Electric Bike Sales Catch Fire Due to Bridge Closure

Seattle firefighters are among the commuters swapping cars for e-bikes to avoid the traffic nightmare caused by the emergency shutdown of the West Seattle Bridge.

Seattle firefighter and paramedic Kelly Brusa (pictured above in yellow) is among the growing number of West Seattle residents, and Seattle Fire Department employees, who are rushing to buy electric bikes to commute downtown for essential work. 

“I need to rotate between different fire stations in the city and carry lots of heavy gear,” says Brusa, who bought an electric cargo bike from Rad Power Bikes, a Seattle-based e-bike manufacturer. “This gives me the ability to carry all of my gear.”

The reason for the surge in e-bike sales? The emergency closure of the West Seattle Bridge, the primary automobile route connecting the West Seattle peninsula with downtown Seattle and beyond. 

The bridge previously carried more than 100,000 daily vehicle trips before it was suddenly closed in March due to dangerous cracks. While cars must now re-route south to two smaller bridges, people on bicycles and e-bikes can still pedal downtown unobstructed via the Spokane Street Bridge, known as the “low bridge,” which runs beneath the larger closed highway bridge.

The bridge closure has caused a “dramatic increase” in sales at Seattle E-bike, the closest downtown electric bike shop to the West Seattle Bridge. “West Seattle residents have become about 50 percent of our sales, up from about 15 percent in the past,” says Brian Nordwall, owner of Seattle E-bike.

Nordwall’s shop is running ads in West Seattle blogs targeting residents affected by the bridge shutdown, and he is creating a pop-up mobile shop that he and employees can bring to West Seattle to reach residents directly. “Our pitch is obvious: You can still take the bike trail over the ‘low bridge,’” says Nordwall, pictured below outside his shop on South Jackson Street.

 

West Seattle architect Bruce Donnally is among Nordwall’s recent new customers. “When the bridge closure notice was announced I said to myself, ‘I have no choice. I’ve got to get an e-bike.’ It was instantly obvious that it would be a nightmare to drive.”

Donnally, who previously commuted by car most days to his office in Lower Queen Anne, bought a fancy high-powered electric bike from the brand Stromer. Although it cost him roughly $4,400, Donnally has calculated that he will pay it off in 17 months with the savings from no longer driving. He previously paid about $3,500 per year for parking, gas and tolls--never mind the cost of insurance, wear and tear and other expenses associated with commuting by car.

Donnally, a longtime Cascade member who knows of at least two friends who have also bought e-bikes, will also get to work faster. The e-bike commute takes him 25 minutes. It previously took 30 minutes to drive. With the bridge closure and its resulting traffic gridlock, driving could take Donnally an hour or more, especially once the Stay Home orders are relaxed and people resume driving in large numbers. 

The story is the same for Brusa, the paramedic. Brusa’s new Rad e-bike has a large rack on the back and a big front basket, and with the boost provided by its electric pedal-assist motor, it is designed to carry heavy loads that would typically require a car. At least two of her colleagues at the Fire Department have bought the same model of Rad Power Bikes electric cargo bike in recent weeks. More than 100 members of the Fire Department live in West Seattle, and Brusa says many are considering electric bikes. 

“I’m going to be buying an electric bike very soon,” says Aaron Bocchetti, a Seattle firefighter who lives in West Seattle and commutes downtown. He currently commutes many days on a regular bike with a large cargo basket, but “there are days when I need to haul heavy gear back and forth,” says Bocchetti, pictured below with Brusa. “I also have errands that I need to run in the city when not working. It will be much easier to take an electric bike than to drive downtown.”

A spokesperson for Rad Power Bikes, which has been a financial supporter of Cascade, said he didn’t have information about purchases related to the West Seattle Bridge closure, but he noted that global April sales were up by 297 percent compared to April 2019. 

“Electric bikes have never been more capable of serving as a replacement for your single-occupancy vehicle,” says Steve Gluckman, a bike industry consultant who lives in West Seattle. “There are so many options now to serve different peoples’ needs, whether it’s a professional going to the office or a parent taking kids to school or grocery shopping, there are e-bikes to serve every different audience.”

Gluckman uses a folding electric cargo bike from Tern for many of his local errands. Anecdotally, he says e-bike sales are spiking due to the bridge shutdown. “We are cut off now for the most part from driving to downtown.” He says Starbucks is among the companies with downtown offices that have many employees living in West Seattle. 

“The biggest barrier to getting more people riding electric bikes,” Gluckman says, “is the lack of infrastructure and wayfinding and safe routes. People like me who are committed bicyclists are going to ride no matter what. It’s the ‘ebike curious’ that we need to serve, the moms and dads and folks who haven’t cycled in a long time and who are fearful of getting on the roads.”

Cascade is pushing electric bikes as a partial solution to the bridge crisis, and we are urging the city to quickly implement a number of other solutions to ease the bridge crisis, including better signage of some routes, speeding up the construction of routes already in the works, and improving safety at crossings, among other policy priorities. 

Cascade also fully supports the growing adoption of e-bikes as a tool to get more people out of cars and onto bicycles. The electric pedal assist boost gives people the ability to flatten hills, travel longer distances or bike while carrying groceries or a child. See Cascade’s  e-bike policy position here.

Electric bikes are also beneficial for older riders. Nordwall, who is 68 years old, plans to begin commuting by e-bike to his shop from his home in West Seattle. Nordwall has also in the last two weeks ordered more than $70,000 worth of new e-bikes to boost his inventory due to growing demand.

For bike shops, rising electric bike sales are great news after a rough March when sales dried up due to the Stay at Home order. “We didn’t sell a single bike for two weeks,” says Nordwall, whose shop has been operating at reduced hours. 

Now, with interest in e-bikes from West Seattle residents surging, Seattle E-Bike will return to full-time hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Friday. Thorssen the shop dog may even be there to help out.

Paul Tolmé's picture
Paul Tolmé