

E-bikes are gaining ground in the cycling and transportation worlds. Sales grew 800% between 2014 and 2018, according to a fiscal note for proposed legislation to give buyers a sales tax break.

Statewide taxable e-bike sales accounted for over $16.5 million in 2019, according to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Last year, that figure passed $25 million, of which over $14.3 million was from King County and more than $944,000 from Snohomish County. Those sales figures were from bike shops and don’t include retailers such as Costco or REI, Department of Revenue spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said.

It’s one reason state Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, drew up House Bill 1330 that would have exempted sales tax on purchases of e-bikes, and up to $200 for helmets, lights, locks and repair and service plans during the same transaction.

Encouraging e-bike purchases could spur reductions in passenger vehicle use and thus carbon pollution, local air pollution and vehicle traffic, wrote the bill’s author. And it would save commuters money.

The state House passed the bill, but it lapsed in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. If it had passed, it would have taken effect in August and expired in 2027 or when $500,000 in total retail sales tax exemptions were granted, whichever came first. The bill could have been extended if e-bike sales increased 25% compared to sales in 2019.

A California congressman proposed a $1,500 e-bike tax credit for similar reasons to Shewmake’s bill.

But as the transports become more popular, some are hoping to see governments set rules around their proper place on the roads and trails.

In Everett, Public Works principal engineer Tom Hood said future code and master plan updates likely will factor in e-bikes to the city’s long-range plans and infrastructure. Christina Anna Curtis, the city’s active transportation engineer, said the city needs to consider how it wants to categorize and treat the devices — as bikes or vehicles, depending on how fast they can go — and that the existing Bike Master Plan didn’t review them.

“I think that’s something that will be looked at in the coming years,” she said.

As far as road and trail space, they don’t need anything more than what normal bike lanes already have. But charging infrastructure could be useful, similar to bike repair stations that are becoming more common.

When Wiltshire arrives for her job with Snohomish County, she leaves her bike in the county-owned garage in a secured bike locker where it can charge at no cost to her. The allure of not paying to park a vehicle is one reason she bought the e-bike.

The bike cage has two outlets so four bicycles can charge at the same time. She only charges it there once a week for a couple of hours, but she imagined that someone who rode farther or used the pedal assist motor more vigorously would want more accessible charging facilities.

“If you’re going to a job or a place where you go every single day, it would help,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s necessary if you’re just tooling around.”

Edmonds’ Public Works director Phil Williams said he thinks an e-bike can make the hilly terrain of his city and others in the Puget Sound region more bikeable, which includes stations to power their batteries.

“There’s going to have to be places to charge your bike,” he said. “I think it’s going to appeal to an older demographic as well. … I think there’s a whole unaccessed market out there for these e-bikes.”

Luke Distelhorst, an Edmonds City Councilman and active transportation advocate, agreed with Williams’ assessment that the electric motor bicycles could be a boon for the city’s bike-ability because all roads in and out of downtown have hills.

The insurance for group rides with BIKES Club of Snohomish County only allows Class 1 e-bikes which cap motor assistance at 20 mph, club president Rick Proctor said. Over the past several years he has been with the club, he has seen more people on the roads and trails with e-bikes, and even some club members bring them out — sometimes with Class 2 or 3 e-bikes that aren’t allowed on group rides.

But there are constraints to e-bikes that make them a challenge to accommodate. If one has a malfunction or runs out of battery power and the rider isn’t capable of going farther, there’s not much the others can do short of offering their phone so someone can pick them up.

“We’re not going to push you, we can’t give you a jump start,” Proctor said. “I’d say 90% of people who ride bicycles ride the old-fashioned way, which is human-powered. I’ve ridden one and it was fun. But I’m going to stay with my old bike.”

Have a question? Call 425-339-3037 or email streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence.

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