Electric bikes take the city of Nelson by storm

In this town located on a mountain slope, bicycles with an electric assist have become a popular way to get around

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By Veronika Khvoro

Nelson residents are switching to e-bikes thanks to a Nelson Hydro loan program.

In Nelson, a town in B.C.’s West Kootenay mountains more than 600 kilometres east of Vancouver, electric bikes are all the rage. More than 30 local homeowners purchased electric bikes with a municipally funded loan since the program launched in the summer of 2020.

Hal Mitchell bought a new electric bicycle in June. He had been riding his commuter-style e-bike for two years and was ready to explore more challenging terrain on an all-road bicycle.

Mitchell said once someone goes electric, they don’t go back: “Once you sit on one and use it, you can’t leave the store without one.”

Mitchell’s wife Sue Schultz got her own electric bike in August. The loan from Nelson Hydro covered both of their bicycles, which cost between $3,000 and $4,000 each.

Sue Schultz rides her electric bike by the Fraser river near Fort Langley, B.C. Photo: Hal Mitchell.

The loans of up to $8,000 are available to anyone who owns a home within the city of Nelson and has an account with Nelson Hydro. The borrower repays their loan with their monthly hydro bill at a fixed rate of 3.5 per cent over either two or five years.

Mitchell, 71, and Schultz, 65, have taken their bikes on the Kettle Valley Railroad trail near Nelson, travelled between Kelowna and Vernon and biked the Galloping Goose trail outside of Victoria. Mitchell said that he has put 1,200 kilometres on his new ride.

Mitchell was an avid cyclist before getting an electric bike, but he thinks that electric assist makes cycling more accessible to those who are less active.

“More people are getting outside. And a lot of people who haven’t been on a bike for 20 years are going down and buying electric bikes.”

Building official Bruce McNeil uses a city-issued e-bike to do site visits in Nelson, B.C. Photo: City of Nelson.

Carmen Proctor, community energy program manager with Nelson Hydro, said the program received over 60 applications, but not everyone was approved. She had to refuse applicants who reside outside of city limits or can’t prove ownership of their home, as well as those whose Nelson Hydro accounts were in poor standing.

Proctor said that the goal of the program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the community by encouraging people to switch from cars to bikes for their commute. Based on the estimates on loan applications, the e-bikes have saved participants 60,000 kilometres of driving.

The loan program falls in line with the City of Nelson’s active transportation plan, which includes construction of shared bike lanes and lowering speed limits on certain streets. Proctor said the program will encourage more people to use the new infrastructure.

“We basically provided an opportunity and encouragement. And then for those barriers where people can’t afford it, we’ve provided the solution.”

According to Proctor, the demand for e-bikes meant not everyone could secure the ride of their choice right away.

“Some people were told they’re on backorder until spring, demand was quite high. And so not everybody was able to get exactly what they wanted.”

Nelson city councillors and city staff do a development services project tour on e-bikes. Some councillors and staff got their e-bikes through a 2019 pilot loan program for city employees. Others loaned their bikes from Gerick Cycle and Ski. Photo: City of Nelson.

Ross McNamara, the owner of Gerick Cycle and Ski, said increased demand during the pandemic left them scrambling to secure e-bikes for their customers.

“It basically took every ounce of effort we had just to be able to keep up with the demand last year. E-bike sales have been organically increasing in popularity and that’s just one of the things that added to the demand.”

McNamara said Nelson’s steep topography and lack of parking space make e-bikes a popular choice both for commuters and casual cyclists.

“The e-bike is an equalizer, it allows people to not only ride down the hill, go to work, but go get a few groceries and ride back up to their home with ease.”

According to Mitchell, the enthusiasm for e-bikes continues even as temperatures plunge. “Our city is full of them,” said Mitchell. “Even go downtown today when it’s -10 C, you’ll see somebody on a bike.”

McNamara said they have ordered more e-bikes than they would have otherwise in order to meet the demand in the spring.

“Our warehouse is packed full of bikes that are on hold with deposits.”

Listen to the podcast about Nelson’s e-bike program below.

Nelson E-bike Audiogram from Veronika Khvoro on Vimeo.

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