On any given sunny afternoon, the recently completed Wilma Dykeman Greenway in Asheville’s River Arts District buzzes with the whir of spokes. Bicyclists cruise alongside the French Broad, taking advantage of a path that’s safely isolated from cars, smoothly paved — and almost completely flat.
Leave the floodplain for the slopes that lead into downtown, and bicycles become a much less common sight. While recreational pedalers are drawn to the ease of riverside routes, Western North Carolina’s rugged topography makes cycling a challenging prospect for many who might use bikes as transportation in daily life.
According to the 2019 American Community Survey compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, just 0.2% of workers in the four-county Asheville metropolitan area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison) commute by bike, less than half the national average. By comparison, 79.2% of area employees drive alone to work; 7.8% carpool, with the remainder walking, taking public transit or working at home.
Torin Kexel thinks he can change those numbers. Together with his wife, Alice, and business partner Ritchie Rozzelle, he opened Asheville’s first dedicated dealership for electric bicycles in May at 225 Coxe Ave. The business is co-located with The Flying Bike, an e-bike tour business that the Kexels have operated since 2017.
“E-bikes just in themselves allow people access to a lot of places that they might not otherwise go if they were on what my mechanic phrased as ‘acoustic bikes,’” Kexel says. “In Asheville, you can’t go more than a half-mile without hitting a hill. These just flatten the hills.”
And the time is ripe for e-bikes to take off, suggests Rozzelle. As engineers work to evolve other forms of electric transportation, such as cars and buses, technological improvements in cost and efficiency will likely trickle down to lighter vehicles such as bikes.
“There’s a future where the components, the battery and motor, are getting smaller and cheaper, so that there shouldn’t be much reason why you couldn’t get an electric version of almost any bike. I think it’s going to become much more the norm rather than the exception,” Rozzelle says. And that shift, he continues, could help transform how WNC gets around.
Lean green machines
Research on the transportation impacts of e-bikes, says Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, indicates that they can make a significant dent in automobile use. He cites a 2017 survey of e-bike owners, conducted by the Portland, Ore.-based National Institute for Transportation and Communities, which found that nearly 46% of commuting trips and over 30% of personal errands made by e-bike would otherwise have been made by car.
“Why do people travel the way they do? Really, it’s habit,” Winkler says. “We’ve all gotten into these habits based on safety, convenience, cost and general enjoyment. I think e-bikes are a new product that might make some people rethink their habits.”
Rozelle has already seen this rethinking in action through the bike dealership. He recalls selling an e-bike to a cook at The Lobster Trap in downtown Asheville who was looking for a new way to commute.
“He would have probably in some other scenario bought a scooter or an old car,” Rozelle says. “But he was interested in having something quiet and clean that could get him to work easily and affordably, so he bought an e-bike strictly for that utilitarian purpose.”
Compared to both gasoline-powered and electric cars, e-bikes are strikingly less polluting. According to the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, gas-only cars emit the equivalent of 381 grams (0.84 pounds) of carbon dioxide per mile; the power generated to run an electric car creates 123 grams (0.27 pounds) of CO2 per mile. The NITC estimates that running an e-bike emits less than 5 grams (0.01 pounds) of CO2 per mile.
Although e-bikes are more expensive than comparable standard bicycles — Pedego, the brand sold by the Kexels and Rozzelle, offers models ranging from $1,700 to $5,500 new — they cost less than most used cars, prices of which have been surging in recent months. And with a range of up to 55 miles on a single charge, Rozzelle says, e-bikes could complete most commutes within Buncombe County or even between Asheville and Hendersonville.
Asheville city government, in keeping with City Council’s 2036 strategic vision, has sought ways to jump-start the wider adoption of cycling and other forms of transport beyond the car. In 2018, the city contracted with Charlotte-based Alta Planning and Design to conduct a feasibility study on establishing bike-share and e-scooter programs.
The nearly $64,000 study, completed in May 2019, recommended that Asheville adopt an e-bike share system with designated parking stations at a potential cost of $3.4 million over five years. Although the results were shared with several city committees, staff never brought the proposal before City Council.
“At that time the bike-share and e-scooter industries were rapidly evolving, and the legal system (including in North Carolina) was attempting to catch up. Additionally, community input that was received during the development of the draft plan was very split on whether e-scooters would be appropriate in Asheville,” says Jessica Morriss, the city’s assistant transportation director, regarding the project’s stalled progress. “There also was no identified budget to implement either the bike-share or an e-scooter program. These reasons ultimately led us to decide to pause the conclusion of the study.”
Morriss says city staff has recently restarted conversations on the bike share portion of the study with the Bicycle Pedestrian Task Force and the Multimodal Transportation Commission. She adds that Asheville is also developing master plans for greenways, accessibility and pedestrian infrastructure to further nonautomobile transportation and will conduct additional public engagement in the coming months.
Rozelle, who previously worked as the transportation demand management coordinator for the Land of Sky Regional Council, worries that Asheville may be unprepared for the change in transit modes he anticipates. “I think the city’s going to find itself in a place of catching up with the demand that’s created by e-bikes,” he says. “Before this, the hills were kind of keeping the number of bikers low. Now, that’s not an impediment.”
Paving the way
Winkler with the FBRMPO says that the best way local governments can respond to e-bikes is by constructing more bike infrastructure. He emphasizes the need to stitch together existing routes, as outlined in the 2013 Blue Ridge Bike Plan, and create regional interconnectivity through projects like the proposed Hellbender Regional Trail.
Federal action, Winkler adds, may help WNC build out those facilities. He points to additional transportation funding approved by Congress as part of COVID-19 relief bills, as well as $20 billion for roadway safety and “vulnerable users” — including cyclists — included in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan infrastructure proposal. Winkler says Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has also expressed greater willingness to think beyond the car in his department’s work.
But regardless of governmental policies, Torin Kexel is confident that e-bike use will grow across the region. The experience of zipping up a hill on electric power, he says, is enough to make converts out of first-time riders.
“I’ve seen people, 80% of whom have never been on an e-bike before, make joyous noises right here in this parking lot when they first pedal out. If I could have a montage of all the ‘Woo! Wow!’ moments, it’d be incredible,” Kexel says. The use of e-bikes is, he says, “really going to replace car miles, because it’s more joyful.”