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Market for electric, folding bicycles surges in Sonoma, Marin counties

Early on a cold, drippy Tuesday in downtown Santa Rosa, Bob Hostutler walked his mountain bike onto the Sonoma-Marin-Area Rail Transit platform in Railroad Square. The 8:31 a.m. train rumbled down the track. Its headlight sliced through fog as bells clanged. Hostutler boarded then hung his two-wheeled steed on a hook near one door and strapped it snug before taking a seat.

Hostutler, a senior clinical program manager at Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, rode SMART to the Hamilton stop in Novato. There he jumped on the bike and pedaled 1.2 miles to work. “It’s a 30-minute walk, but a 10-minute bike ride,” he said, “worth it.”

He manages clinical trials at Ultragenyx, a Novato-based biotech company that develops drugs for rare and ultra-rare genetic diseases. On good biking days, Hostutler rides three miles from his home near Howarth Park to the SMART station. When rain or finger-numbing cold curbs his urge to ride, he mounts the bike on his car and parks for free near the station. He typically rides his bike three days a week, depending on whether he drops his two boys off at school before commuting.

That late-January morning in Santa Rosa, one other bike rider boarded at the downtown stop. In the afternoon on the way back, Hostutler said, the train that leaves Novato at 4:41 p.m. bustles with bikes as commuters cram aboard to rush north.

Soon after SMART started operating in August 2017, Hostutler fused train with bike to get to work. “My company just gave me a commuter voucher,” he said. “I cash it in at Walgreens to get value on the Clipper card. It’s cool that they cover the benefit of the ride on the train,” he said.

Each two-car train has space for up to two dozen bikes. SMART added a third car to some of its peak commuter runs in November due to high demand by bicyclists. Then in January, SMART put even more three-car trains into use.

“We have carried more than 290,000 passengers,” said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, spokeswoman for SMART. “Since we started tracking bikes, we have had more than 24,000 cyclists using the SMART train.”

“People are pretty accommodating,” Hostutler said of other passengers who ride the train. In the evenings, it’s more crowded, he said, “a bit more hustle-bustle getting bikes in and out.”

When the train is crowded, commuters with convenience in mind might opt for a folding bike, such as those made by London-based Brompton Bicycle of the U.K. or Tern Bicycles, based in Taiwan. Bromptons are steel; Terns are aluminum. With practice, a commuter can fold a two-wheeler in seconds and tuck it under knees while seated.

New Wheel, a bike shop founded seven years ago in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, opened a second store in Larkspur in 2016 to serve commuters. The Marin store is located a quick spin from the Larkspur ferry landing, and down a hillock from where SMART train will stop once an extension is completed from San Rafael, about a year away.

New Wheel is owned by Brett Thurber and his wife Karen Weiner, who grew up in Sausalito. He commutes by bike from the city across the Golden Gate Bridge to their Larkspur shop. A rainproof bike suit made in the Netherlands keeps him dry no matter the weather. “I can ride all winter long and it’s totally easy,” Thurber said.

New Wheel sells mostly electric bikes, including some that fold, with prices from $2,300 to more than $7,000. Some, such as Kalkhoff Agattu, are made in Germany. Trek offers one for $2,300. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are typically tucked into one of the bike’s tubes. Tern uses a Bosch electric motor and a Panasonic battery with about 400 watt-hours. The electric components are sealed and not vulnerable to rain.

Brompton is designing a new folding electric bike, due out this year, likely about 34 pounds. Its battery will sit in a removable pack that clips under the handlebars, with room for a laptop. Tern already sells a folding electric model, a top-seller at New Wheel, especially in Marin. The bike fits easily in a car trunk.

“Technology is just going to get better,” Thurber said. “You can optimize for comfort on an electric bike.”

“We are obsessed with cars here. It frustrates me — so inefficient,” he said. “Electric bikes are the future of urban transportation, not electric cars.” New Wheel sells about a bike a day.

In Germany, 1.5 million electric bikes sold in 2017, said Thurber, who attended a bike show there. “Angela Merkel (chancellor) was there,” he said. In Europe and Asia, more electric bikes are sold than cars, he said, and Switzerland alone sells more than the entire U.S. market.

For those who have never tried riding a bike with electric boost, it feels as if every pedal stroke is assisted with an invisible hand that smoothly propels bike and rider toward destination.

“You get more for your pedaling. It’s empowering,” Thurber said. Pedaling is necessary to trigger the electric assist. Torque sensors measure how much pedal pressure is applied then amplify the effort.

“If you want to work, you can,” he said. “Or you can just cruise. You are pedaling along looking at fish and you don’t realize you are getting any exercise. But you are.” The Tern bike manages 30 to 60 miles on a charge, depending on hills and wind. It takes 3.5 hours to charge from empty.

“Our average customer puts 10 to 15 miles a day on the bike,” Thurber said, for commuting or trekking around town.

“Once you put a battery on a bike,” all kinds of technology will become available, including GPS to deter theft, he said. “You can track your heart rate. It’s remarkable what is possible. Efficiency and elegance — very appealing. Our business model is that you will ride this. We encourage that. There are no barriers for anyone. How do we add conveniences, add value the way cars have heated seats, things people enjoy, to make them love their bikes even more.”

Folding bikes, electric or non-electric, fit under a commuter’s desk during the day. “You can wear business casual and not have to change your whole life,” he said. “We are elevating the experience and product” with the goal of coaxing even bankers and accountants into commuting on two wheels — if the problem of “helmet hair” can be solved.

“Comfort, low maintenance, clean. In Frankfurt, all the bankers are riding around” on electric bikes, Thurber said. “They’re posh bikes” that cost up to $10,000, with full suspension and belt drives.

“We have one banker” as a customer, he said.

In January he sent his service staff to a training in Portland to learn the latest bike technology. The company has “huge struggles” to find enough qualified bike mechanics for the business, which employs 18 people including the owners.

“The bike industry is scrappy,” he said, constantly pushing into new tech. “It’s hard. You can fail. To nail a folding electric bike is really challenging. No one has done it yet. Tern is close.” He has yet to see a prototype of the new Brompton folding-electric model, undergoing testing in Europe and perhaps due here by fall or early 2019.

Electric bikes, many of which have 10 gears, can handle most hills. Some models do better than others. “It doesn’t matter how steep,” he said. “You can put your grandmother on it. People don’t appreciate where this technology is going.”

California’s AB 1096, effective January 2016, redefined motorized bikes under the vehicle code to differentiate an electric-assist pedaled bike from a gas-powered moped. Class 1 and 2 electric bikes, allowed on bike trails, have fewer than 750 watts and cut power when speeds exceed 20 miles an hour. Class 2 electric bikes don’t require pedaling.

“We’re super busy,” Thurber said. “We get a ton of commuters into the city.”

Commuters seeking to integrate the train into their trips are a new market. “More work could be done to help people put the pieces together,” he said. “People have no idea what the infrastructure is, how it fits into their lives, how good it could be” to incorporate two-wheeled transit. “This train thing is so cool.”

For now, a shuttle bus connects the San Rafael train stop to the ferry.

“We’re on a mission to shake up transportation choices in the Bay Area,” said Thurber, who is from San Francisco. “We’re driven to figure out how to compete with cars.”

Highway 101 is “surprisingly congested,” said Hostutler, who grew up in Philadelphia and moved to the North Bay about 10 years ago. “I’m used to public transportation. I like the vibe of the train. It feels more East Coast. There’s a community to commuting on a train,” he said.

“I’ve never had to stand. The setup they have is convenient, plenty of spaces for all the bikes,” he said.

SMART stops in Novato are not ideally located, he said, with one near San Marin downhill from the Buck Institute, which also does biotech research. “There’s nothing around,” he said of the stop. “The one in Hamilton is kind of in the middle of nowhere.”

The downtown San Rafael stop, however, is perfect for commuters to BioMarin, located just a couple of blocks away. “I worked there for years,” he said, before SMART launched.

“This is a little clunky for the train,” Hostutler said of his mountain bike as the 8:31 rolled to a stop. He usually takes his road bike, but it had a flat tire.

“It is smaller and lighter,” he said. “When the weather is nicer, I’ll think about getting a folding bike.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257