• Ben Derico

E-Bikes are on the ballot this November

It’s Sunday afternoon and Doğan Şekercioğlu is shuffling through the Costco parking lot in Richmond, CA with an armful of grocery bags and a bead of sweat crawling down his forehead. The bus doesn’t come here and the closest BART stop is a half mile back up hill. So, he’s taking part in his weekly trek across the hot asphalt towards the car that’s just rolled up to whisk him home with his haul. Originally from Istanbul, Mr. Şekercioğlu “can’t imagine getting an uber to bring [his] groceries home in another country,” he says from his home near Lake Merritt, “but here it’s the primary choice.”

Local trips, like that 9.6 mile Uber from Richmond to Oakland, almost exclusively happen by car in the U.S. In fact, nationwide, rides under 10 miles represent 75% of all motor vehicle trips and produce almost 60% of the nation’s transportation-linked greenhouse gas emissions. Facing similar figures here in the Bay, in July the Berkeley City Council adopted a set of guidelines aimed at ushering in fossil-fuel free transit throughout the city. The Berkeley Electric Mobility Roadmap (EMR), the official name for the guidelines, seeks to “increase walking, biking, and public transportation use in Berkeley, and [ensure] equitable and affordable access to the benefits of clean transportation.”

This November, the city hopes to partially fund the bike lanes, charging stations, and expanded public transit laid out in the EMR through ballot measure GG. Backers of the ballot initiative state it will bring in over $900,000/year through 2041 by levying a $0.50/ride tax for private ride-shares and a $0.25 tax on pooled rides originating within Berkeley city limits. Notably, the tax is set to be paid by users, not providers, which means customers’ rides will be a bit more expensive. Meanwhile, while Uber has a record-setting roster of lobbyists in California firmly focused on the upcoming Prop 22 vote, neither they nor Lyft has publicly commented on the upcoming Measure in Berkeley. Higher prices, suggest clean mobility advocates, will incentivize more people to ditch their apps and use improved public transportation, walk, or ride their bike.

Tom Lent, a researcher and data analyst whose career with Bay Area sustainability non-profits spans more than four decades, is one of those advocates. And the city is listening to him.

Shaped by his round wireframe glasses and slightly shaggy hair, Mr. Lent’s welcoming smile stretches from ear to ear talking about the E-Bike Report, which recently succeeded in convincing Berkeley’s city council to revise the overall approach of the Electric Mobility Roadmap to include wider adoption of both public and private e-bikes in Berkeley. The report, created in partnership with Walk Bike Berkeley, shows an E-bike can easily average 1000MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), an astounding figure that outperforms even the best electric vehicles (EV) 4 times over.

But Lent knows that facts and figures aren’t what actually move people. It’s emotion, he says that, “gets people engaged and motivated to take action.” That means he shares stories like Helena Worthen’s, a 76 year old Berkeley Hills resident, who says her e-bike makes the hills “melt away,” as she cruises around town. It requires a delicate balance of presenting meaningful climate-related data as well as telling memorable stories that stick with Berkeley voters.

Lent bikes to work himself everyday, so he knows what it’s like to circumnavigate the “moonscape that is Berkeley roads” on two wheels. Even on so-called bike boulevards like California ave., he stresses, “you’re on your own” trying to cross major thoroughfares like Ashby and University during rush hour. Considering Berkeley, and other cities like it across the country, are built with cars in mind, shifting the perception of walking and biking from an afterthought to a primary means of transit requires, in Lent’s opinion, a mode shift in how we think about getting around.

Thanks to the E-Bike Reports push to “promote e-bikes as (or more) aggressively as it does electric cars” the EMR now calls for an e-bike subsidy pilot program. The program would provide money to buy a private e-bike or rent one long term, like this similar program in Paris. Advocates like Lent noted that similar incentives helped encourage wider adoption of EVs in the past and should be used to encourage wider e-bike adoption as well now.

The E-Bike Report was also successful in updating the roadmap to “support safe infrastructure for non-auto modes of transit,” such as expanded bike lanes and slow streets for pedestrians and cyclists. The roadmap also now includes language committing to ensure equity of access to electric mobility in low-income communities. For instance, prioritizing those communities when “locating, contracting, or permitting the location of electric mobility,” stations throughout the city.

Funds gathered from measure GG, due to the nature of how the initiative is set up, cannot go to a single program. So, if passed, taxes gathered by the “Uber/Lyft tax” will go to a general fund. Lent says he and fellow advocates will make their next order of business holding the city council accountable to put that money towards sustainable transportation.

Back at his house in Oakland, Mr Şekercioğlu, an industrial designer, reflects on his experiences growing up in Turkey and later studying design in Denmark and Sweden. He speaks fondly of his experience with transportation during his time in Scandanavian cities, but says, “public transportation is easier and faster [in Europe] because [governments] incentivize it. So, people use it.” It’s an incentive that Berkeley city officials, and transit advocates like Mr. Lent, are hoping to introduce here through ballot initiative GG in the upcoming November election.

Mr Şekercioğlu agrees taxing the short, local trips that many people “Uber,” will hopefully incentivize people to take fewer trips by car, but emphasizes that, with few viable options for most people outside of a car, “there’s a tension there” of whether the tax will lead to fewer car trips for everyone or just for those who will no longer be able to afford to use ride-share. A subsidy on an electric cargo bike of his own, or money towards a long term rental however, could help him, and supposedly others, afford a clean mode of transit for his weekly Costco runs.

If the measure doesn’t pass, the EMR will continue, but with less of the much-needed funding to carry out its big vision. Tom lent, however, remains optimistic, saying calmly “the pandemic has allowed more ambition.” Now, we just need to wait until November to see if that ambition pays off.