Rural Cycling and Micromobility

My Journey to the e-bike

I’m a child of the suburbs. I grew up thinking that the bicycle was a toy rather than actual transportation. In Arnold Missouri cycling anywhere outside of our “subdivision” just wasn’t something anyone did. Though our neighborhood was only three miles from “town”, they were narrow. I don’t remember ever seeing a cyclist on the particular road that one would have taken to Arnold from our location.

When I went off to college in Kirksville I got my first taste of using a bicycle for transportation. Beginning in my third year I lived off campus and got an old Schwinn which I equipped with a pair of inexpensive metal baskets. I used it for riding a half mile to campus, a quarter mile to the laundromat, and a mile or so to the grocery store. That was the beginning of my love of the bicycle and my understanding of it as an inexpensive, efficient form of transport for humans. As a small college town, Kirksville had a diameter of maybe 5 miles and was surrounded by farms. As transport, a bicycle was almost the perfect form of transport on the small side streets that made up most of the town. For myself and many others in the town, the bicycle was all the transport we needed and at very low cost of ownership.

When I moved to Memphis that bike went with me and got regular use there too until it was stolen. I replaced it with my first mountain bike. My transport was a mix of walking, cycling and driving depending on the task, destination and distance. But without a doubt cycling and walking were my preferred and predominant forms of getting around. Cycling was my practical way of transport but also grew into something new as I realized it’s benefit to my personal health as well as the environmental and community benefits. I began riding for pleasure, and my 15 miles a week for transport turned into 100 miles a week for fun and transport. This was the case until a knee injury forced me off the bike in 2001.

I reluctantly went back to walking and tried my hand at using one of the very first electric scooters on the market. It was functional but was not a great experience. Instead of feeling in control of my body and vehicle as I cruised along at 15 mph I was suddenly not in control and moving something closer to 10mph. I could not easily maneuver from street to sidewalk and always felt a little less safe. Even worse, the scooter was limited to 3 to 4 miles per charge. It was usually just barely enough to get me to work. I used it for a year or so and then went back to a mix of walking and, reluctantly, driving. At 32 years old I was fairly healthy but generally resorted to a car for transport to work because of the knee injury was enough to keep me from cycling.

Then I left Memphis in 2004 and stayed with family for 4 years before settling into my tiny house at my current location which is about 6 miles from the outer boundary of the nearest town, Fredericktown. And while I’ve gotten in plenty of recreational walking over the past 15 years, I’ve relied on a car for all necessary transportation into town for shopping or any other required errands. Due to my concern about climate change I’ve limited my car trips to town to an average of about 6 trips per month which works out to 90 miles drive per month given a round-trip distance of 15 miles.

Over the years I’ve kept an eye on small electric vehicles, especially e-bikes. In the past couple of years the technology has been making some big gains. Batteries, motors, conversion kits, and fully assembled bikes are all becoming more readily available at lower prices. Probably the most important advancement has been improvements to the lithium-ion battery. In any case, I wasn’t sure that I’d have a use for one because of my rural location but this past summer my interest in the possibility began to take hold. In late summer I discovered a new electric bike by Lectric that fit with something I could afford and which might have the range I need to be useful. A week ago I ordered it. It is scheduled to arrive today.

How will this be useful in my rural location? I’ll admit, that a part of my reasoning for ordering the bike is simply to enjoy the pleasure of being back on a bike. Initially I expected that, at a minimum, it would be useful for visiting my parents who live a mile away. I regularly walk that distance with my dogs for their exercise and to get mail so in that regard, I typically cover that distance on foot so it would not be essential except for making the trip faster, more convenient and more frequent. More frequent and convenient trips to visit my parents was the other motivator. But then I started looking more closely at other possibilities for extended range use.

Rural transport by e-bike?

Like many others in rural areas, I have roads that would be fairly dangerous to use for cycling. The primary 2-lane road between my tiny house and town has a 55 mph speed limit and no shoulder. I’d never feel safe cycling on it. But there is another route, a county road which is only an additional half mile. Much of this road is paved, a large stretch of it is still gravel, but it will get me to the outer edge of town at about 6.7 miles. The ride to the grocery store is 8 miles, a round trip of 16 miles. This road has far less traffic than the 2 lane highway and should be very safe for cycling. It will bring me all the way to the safety Fredericktown which largely consists of low traffic side roads that have speed limits of 25 or less.

The e-bike I’ve ordered has a cruising speed of 20 and a range of 25 to 50 miles which varies with rider weight, terrain and the amount of pedaling the rider contributes. In short, it will easily handle the 16 miles I need with a good bit left over. I should have no problem with light-weight, low stress pedaling. Not only will this get me to the grocery store in about 25 minutes but also the library and all the main street shops if I need them. Also, Fredericktown has two, two, ice cream shops.

In other words, a $1,000 e-bike will make it possible for me to reduce my car-based trips to town to one a month rather than four. And if I were in a position where I needed to daily commute to town for work
I could do that with this bike. In considering this for myself I’ve also pondered the possible usefulness for this kind of device in the larger rural community, hence the title of the post. Is micromobility useful in a rural setting? Before I attempt an answer, perhaps some context would be useful.
From Micromobility.io:

The mobility world we know today is based on 100 years of technological development. From the Internal Combustion Engine enabled by Rockefeller’s refined Standard Oil to Ford’s innovative supply chain that allowed Model T’s to come off factory lines as easily as bottles of soda. From the mandates of President Eisenhower putting WWII US veterans to work building the most massive network of roads the world had ever seen to the rise of suburbia, malls and edge cities, a car in every driveway came to symbolize the American Dream.

But that car is a bundle. As a pre-paid option to go anywhere and at anytime, a car offers a bundle of trips whether short or long and whether used or not in a box weighing, on average, 20 times its payload. The externalities of this arrangement are becoming daunting. From more than 1 million fatalities every year, to climate change, to congestion that saps productivity and enrages, this object, carrying typically only one passenger, ceased being a liberator. The bundle became overbearing and over-serving crushing more value than it creates.

Where do we need to go?

An excerpt from the Micromobility Manifesto:

Micromobility is a big word for a small idea.

The idea is small in the sense that it represents machines that are small.

Machines that are sized to the job at hand: moving people. And not sized to the process that makes them move.

Machines made to fit us not their internal violent reactions.

That such machines are now possible is a testament to our inventiveness and we consider that inventiveness as our superpower.

This manifesto is a call to use our superpower to make moving better.

Better by getting there happier, healthier and more in harmony.

In harmony with our environment and with each other.

In the medium to long term, it’s not really an option. If we’re going to address the problem of climate change we’ll need a radically different system for moving people and goods. But, again, can e-bikes, be useful in rural areas? For some in rural areas, yes, absolutely. Right now it is possible given current roads. In my use-case, the e-bike I have coming will work perfectly for my location. Looking at a map of the area around Fredericktown tells me there there are many other people living close enough to Fredericktown with direct access to the same kind of lower speed, low traffic county roads that they also would likely be able to meet at least some of their transport needs in the same way.

But there are many who, just a few miles away, would not be able to safely ride to town due to the higher speed, higher traffic roads they are limited to. But the variables change over time and what might be unsafe now might be safe in 5 or 10 years. The changes might come culturally, technologically or in terms of infrastructure. Let me provide an example.

In the past three years our county has become home to a Mennonite community. Within this short time period the local 2 lane highway that I will not use for cycling has become a primary route for Mennonites using their traditional horse drawn wagons. Now people expect to see them on the road and it likely has an impact on the perception of what normal traffic is on this road. Just three years ago the expectation was that this road was only for cars driving at 50 mph.

The point here as that what a community considers to be traffic changes. Our community now expects and accepts horse drawn wagons in and around town. We are prepared to slow down for them on the 2-lane highway and drive around them safely as we are able just as we do for farmers on tractors.

Similarly, as other forms of vehicles, in this case, e-bikes, come into wider use, their presence will change what is perceived to be acceptable and normal traffic. Of course, it’s not the same as a person on an e-bike is much smaller and in some ways more vulnerable. Even more, e-bikes (and bikes generally) are not very common on the roads in this area.

But what would happen if the bicycle grew in popularity over the next decade? Given the poverty of this area, affordable, sub $1000 e-bikes would be a great benefit for many in town and in the surrounding rural countryside. A recent report looking at e-bike trends forecasts a remarkable jump in production based on current growth trends. From the millions we’ve seen per year in recent years the trend points to 130 million e-bikes in global production between 2020 and 2023. The Verge reports:

The next decade is going to be defined by a revolution of battery-powered transportation, and the vehicle that will lead the charge won’t be the Tesla Model 3 or even the wildly polarizing Cybertruck. And it definitely won’t be an electric scooter.

It will be an electric bike.

Of course most of these will be sold in urban areas that are often viewed as the ideal place for bicycling and the e-bike due to the close proximity of destinations. In an urban setting 10 miles or less will get one to anything they need.

What I suggest here is that rural areas are actually somewhat similar even though on the surface that might not be the case. At a glance rural areas are spread out. But again, many rural residents depend on towns within 10 miles of their residence and with access to low traffic, low speed roads similar to the county roads I’ll be using, they could likely reduce their use of automobiles by substituting modern and affordable e-bikes.

All that said I’ll end on a note about American culture that seems to be especially true of rural culture that generally is more conservative. Cars are sacred, cars rule, and in the countryside trucks rule. No matter how irrational combustion-based travel may be it is a solidly entrenched norm here. For most it is a part of their identity and how they define themselves. As I recently searched through YouTube reviews of my purchase I came across two reviews by farm families with YouTube channels. Both initially laughed at the idea of trying an e-bike. Men on farms use big tools, loud and smelling of gas! The idea of such a quiet form of transport was an affront to them. Too vulnerable, too weak. But then they and their family got on the bikes and the unexpected happened: They. Had. Fun.

The e-bikes of 2019 are not weakly powered bikes. Turn the throttle and you zoom off. They are fast enough to be scary at first and then they settle into fun once the rider is used to them. And some of them can be put to real work, even on a farm. Put a crate on an e-bike and you can carry up to 50lbs on the back which easily accommodates a chainsaw and some tools. And I’m just talking about the more popular e-bikes that are designed for general commuting. There are others that are heavier duty cargo bikes and more will come.

The e-bikes of today and tomorrow have far more power and range than people realize. The are fun to ride and quite capable of transporting a person as well as tools and goods. But at the moment they are an unknown. I suspect that as people interact with them and see them more often they will grow quickly in popularity. They are inexpensive when compared to the ownership of a traditional automobile and make a lot of sense as real transport. And in the small towns that dot the rural landscape riding an e-bike should generally be as safe or safer than riding in an urban setting.

So, to answer the question, can micromobility become a part of small towns and the surrounding rural areas? Absolutely.

Links of interest:

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