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A bolt of innovation

How do you get people out of their cars? Put them on electric bicycles

To try out an electric-assist bicycle, contact VBike at info@bikesolutions.org.

BRATTLEBORO—Josh Traeger, Outreach Coordinator for VBike, pointed to a small, white button on the left handlebar of an electric-assist bike at Brattleboro’s Burrows Specialized Sports.

“That’s the button that makes Brattleboro flatter,” he said.

Since moving back to Brattleboro, after having lived in the flatlands of New York City and Jersey City, N.J., where biking was easier (if you were attentive enough to dodge taxis and delivery trucks), I have kept my bicycle in the cellar.

I miss my bike.

But, I can’t make it up all those hills.

Traeger and Dave Cohen, founder and director of VBike, tell me I can get my bike out of the basement and back onto the streets with the help of a battery-powered motor.

Still, I was skeptical of Cohen and Traeger’s claim.

So, to prove it, they brought me, and Burrows’s e-assist demo bike, to Brattleboro’s Walnut Street, right next to the parking lot of Brattleboro Savings & Loan. My assignment was to ride the bike east, and then head up the hill to Terrace Street.

My skepticism increased.

I’m in no shape to bike up that hill.

After some fiddling with the electric-assist’s connections, Cohen demonstrated how I could get up the incline: push the button.

So, I adjusted my helmet, got on the bike, pedaled toward the hill, and pushed the little white button. Suddenly, I heard a whirring sound coming from the bike, and as if elves suddenly appeared behind me, giving me a push, I was at the top of Terrace Street, by the old Governor Holbrook mansion.

My legs still pumped the pedals, so it’s not like I was doing nothing. I exerted myself, but not to the point where it felt like my heart was going to thump forth from my ribcage. I had help, via a battery-powered motor I engaged by simply pushing the little white button.

I yelled behind me to Cohen and Traeger, who had followed me up the hill, “It’s like I just had my ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ moment!"

As we rode along Wantastiquet Drive, the three of us on our electric-assist bikes, we said hello to people in their yards and commented to one another on the lovely sights and smells of the late-spring afternoon: freshly-cut grass, blossoming flowers.

“You can’t do that in a car,” Cohen said.

“There is a simple examination of the word ‘automobile,’” Cohen said in a follow-up email to The Commons. “‘Automobile’ literally means to move about with little or no engagement and involvement from us — whether with our bodies, senses or emotional connection. VBike is working to promote the exact opposite of that —€• more engagement, involvement, and connection,” he wrote.

“You have to get on the bike and experience it,” Cohen said, adding that when people use their bodies, “it has a way of washing away ‘car-brains.’"

“Our limbic brain is how we take in and sense the world,” Cohen said, adding that when we travel in automobiles, “we sever that connection. The more people show up in the world with their senses, the better off we’ll be.”

Biking up and down the street, I told my companions I felt like a younger person again. At various points in my life, riding a bicycle was a liberating act. I could escape the feeling of stagnation and loneliness. Movement, especially as rapidly as one can achieve on two wheels, felt good.

When I lived in cities, biking meant I could get where I needed or wanted to go without walking, or waiting for a bus that never came. This gave my aching cheesemonger feet a rest, and I could still explore my surroundings or grab some groceries.

All of those good feelings came back when I biked around Brattleboro’s neighborhoods.

Cohen and Traeger say they wish everyone could experience the liberation and connection I felt from riding a bike, and they are working to make it happen.

According to VBike’s website, www.vbikesolutions.org, the group “is a nonprofit organization dedicated to updating Vermont’s vision of the bicycle for everyday local transportation."

Their mission says, “Our main focus is to promote exciting innovations and solutions, including electric-assist technology and cargobikes, which profoundly expand the range, carrying capacity (children and cargo), hill climbing ease, comfort and the overall utility of biking. We are also committed to making these options financially viable to a many Vermonters as possible."

He said, for example, senior citizens “do well” with electric-assist bicycles. Cohen noted the demographics of Windham County point to an aging population, and this is backed up by the most recent census reports. The county has a higher percentage of people aged 65 and over than the rest of Vermont.

“The electric-assist bike is a massive benefit for an aging population,” Cohen said. “It’s absolutely essential for our health, both physical and mental,” he added.

“The electric-assist technology not only helps you get over the hills, it adds extra safety. You can take the road,” Cohen said, noting, “the faster you go, the more cars will acknowledge you. It’s more of a visual context. You get more power."

He also believes strengthening the infrastructure for bicycles will attract younger people. “Millenials drive less,” Cohen said, noting “they want to drive less, they want to go places that accommodate biking."

“How can we be economically viable and attract younger people,” is an important economic-development question, Cohen believes.

An area needs to “provide the kind of mobility these people want,” he said, adding, “if we’re stuck in the 1950s mode of transportation, we’re not going to attract young people."

Traeger said getting an electric-assist cargo bike changed his attitude about Brattleboro. He explained he used to dread driving into downtown mid-day because the traffic made getting around so slow. Now with his bike, however, he said he “looks forward to it."

Cohen’s VBike organization has teamed up with Go!Vermont, the state’s alternative transportation agency, to help bring cargo bikes and electric-assist bikes to Vermonters. VBike will provide free consultations with households, families, and businesses interested in exploring their bicycle options.

“I can talk all I want” about bicycles, Cohen said, but “you have to get on the bike to experience it."

Cohen is so convinced of the power of the bicycle, he will bring an electric-assist bike to your home, for free, so you can try it out.

“I can tow a demo bike to you!” Cohen said, pointing to his cargo bike, which he has used to pull other riderless bikes. Others may opt to arrange a demo at their school or workplace, or at a local bike shop.

Cohen also shared his excitement over a program to make affording a new bicycle (or an electric-assist kit to add on to an existing bicycle) easier for more Vermonters.

The Vermont State Employee Credit Union (VSECU), which is open to all who live or work in the state, recently expanded their VGreen Energy Improvement Loan program to include the purchase of a bicycle.

“This will make the purchase of an electric-assist cargobike, which can replace a car for many local trips (school drop off, errands, commuting), a financially viable option,” according to a press release from VBike.

VSECU [www.vsecu.com] says the program was “originally designed for unsecured energy saving purchases for your home,” but “can also be used to finance a bike purchase with the same discounted rate."

They can also help those who recently bought a bike and want to use VSECU financing to pay down the line of credit used to make the purchase.

Cohen believes this is the only program of its kind in the nation, and he knows of no other in the state.

“We’re trying to redefine bike culture in Vermont,” Cohen said.

In a follow-up email to The Commons, Cohen said, “recreational biking can be a totally beautiful thing and there’s no reason why bikes shouldn’t be enjoyed this way,” but, he added, “the way the bike industry has for years marketed bikes as toys helped to produce a couple generations of performance-minded enthusiasts who may ride feather-weight bicycles for 100 miles over mountains."

Rather than seeing bicycles as entertainment for children, or expensive toys for the wealthy, he wants us to see bicycles as a healthy, engaged mode of routine transportation and fun.

And no fancy attire is required.

“There are vast numbers of people who don’t want to get dressed in Lycra and all that,” he added.

The way the bike culture is now, Cohen believes, “leaves out seniors, families, people with limited mobility, businesses, carpenters, and painters.” But, he said, electric-assist bikes, both cargo and solo, can change that.

“Biking enlivens the community. Cars deaden it,” Cohen said, stressing, “bikes are vitality.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #310 (Wednesday, June 17, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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