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Santa Barbara Brings a Bike-Sharing Program

How Lithium and Electric Bikes Can Save the Planet

HOPR Bike share program at UCSB. | Credit: Paul Wellman

I was grabbing some much-needed shade last Sunday up at the Mesa shopping center, lurking in the cool shadows between the Chinese restaurant and the laundromat. I happened to be sipping a 7-Up as I contemplated all the things I should be doing. The wind, which was threatening untold scary mischief, was mercifully holding back. It was one of those excruciatingly beautiful autumn days. I was in no hurry. 

A car in the parking lot fired up. With a flick of the wrist ​— ​or a push of the finger ​— ​we can have a stampede of 300 horses at our beck and call to pick up a quart of milk.

Amazing.

Crazy.

I contemplated my 7-Up. Back in the day ​— ​for more than 20 years, it turns out ​— ​they put lithium in 7-Up. Like how they spiked Coca-Cola with cocaine, but in a kinder, softer direction. To this day, lithium remains one of the most effective mood stabilizers for people dealing with bipolar disorders. And suicidal thoughts, too. No one knows how it works, just that it does. You don’t hear much about lithium anymore. It’s a naturally occurring element. In other words, you can’t patent it. Why spend millions marketing something that can’t be monopolized? 

Another nearby car fired up. Another sustained series of contained explosions. Another mundane marvel of modern engineering. 

I’d read a report put out earlier that week by Beacon Economics warning that California is 30 years away from meeting its climate change goals for the year 2030 and 100 years from meeting its greenhouse gas reductions for the year 2050. Wildfire was a major reason. But the big one was transportation. Forty-one percent of our air emissions are generated by our mundane miracles. Given the number and intensity of wildfires, maybe our explosions aren’t really that contained. Yes, more people have to drive more miles because that’s reality. But so is stupidity. In 2017, nearly 60 percent of the registered vehicles in California were SUVs, light pickup trucks, and mini vans. Five years before, it was not quite 40 percent. 

I recently read that the head of the EPA threatened to cut off $300 million in Clean Water funds to the state of California, because San Francisco was supposedly allowing mountains of homeless feces to flow improperly into our natural waterways. Turned out it was just another retaliatory threat from the White House because California is insisting on imposing tighter fuel standards than the national EPA wants to allow. Thirteen other states followed California’s lead. The EPA officials in the San Francisco office had to inform their counterparts in Washington, D.C., that there was no truth to their horror stories ​— ​no untreated homeless poop, no free-floating syringes. 

We live in the age of stories, not facts. 

Did you know they used to put lithium in 7-Up? 

It’s worth noting that former county supervisor Mike Stoker was appointed by the White House to run the regional office. Stoker, conspicuously, did not attend that meeting but backs up all the scary stuff his boss says. 

Maybe they should put lithium back in. 

But in the meantime, maybe we don’t need to ride 300 horses to pick up that quart of milk. Not all habits have to die hard. New alternatives are now available that allow some to die easy deaths.  

In the next couple of weeks, Santa Barbara’s much-maligned City Hall will select the winning company that will launch a ride-share program bringing 300 new bikes to Santa Barbara’s urban landscape. One of the three applicants, Trek, is proposing to make all 300 electric bikes. The other two applicants include a mix of electric and traditional bikes. 

The thing about electric bikes? They’re powered by lithium batteries. 

When discussing the new bike-share program, a traffic planner at City Hall talked to me about making transportation “a joyous experience.”

Joyous?

I figure he must have been sipping some of that old-school 7-Up. But I get the point. A few weeks back, I took a test ride on a medium-priced, high-performance, fancy-pants electric bike. I pointed the bike up the steepest hills I could find and hit “play.” With pedal assist, I cruised up Cabrillo going 20 miles an hour. I pedaled the whole way. But I didn’t have to stand up. There was no huff, no puff.

Joyous? I had just cheated gravity and got away with it. Isaac Newton, eat your heart out.  I was downright giddy. 

The electric bike compresses the time-space continuum big time. As such, it’s become a genuine utilitarian alternative for many of those trips five miles or less.  It may not get you everywhere you need to go, just most of them.

When was the last time anyone described sitting in traffic as “joyous?” 

As I swigged the remains of the 7-Up, I thought about what that hotheaded orator Patrick Henry might say if he were still alive. My hunch? “Give me lithium or give me death.”

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