'Rebooting the bike for Vermont:' Brattleboro area's increase in e-assist bikes inspires state initiative


BRATTLEBORO — Sheila Humphreys is concerned about climate change.

"So I'm interested in ways to lighten my footprint on the planet while also getting exercise and more time in nature," said Humphreys, who lives and works in Brattleboro. "It's been challenging for me to bike regularly since my daughter was born eight years ago, so I was looking for ways to commute and shop by bike that would work for my current lifestyle as a working mom."

Humphreys considered the options around electric assist cargo bikes after a consultation with Dave Cohen, director of VBike, which is the state initiative started two years ago to inspire more people to get around on two wheels. She ended up purchasing a Yuba Mondo long tail cargo bike from Burrows Specialized Sports in Brattleboro. The bike has an electric motor and it can fit two children on the back or one child with two or three bags of groceries.

Since last fall, Humphreys has used the bike as a main source of transportation. She said she loves it and so does her daughter.

"It's our favorite way to travel around town, and we can often get places faster than we would by car because we aren't slowed down as much by traffic or trying to find a parking space," Humphreys said. "Riding the bike puts a smile on my face because I know I'm getting fresh air, exercise and decreasing my carbon footprint. It's a win-win-win!"

Most of Vermont has an outdated view on what a bike can do, Cohen said. He blames the United States bicycling industry, which he said has created several generations of people who think of bikes as toys. The website, vbikesolutions.org, features information on changing that perception while employing the slogan, "Rebooting the bike for Vermont."

For Cohen, the number of people using electric assist bikes in Brattleboro is inspirational for other areas of Vermont.

"We know that there are at least 75 e-assist bikes in the Brattleboro area, which is up from four or five just three years ago," said Cohen, whose free consultations allow people to test the bikes and look at e-assist conversion kits. "There are also a number of other folks that have purchased their e-assist bikes or cargo bikes from stores outside the state or purchased them online because of the synergistic impact of all the bikes they are seeing on the streets and the work VBike is doing."

He anticipates the number of e-assist bicycles in Brattleboro will double to at least 150 next year and there's a chance of reaching 200. The conversion kit can give any bike the electric boost.

The newest craze seems to be e-assist cargo bikes, according to Cohen, who rides one himself and lives in Brattleboro. Additional space on these bikes allow for extra baggage or passengers.

Other options for e-assist bikes are being created. Seniors or people with knee troubles can find models that make it easier to throw their legs over the frame.

Josh Traiger, who helps spread the VBike message with Cohen, said an approximately $4,000 e-assist bike can pay for itself in about two seasons.

"I'm one of the folks who saw Dave (Cohen) riding all over the place," Traiger said. "After a season of riding, I'm forever changed."

Kris "KJ" Johnson said he used a bike as his main ride in his youth. Getting older, he thought of it as a mode of transportation for kids or as a "recreational vehicle."

Some research on e-assist bikes changed his mindset.

"My primary hang-up was arriving at my destination sweaty and in need of a shower. My secondary concern was carrying load," said Johnson, who began experimenting with an electric motor last year when he had his old mountain bike converted to a "commuter" bike at Burrows.

He spent the rest of the summer riding nearly everywhere he needed to get to by bicycle, he said, even in the rain. The only thing preventing him from pedaling to a destination was if he had to carry a passenger or a load was deemed too large too fit on the bike.

This summer, Johnson upgraded to a Yuba Mudo cargo bike. He said he can now carry about 250 pounds and his range was extended with a larger battery in the center drive.

"The great things about the e-bike is I still get a good workout," Johnson said, noting that he only uses the electric motor for help getting up hills. "I get to say hi to people as I pass by, smell the smells and generally feel more connected with this great town as I move around on my bike, instead of in my car."

Brattleboro Farmers Market Manager Meghan Houlihan always considered herself a "utilitarian cyclist," meaning she would get herself one place to the next via bicycle. When she had three children, she said she became frustrated by how "car-bound" she was until a friend showed her a video of a woman on the West Coast who cycled everywhere with six kids in tow.

Houlihan ended up ordering one from a bike builder in California whose website can be found at cetmacargo.com. She calls it a "soccer mom's bike" and has owned it for four years.

"My bike is a bit different from the other ones you see in town — it has a long platform in the front fitted with a large box that I built to fit my three young kids side-by-side," she explained. "It also has an electric assist, which is essential, given the weight of the bike and Vermont's hills. My two oldest children bike themselves now, but my 5-year-old rides in it, along with groceries, recycling and so forth."

Riding the bike from Putney to the Brattleboro Farmers' Market and back almost every Saturday, Houlihan said it's "really easy" for her to throw boxes and folders into the bike box and hit the road. She drives her daughter to school on the bike, and also does her banking and shopping.

It took Houlihan two years to get the right electric motor on her bike and get everything working properly. She described the process as "a labor of love, to be sure."

Tim Whitney, a self-described athlete and cyclist who values athletics as a lifestyle for his family, said he saw the electric assist as a way to do more with a bicycle. He can go grocery shopping, drop the kids off at school and get to sporting events.

"I love the interaction with the environment that you get from riding a bicycle and saw an e-bike as a way to increase those experiences to include things that traditionally would be done with a car," he said. "Also, it is nice to take some miles off my car. Plus, it is good fun."

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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