Josh Carp can’t go anywhere on his e-bike without someone asking him about it.
Kids swarm it when Carp picks up his oldest child at daycare. Adults pepper him with questions when he rides it to Bodo’s for bagels.
Carp’s not only happy to talk about his e-bike, he’ll let the adults borrow it. This summer, Carp started the Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library, where people can sign up to borrow one of the Carp family’s e-bikes for a week, free of charge, to see if e-biking might be right for them.
The library was booked solid through July and August, and September’s calendar is filling up, too.
E-bikes have become increasingly popular in the Charlottesville area, particularly over the past couple of years, said Mark McLewee, co-owner of Blue Wheel Bikes in the IX complex. Every day, multiple people visit the shop to ask questions about, or try out, the couple dozen models in stock.
Carp was one of those curious people, after seeing more and more people zipping around town on e-bikes. He wanted to see if an e-bike would fit into his life, too.
He checked out the stock at local bike shops, but the offerings were mostly out of Carp’s price range. And for those that were in his $1,500-ish budget, he wasn’t ready to spend that much after just a test drive in the parking lot.
He heard about an e-bike library in Vermont and wondered if something like it could work in Charlottesville. In May, he hosted a demonstration day at Meade Park, where a dozen people showed up with e-bikes, and about a dozen more tested them out on street rides, or ended up borrowing bikes for a couple of days.
Being able to try out other folks’ bikes in this way inspired Carp to buy two e-bikes that are now the base of the lending library. He hopes the library will allow people to experience for themselves the differences between e-bikes and mechanical bikes, of which there are many.
Because e-bikes are designed for comfort and commuting, they are heavier than mechanical bikes, have a sturdier build, and often have a step-through (instead of swing-the-leg-over) style frame. An adjustable motorized pedal assist or a throttle mechanism helps power the bike beyond the rider’s pedaling.
And because they run on electricity — just plug the removable battery into a wall socket to charge — they’re significantly better for the environment, and the wallet, than gas-powered cars.
All of this comes at a cost, though: e-bikes are more expensive than mechanical bikes (though cheaper to buy and maintain than a car). A quality, basic e-bike costs about $1,500 to $2,000 to start, and the price increases depending on features.
As for repairs and battery upgrades, most bike shops that sell e-bikes can service them, too, said McLewee.
Reducing carbon emissions is what motivates a lot of people to try out e-biking. About 30% of Charlottesville’s emissions come from transportation, according to data cited in the city’s Climate Action Plan. Greg Weaver, an avid bus rider and regular speaker on environmental and infrastructure issues at City Council meetings, is always looking for ways to reduce his personal contributions.
Weaver wanted to see if he liked riding an e-bike more than his mechanical bike, so he borrowed a RadRunner from the Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library in July.
Plus, “more and more friends and comrades were getting e-bikes and turning into evangelists,” said Weaver. “It was obvious that their e-bikes made it both easy and fun to ditch their car for most things.”
Weaver is now an e-bike convert. He loved the riding experience, how it made him feel like a part of his surroundings, how he barely broke a sweat on his hilly commute from Fry’s Spring to Woolen Mills.
He also loved feeling safe when riding, something he hadn’t experienced before. “I hesitate to ride my [mechanical] bike in the rain because I’m concerned about speeding down hills, hitting something slick, and eating it. The RadRunner feels like a tank — I had no problem running over branches I wouldn’t dare to tackle normally, and that led me to feel like I would also feel safe riding in the elements,” he said.
That feeling is common among e-bike riders, said McLewee of Blue Wheel Bikes. Most e-bikes can go 20 to 25 mph, making rides less strenuous and safer: “A really safe way to ride [bikes] with traffic is being able to get quickly up to pace with cars,” he said.
Weaver is saving up to buy a high end e-bike with a ride he describes as “buttery.” When he gets it, he imagines that he and his wife will ditch one of their two cars.
Most local e-bikers haven’t forsaken their cars entirely, though, because the city and surrounding counties lack the infrastructure for most area residents to be car-less.
After buying a cargo e-bike in 2019, Guinevere Higgins and her husband go weeks, sometimes months, without filling their cars’ gas tanks.
Higgins uses her bike — which is designed to tow up to 400 pounds — to drop off and pick up her kids at school. She grocery shops with it, rides it to the library, and on various other short, in-town trips. The only thing they can’t tow that they would like to is the family dog.
They also kept their cars because there are places that a bike of any kind simply can’t go safely.
Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s urban ring have bicycle and pedestrian networks, but they could be — and should be — safer and more comprehensive, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission wrote in its 2019 Jefferson Area Bike And Pedestrian Plan.
Just this week C-VILLE Weekly published a story about how unsafe roads in Albemarle’s urban ring are for anyone not in a vehicle.
Despite the relative safety of e-bikes, bikers still have to plan their routes carefully to minimize the risks of driving in traffic. For instance, Carp revised his route from his home near Forest Hills Park to Bodo’s Bagels on Preston Avenue to avoid Tenth Street NW, which doesn’t have a bike lane. Like all his routes, Carp tested this one out alone, during non-peak driving hours, first.
He also said he will never ride his e-bike on Fifth Street, which has been called a “race track” by residents, and where four fatal car crashes have happened in less than two years.
As for more rural areas such as outer Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson counties, the TJPDC wrote in its plan that while recreational biking is common, “there is minimal infrastructure” for it.
However, e-biking is finding a small foothold in at least one area of Albemarle County.
Matthew Lawless, who lives in Scottsville and works there as a town administrator, recently borrowed an e-bike from the lending library to see if his small, mostly rural town was e-bikeable.
To his surprise, it is. Lawless ran most of his work and personal errands on it, something he couldn’t do on either of his mechanical bikes, which he sold a couple years ago after not riding them frequently enough.
Some of his neighbors tried the bike, too. One liked it so much, he bought one right away and now uses it to commute from Scottsville to his teaching job in town.
Lawless called the e-bike “a game-changer,” and, like Weaver, is saving up to buy one.
For the e-bike curious, Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library and Livable Cville will hold an e–bike demonstration day at Meade Park on Sunday, Oct. 16, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Current e-bikers will bring their rigs, and Carp has invited local bike shops, as well as one from Washington, D.C., to bring some test models.
The demo and the library exist to encourage people to give e-biking a try, said Carp. If they happen to find an e-bike that works for them, great, and if not, that’s okay, too.
“There is no one solution to all transit problems,” Carp said. It’s just as important to him to advocate for better public transportation, better collective bargaining rights for public transit drivers, stricter emissions regulations, and more, as it is to encourage e-biking.
But for now, e-biking is an option, Carp said, and a fun one at that.