Greening the Northside: Envirobikes

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Bill Stalter stands with three different e-bike models outside his shop at the bottom of Troy Hill Road. (Photo / Kelly Thomas)

The bicycle looked almost like any old bike, except for its slightly larger size, front headlights and a thick hub on the back wheel.

I started pedaling, but the bike was unexpectedly heavy and it wobbled back and forth a few times before I found my balance. After three turns of the pedals, the electric motor kicked in and the pedaling got easier — much easier.

I twisted the handlebar accelerator toward me as I started up a hill and didn’t have to pedal at all.

The bike that carried me up the hill is an electric bike from East Deutschtown-based green company Envirobikes. The model I rode is called the City Scout, but Envirobikes offers 10 different models, ranging from simple electric-motor assisted traditional bicycles to full blown  EPEDs: electric-powered, pedal assisted mopeds.

Business co-owner Bill Stalter opened the Envirobikes store in July 2010 and said that so far people have been receptive to the idea of “e-bikes”.

Heavy lead-acid or lithium ion batteries power the small electric motors on the bicycles’ back wheels. Each battery lasts between 20 and 30 miles, depending on terrain. It costs five cents to charge the battery on a normal 110 volt outlet, Stalter said.

The larger EPED models look similar to motorized mopeds or motorcycles. Because these EPEDs are pedal assisted, travel a maximum of 20 mph and have motors under a certain voltage, riders do not need a driver’s license, motorcycle license or license plate to operate one.

Electric bikes are a great intermediate form of transportation, he said, because they provide an opportunity to exercise but don’t require their riders to provide all the power. They also allow those who want to save transportation costs or the environment an alternate to driving a car or taking the bus.

“We kind of bridge the gap for that transition between a car and a bike,” Stalter said.

The electric bikes cost between $700 and $1,300. Normal bicycles can cost anywhere from $100 to $3,000, depending on function and model.

With gas prices on the rise again and another round of Port Authority transit cuts stirring the ire of commuters and city residents, Stalter expects to see an uptick in sales this year after a successful first year.

Stalter, who works as a wholesaler, got the idea for selling electric bicycles while visiting China in 2006.

“I could see they’re literally riding [electric bikes] by the thousands,” he said.

When gas prices went up to more than $4 per gallon in some places, Stalter saw an opportunity and capitalized on it.

Envirobikes only opens during the summer, because people aren’t interested in buying bicycles in the winter, Stalter said. The store opened in late March for the 2011 season, and will be open through the fall.

Though the sales may only be in warmer weather, you can still ride the bikes in the winter as long as the roads aren’t covered in snow and ice. Stalter said the batteries do become a little “sluggish” in the cold.

You can also ride them in the rain, but, “When it’s raining you’re going to get wet.”

The more traditional-looking electric bikes will also fit on the standard Port Authority bus bicycle racks, so you can use an e-bike in conjunction with public transportation, Stalter said.

Because police departments are probably unfamiliar with electric mopeds, Stalter said it’s a good idea to call your local department and let them know you’ve purchased an EPED. Otherwise, you could be pulled over.

Envirobikes is working with State Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-20, to clarify legislation and ensure EPED owners will not have to deal with police too often.

A lot of Envirobikes’ business has come from senior citizens looking for an alternate way of getting to the grocery store or church. The most popular model for seniors, the three-wheeled Transporter model, sells as soon as new ones come in.

“Things are looking very promising,” he said.

Envirobikes is currently working with the Northside Leadership Conference’s Neighborhood Employment Center and the Green Jobs — Northside! initiative to hire a few more salespeople and a bike technician.

Stalter said the bikes require little maintenance, and most people can do simple repairs like tire changes themselves. But for those who want to leave all bike repairs to the experts, Envirobikes does provide service for its bicycles.

In June, Envirobikes will partner with CCAC to teach a class on e-bikes. For more information on the class, visit www.ccac.edu.

Envirobikes is located at the bottom of Troy Hill Road by the Penn Brewery. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, Thursday through Sunday. Visit Envirobikes online at www.envirobikes.com.

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