Local news

Commuter pays a penny a mile

Four-dollar gas isn’t giving Mike Cameron any heartburn.

The 58-year-old has spent the last month riding his electric bike to and from work at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Spokane. It’s eight miles each way, and he figures it’s costing him 16 cents a day.

“I can do about 20 miles at 20 miles per hour on the flat,” he said. “If I go up a hill that’ll shorten my distance between charges, and if I pedal it, I can lengthen it.”

It’s a far cry from Cameron’s three-quarter-ton Dodge pickup, which was chugging down $50 a week in gas. And while the change to his daily routine has been more dramatic than most, the recent spike in gas prices is driving people to make all kinds of adjustments. Some people drive less, consumers are turning in greater numbers to fuel-efficient cars, others are riding their bicycles or walking , and others are taking the bus.

The price of regular unleaded gas crested $4 a gallon at some Spokane-area stations a week ago, but on Monday the region’s average price hit that mark as well. According to AAA, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded in Spokane Monday was $4.01; it was $3.89 in Coeur d’Alene. Aurora Crooks, transportation demand manager for Spokane County’s Commute Trip Reduction program, said the prices are forcing people to look for alternatives.

“It’s not just, ‘How can I save a couple bucks?’ ” she said. “It’s, ‘What am I going to do now? I’m going to ride an electric bike or ride the bus.’ ”

Crooks’ program works with businesses that are required by law to operate programs encouraging people to drive less. The law covers the largest employers – 102 in Spokane County. Crooks said that having the program in place has meant people who are suddenly more interested in conservation have a source of information and support – even if they don’t work for a company with a commute reduction program.

One example, she said, is Spokane County’s own program to provide bus passes to employees, paid for out of parking revenues. Last April, 3,879 employees participated; this April, it was 6,118.

“That’s a 57.7 percent increase,” Crooks said. “That’s huge.”

For Cameron, big gas bills and a desire to do his “green share” prompted him to investigate alternatives for his commute from Geiger Heights.

“I was contemplating building an electric car and then that was a project that was a little bigger and a little longer than I wanted to undertake,” he said. “This was the next best thing.”

Cameron bought a used recumbent bike for $700, and spent about $1,260 more for an electric motor kit he purchased online. The motor runs on four 12-volt batteries that sit inconspicuously in the rear baskets; Cameron uses a thumb throttle on the handlebars.

“I was kind of skeptical at first,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’ll be a Fisher-Price thing.’ … But this thing’s got some serious torque and it moves pretty good.”

He charges the bike twice a day, and figures it costs him 8 cents each time. That makes the monthly energy bill for his commute $3.20 – less than the price of a gallon of gas.

“So I’m looking at saving $1,000 this summer,” he said. “Since I’ve put about $2,000 into it, it’s going to take a couple of years of riding to pay for it.”

Electric bikes are street legal if they operate below one horsepower; any more and they must be registered as a moped.

Along with scooters, electric bikes have been popular in developing countries and some European countries; but sales of those bikes – while still quite small overall – have been rising in the United States in recent months.

Cameron’s electric bike isn’t for everyone. It took him four to six hours to assemble, and he’s a pretty handy guy with tools – he works in maintenance at the federal courthouse. The bikes require vigilant maintenance and repair.

But Cameron says it’s working well for him so far, and he’s planning to customize one for his wife. He says the motorized ride is the perfect way for an old “fat guy” to bike to work while avoiding the exhausting perils of gravity.

“It’s all downhill riding to work,” he said, “and all uphill going home.”

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