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Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library is helping ease residents into a car-free (or car-light) lifestyle

When James and Sadie Van Vranken sold their only car and become a two-electric-bicycle household last summer, they received plenty of unsolicited feedback from family, friends and complete strangers.

The initial reaction went something like: Of course it’s easy to ditch a vehicle and cycle everywhere in Charlottesville in the warm weather, but obviously, you’re going to need a car during the winter.

Others were more supportive: Good for you for going green! One car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is contributing to the global warming crisis, hurtling humanity toward imminent doom.

Or: So … do you guys need a lift?

Some interpreted the move as a personal attack: Oh, you think you’re better than me and that I’m polluting the environment with my 2013 Honda Pilot? Everyone can’t ditch their cars and bike around; I’ve got three kids with soccer practice, piano lessons and endless appointments!

For the Van Vrankens, the decision was a little more straightforward.

“We just like it,” James Van Vranken told The Daily Progress.

With both of their workplaces only a 10-minute ride from their house, the Van Vrankens said not having to worry about car maintenance, monthly insurance payments or even parking around Charlottesville is “a weight off of our shoulders.”

“Our life hasn’t changed as much as people might imagine that it would,” said Sadie Van Vranken. “There’s nowhere we went before that we can’t go to now on the bikes. It’s just a new calculus of deciding if it’s worth going out.”

The young couple was not avid cyclists prior to July, when they switched their primary mode of transportation, though James Van Vranken had some experience solely using a bicycle for a year while a graduate student in the U.K.

In fact, the Van Vrankens hadn’t given much consideration to e-bikes, thinking they were incredibly expensive and wouldn’t be suitable for their lifestyle.

Then, they went to the library — the Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library based out of Josh Carp’s backyard shed in the city’s Fifeville neighborhood.

Carp launched the library in the spring of 2022 to provide people with a free opportunity to test out e-bikes for a week or two at a time, as well as counter some of the common misconceptions and mystery surrounding motorized bicycles.

“It’s hard to explain exactly what an e-bike is; it’s not a bike or moped,” Carp told The Daily Progress. “Something about actually trying one makes people say, ‘I actually really like this.’ I want to give people real-life experience on the bikes.”

Potential e-bikers can browse the library’s selection, read up on all things e-bike and schedule a joyride through the library’s website, Carp’s day job as a software engineer allows him to work from home, so those interested in borrowing a bike can drop by the library and test drive different styles along Carp’s street before deciding which bike they want to check out for a trial period.

“Everybody who tries the bikes enjoys them,” said Carp. “The library allows people to test out their commute and find different safe routes around the city.”

The due date for most bikes is within a week or two, but the nonprofit service doesn’t charge late fees — or any fees for that matter. Carp’s mission is focused on giving people a chance to experiment with incorporating the bikes into their daily routine or finding the bike that best fits their specific needs, all free of charge.

“We thought the library was a scam at first because it was all free. We didn’t quite believe it,” said James Van Vranken. “But once we borrowed a bike, it showed us that we liked it and it fit with our lifestyle.”

The trial period can help a potential buyer overcome the sticker shock, which is understandable given an e-bike can range in price from $1,000 to $3,000. Though e-bikes are nowhere close to the price of a car, it is still a sizable investment for the average person and one that may be difficult to make without first testing out how an e-bike rides in the city. Carp said a number of individuals who have tapped the library’s services already had an idea of what bike they were looking to purchase either online or at a store, but wanted to get in a couple test rides beforehand.

Most of the library’s users tend to be commuters searching for a cheaper, more enjoyable ride to work in the mornings, Carp said. A portion of them includes the parents of young children who take pleasure in skipping the tedious drop-off and pick-up lanes at school. Instead of waiting behind lines of cars, they can pedal straight to the schoolhouse door with their children strapped onto the back of a “cargo bike,” which has space to hold two small children or bags of groceries on the back.

The bicycle’s motor compensates for the additional weight, and some models also sport throttles that provide an extra thrust. The rider can adjust the level to offset the amount of effort they need to exert with a gear shift on the handle bar, similar to a manually powered bicycle.

“It makes you feel like you’re in much better shape than you actually are,” said Carp.

One individual who bought an e-bike after trying out one at the library was a travel nurse working night shifts at University of Virginia Medical Center. According to Carp, by the time she got off work at night, there was no bus running to take her back to the parking lot where she had parked her car more than a mile away from the hospital. So, she bought an e-bike.

Like the Van Vrankens and most of the library’s patrons, Carp was not a cyclist before discovering the world of e-bikes — he doesn’t even consider himself to be particularly fit. But his curiosity was piqued when one of his neighbors bought an e-bike for their family, which they allowed him to test ride.

“I could imagine myself going downtown or taking my kids to daycare,” said Carp, a father of three under the age of 6. “I knew that I couldn’t get one for my family until I’d tried it.”

It was that revelation that led to the Charlottesville E-Bike Lending Library. For the first year, Carp operated the nonprofit service on his own, but he soon became connected with the nonpartisan organization Virginia Organizing, which assists with the legal and administrative aspects to get nonprofit organizations up and running.

Since opening the library, Carp estimates that about 200 people have checked out a bike from the library, with roughly half going on to purchase their own e-bikes. During the warmer months last year, the e-bike interest was so high Carp had to create a weekslong waitlist.

The library now has eight e-bikes available for loan, though it started out with only one e-bike that was purchased by one of Carp’s friends — mostly to get him to stop talking about the idea of an e-bike library and finally open an e-bike library. The rest of the bikes were donated, purchased with funds from donors and grants or, in one bike’s case, gifted by e-bike company Velotric.

“People keep supporting the library and donating bikes. I’ll keep taking them until my shed is full,” said Carp.

Occasionally, the e-bike librarian takes the bikes for a field trip to local schools or parks along with other e-bikers to spread the word in the community and allow passersby to hop on for a quick spin. More of these public events will be taking place this spring during “Bike to Work Week” from May 15-19.

The city of Charlottesville has already planned several stations with snacks and cycling swag to encourage alternative modes of transportation during the week starting with a kickoff party at Three Notch’d Brewing Company on May 15. Last year’s festivities saw hundreds of participants get involved.

Cycling over driving does pose several environmental, financial and health benefits. Vehicles account for roughly 10% of global carbon emissions, contributing to global warming. Sadie Van Vranken calculated that her two-person household saved roughly $2,200 a year without a car.

The Van Vrankens and Carp both stressed that they don’t expect people to make unrealistic sacrifices and try to manage a family of five on bikes alone. Rather, they’d like more people to consider if an e-bike could take the place of another car and enable a “car-light” lifestyle, as Carp put it.

At the end of the day, for Carp and the community he’s encountered and embraced through his library, e-biking is just more fun.

“I love being outside, it’s nice to be real in the world,” said James Van Vranken. “I often feel this way at a large traffic junction; I get to interact with that environment so much differently. It feels so wonderful to see and listen to the world as it is, feel the wind and even talk to pedestrians.”

He added: “I hope we never have to own a car. I am not looking forward to that day.”


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