Big Sur by Bike and the E-Bike Revolution

The COVID pandemic saw an explosion in e-bike adoption in the U.S. Even before the pandemic, e-bikes were providing adventure and mobility options for countless people, many of whom do not identify as cyclists or thought their biking days were done. A 2017 trip to Big Sur opened my eyes to the transformative potential of e-bikes and still inspires me as I work to make e-bikes accessible to more people today.

Big Sur Adventures:

We are gliding along with no cars in sight, the two-lane road hugging redwood-covered bluffs that plunge into the sea. Five hundred feet below, turquoise waves dance over viridian boulders and sea lions’ throaty barks echo up steep ravines. It’s the summer of 2017, and my wife Mira and I are riding e-bikes on a nearly car-free stretch of Highway 1 in Big Sur after winter storms battered bridges beyond repair and caused thousands of acres of earth to give way in massive mudslides. The iconic stretch of coast from Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Big Sur Village in the north to Mud Creek 35 miles south was largely closed to cars, the only roadway access being Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a harrowing trip of hairpin turns and steep grades even on a nice day. While Big Sur residents struggled with travel times that were 5 to 10 times longer than usual, we planned to camp at Pfeiffer State Park, hike the newly constructed half-mile trail to Big Sur Village, and make our way to Nepenthe Cafe. The night before our trip, we heard from a friend that an e-bike rental business had popped up, and we both got excited. After arriving and setting up camp, we made our way up the trail and encountered what many were calling Big Sur Island: the cluster of businesses around the Big Sur Bakery had become a meeting spot for the Big Sur community, with message boards, an ice cream social, and locals sharing crafts and wares with neighbors and the steady trickle of visitors who came to explore a car-light coastline. We made our way to a small outbuilding nestled in the cluster of structures by the bakery, where Joaquin Sullivan and his team warmly greeted us. As we expected, all of the fat-tire e-bikes were checked out for the day except for a lone, bright orange, long-tail cargo bike with a padded rear rack. My wife and I had shared my analog Xtracycle cargo bike with me pedaling and her as passenger before, and we figured we could make the cargo bike work for our needs.

Once we were helmeted and checked out, we headed up the hill, and the 750-watt motor began to work its magic. We got to the top of the incline, zipping past Nepenthe and the shuttered gates of the Henry Miller Library, where locals had erected pop-up tents and folding tables into a minimalist taco stand. Then, we descended around the sharp curves hugging the rugged coastline. The bike’s pedal assist helped greatly on the ascents, and we stopped at numerous pullouts normally clogged with tourists. We saw five or six cars total on our trip south, leaving the road mostly to us, which made the experience even more enjoyable. “I felt more connected to our surroundings – rather than a set of distinct pullouts, vistas, and trailheads, I experienced this section of coast as a continuous landscape,” Mira recently reflected. We stopped frequently and found our own impromptu roadside vista points to look at the crashing surf hundreds of feet below, often chatting with other e-bike users who were appreciating the view. If we had been in a car, we would have been the worst sort of tourist traffic Big Sur gets, pulling out for every vista or even stopping in the roadway to get the perfect picture.

Joaquin had encouraged us not to push the cargo bike battery too far, so we turned around after visiting Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and the ever-glorious views of McWay Falls, one of the two waterfalls in California that fall directly into the ocean at high tide. The ride back was equally stunning, and a surprise flat tire led to an unexpected chance to chat with Joaquin about the genesis of Big Sur Adventures.

E-Bikes to the Rescue:

Joaquin and his father initially bought a set of e-bikes as a tool for getting around when it became clear that CalTrans would take down the bridge at Pfeiffer Canyon. “Just like everyone else, I was amazed the first time I rode one. I’m not in good enough shape to climb this 1,200-foot hill back to my house after a bike ride, but guess what, now I can do it.” In anticipation of the bridge demolition, many locals drove one vehicle to the north side of the bridge. While CalTrans deliberated about installing a temporary foot bridge, Joaquin imagined ferrying supplies across the bridge and down the road between waiting vehicles.

Although the powers that be did not see fit to build a temporary bridge, Big Sur locals loved the e-bikes, and Joaquin’s soon-to-be business quickly evolved. “I’m a woodworker by trade, and I was so busy filling back orders that I had to hire people to help with the rentals very early on.” This meant that, by the time Mira and I came along, thousands of people had heard about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride assisted in a car-free Big Sur. Because of this, Joaquin was able to scale up, and his fleet of e-bikes quickly grew to match demand. Mira and I returned the following month and each rented our own e-bike. It felt just as novel and amazing the second time, with the 20 MPH pedal assist making us feel like kids. On our second trip, Joaquin shared his plans for a move to Monterey, keeping the business going even after the Pfeiffer bridge reopened in September.

For the past four years, Big Sur Adventures has called the Tin Cannery building in Pacific Grove home, and Joaquin recently launched a second location in Carmel, selling and renting e-bikes and leading numerous tours along the coast. “It’s the perfect place for us,” Joaquin shares. With the Monterey Bay Scenic Sanctuary Trail across the street, it’s hard to imagine a better location. “We’ve already served 11,000 people this year, and in our busiest months, around 40 people end up purchasing an e-bike after they visit us.” That was true for me: I bought my Mira an e-bike the winter after our Big Sur foray, and I recently purchased an e-mountain bike for myself. “E-bikes are the great equalizer—we still lead trips in Big Sur on Old Coast Road, and we’ll have average folks and professional athletes keeping pace with each other up 2,000 feet of climbing and over plenty of loose gravel. Everyone has a good time,” Joaquin says. The life-transforming quality of these trips is not lost on Joaquin: “I just want to get more people outside and out of cars, experiencing what e-bikes can do.”

Even after the harrowing events of 2017, e-bikes continue to be a lifeline in Big Sur and beyond. Palo Colorado Canyon was devastated by the storms of 2017, and some residents remained cut off from road access to their homes for many long months. “Folks ended up purchasing e-bikes and found that they were much better suited for getting past slides and debris than even 4x4s.” When the pandemic prompted regional and statewide stay-at-home orders in 2020 and many businesses shuttered, Joaquin received numerous calls from locals who were desperate for ways to get outside and expand their shelter-in-place range. Early on in the pandemic, Joaquin petitioned the county of Monterey to let him provide long-term bike rentals to locals. “Once we had the go-ahead, we rented 100 e-bikes to Monterey County residents for $90 a month during the first months of the pandemic.” Not only did this keep some of Joaquin’s staff employed, “it really introduced the community to e-bikes. We quickly ran out of bikes, and we had people calling and saying, ‘My son’s friends are all out on these e-bikes, and where do I get one?’ We had to turn folks away.”

This Bike Boom is Electric:

Simultaneously, e-bikes were taking off in the rest of the country: in April of 2020, sales of RadPower bikes close to quadrupled those of the previous year, and sales of all U.S. e-bikes nearly tripled in June 2020 over June 2019. Even higher-end e-bikes saw the uptick of the COVID e-bike boom: Richard Thorpe, CEO of the UK-based designer of upscale folding e-bikes GoCycle, saw web searches double for his bikes in 2020. “COVID has basically pulled the (U.S.) adoption curve forward for e-bikes,” he shared in an interview. While the pre-pandemic U.S. lagged far behind Europe’s e-bike usage, Thorpe reflects that the U.S. is now out of the “early adopter” phase and into an “early majority” phase, where significant portions of the population have adopted this “new” technology.

At least two of our staff at Ecology Action were also inspired by renting e-bikes from Joaquin, and both have gone on to purchase e-bikes of their own. “Riding those e-bikes was the most fun and inspiring physical activity I can remember,” shares Linda Lloyd from our finance team. “I love bike riding, but as a middle-aged woman, I was thinking that it was over for me. After renting the bikes, we headed out to Lover’s Point and then towards Fort Ord and almost all the way to Sand City. It was so nice for me to be able to ride for 15 miles. I’m not a strong rider, so that felt like magic.” I recently helped Linda and her husband finance a pair of folding fat-tire e-bikes through our Zero Interest Bike Loan program, which I help to manage.

The average e-bike costs between $2,000 and $4,000, which can be a barrier for many people. Part of the appeal of direct-market e-bike brands is the relatively low cost. “Direct market bikes have been the gateway e-bike for many of our customers,” shares Bobby Schultze, Bicycle Trip Sales and Operations Manager. While bikes like RadPower may come at a lower cost, many customers prefer working with a shop that has mechanics who are trained to work on the bikes they sell. “We’re able to offer price-competitive Aventon e-bikes that start around $1,400,” Bobby shares. The Bicycle Trip reports that they’ve sold close to 400 of these e-bikes since they started carrying the brand. “They are by far our most popular e-bikes. This is our third year selling them, and we just can’t keep enough of them stocked.” In June of 2020, Aventon saw demand rise by a staggering 600% over 2019. Shops like the Bicycle Trip provide 12 months of zero-interest financing, helping to ease the strain on customers’ pocketbooks.

Ecology Action’s 0% Interest Bike Loan and E-Bike Test Ride programs are additional tools available to select employees in Santa Cruz County. We offer interest-free 12-month loans of up to $750 for analog bikes and up to $1,500 for e-bikes as well as a chance to test ride an e-bike for two weeks. These programs are part of our Sustainable Transportation Membership Services and are open to our member businesses, which include UCSC, the County of Santa Cruz, Dominican, Cabrillo, and numerous smaller agencies. As of July, downtown employees can also access these services as part of the GO Santa Cruz program. If you would like more information about these programs, please contact me directly.

In February, Congressman Jimmy Panetta co-authored HR 1019, the E-BIKE Act, and a similar bill was introduced into the senate in July. Both bills would offer a federal tax credit of 30% of the purchase cost of an e-bike, capped at $1,500. “E-bikes are not just a fad for a select few, they are a legitimate and practical form of transportation that can help reduce our carbon emissions,” says Panetta. While the future of the bills in the House and Senate is uncertain, it is notable that e-bikes are receiving more attention as a practical solution to get people out of cars and that lobbying efforts for incentive programs are gathering momentum. In early July, California legislators approve a $10 million e-bike incentive program for the 2022 state budget. Inclusive language in the bill accommodates e-bikes “designed for people with disabilities; utility bicycles for carrying equipment or passengers, including children; and folding bicycles.” CalBike and more than 80 organizations across the state lobbied for the bill, which had initially stalled out early in the pandemic. “E-bikes can be the centerpiece of California’s strategy to replace gas-powered car trips to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while also advancing equity, promoting public health, reducing traffic, and helping working families save money,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of CalBike. Locally, several other e-bike incentive programs are in the works; starting this fall, Ecology Action is piloting a program in partnership with GO Santa Cruz for downtown employees, and Central Coast Community Energy is exploring a program as well.

A Personal E-Mobility Revolution

I’m struggling to keep up with my 74-year-old father. I’m on an analog road bike, and my dad is already 200 yards ahead of me, climbing High Street toward the University. My dad is on a recently converted recumbent e-trike, which means that we’re riding bikes together for the first time since 1994. In the early 2000s, my father was diagnosed with MS; while it impinged his mobility, he has stayed healthy and active and has adapted to using an electric wheelchair. Last summer, he inherited a recumbent tricycle, and we started to research the possibility of adding an electric motor to it. One mid-drive e-bike conversion kit later and he’s flying up the hill with me following behind. We arrive at the top of the UCSC bike path, and he still has about half of his battery left. I’m sweaty and winded, but I’m so grateful to get to share this with my dad. Biking has become an integral part of my life both personally and professionally, and I can’t wait to share more rides with the man who helped me learn to ride a bike in the first place. We stop at the music center to appreciate the view and begin our descent down the bike path with Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay spread out before us, beckoning.