Inae Hwang was torn: Should she buy a new electric bike?
“I’ve been looking at e-bikes for six months straight, really looking to purchase one,” Hwang, a Belmont resident, said. Then, a friend referred her to the Camberville E-bike Lending Library, which Somerville resident Christopher Schmidt runs out of his Porter Square home.
Hwang decided to take one of the e-bikes for a spin. “I was like, ‘Oh, I should totally borrow one because then I will know what it feels like, and how well it does or doesn’t work for me,’” she said.
Hwang was hooked; she tested out multiple different e-bike models through the library.
“I borrowed one for the last week. … Oh my god, that was awesome,” she said. “And now, I just tried a different bike out because it wasn’t in last week.”
The E-bike Lending Library has a collection of electric bicycles available for loan to community members for up to a week, completely free of charge. The library works to expand access to e-bikes in Somerville and Cambridge (“Camberville”), and the surrounding areas.
Electric bicycles have become an increasingly common sight on the streets of Somerville in the past few years. With a battery that gives a boost of power behind the pedals up to 20 mph, electric bicycles can be an efficient way to get around the Boston area.
However, between the vast number of brands and styles to choose from and the fact that many e-bikes are sold online, it can be difficult to take one for a spin before purchasing.
Schmidt, a Somerville resident, is trying to change that. He first purchased an e-bike in March 2021, which sparked his passion for e-bikes and led to him creating the lending library.
“I immediately fell in love,” Schmidt said. “I have been riding bikes off and on since I was a kid, like many of us, but using a bike as transportation ... was really hard for me, and the e-bike just changed everything.”
For Schmidt, an electric bike offered many advantages compared to a standard bicycle.
“It let me feel more comfortable in traffic, it let me feel more comfortable on the road,” he said. “I could go farther, I could run errands and I immediately wanted to share my joy with everyone else.”
Schmidt frequently would bring his e-bike to his friends and let them try it out.
“Half the people I took it to would just immediately be like, ‘Yes, I'm doing it and buying a bike,’” Schmidt said. “The other half liked it … but they would be worried about ‘Can I do the grocery run? Can I take the kids to school? Can I make it to work?’ … They just really couldn’t tell you in a five minute ride.”
Electric bicycles are much more expensive than a regular bike — price tags usually begin at $1,000, and a quality e-bike can cost upwards of $3,000 — and it can be difficult to make the jump with only a short test ride around the block.
Schmidt wanted to be able to lend friends his e-bike to try for a longer period of time so they could decide whether it fit into their lifestyle.
Then, in October 2022, the e-bike manufacturer RadPower had a large sale on one of their e-bikes for $500. Schmidt took advantage of the opportunity to purchase a second bicycle and to spread the word about the sale.
“I told all my friends, ‘Go buy this bike. You will not be disappointed. Trust me, just go buy this bike,’” Schmidt said. “And, it turns out, I have a lot of friends.”
In total, 183 people followed Schmidt’s referral link to purchase a bike, and Schmidt earned a store credit for each friend he referred.
“At that point, I had $4,500 in gift card credit to an e-bike store,” he said. “So, what do you do with a $4,500 in gift card credit to an e-bike store? The obvious answer is buy more e-bikes.”
With the funds from the referral link, Schmidt was able to start up the Lending Library.
Of the 103 individuals who requested them in October, the library was able to lend 51 e-bikes. Many of the families who borrowed bikes were looking to replace or avoid purchasing a second car.
“The goal of the library is just to help people primarily figure out, ‘Does an e-bike work for me? Can I use it in my daily life?’” Schmidt explained.
Although the library’s primary purpose is to give people the chance to test out an e-bike before purchase, individuals can also borrow a bicycle simply for leisure.
“I had someone who came in from Hawaii who was just here for a week and she had heard about the library from somebody,” Schmidt said. “They put 120 miles on the bike in a week, which is awesome.”
The e-bike library recently partnered with Electric Bikes of New England, a New Hampshire-based dealer. The store has donated e-bikes to the library, including cargo bikes, which are bicycles designed to carry multiple children or other large items.
“They’ve really been just a huge boon,” Schmidt said. “The library was able to go from zero cargo bikes to three cargo bikes in the course of a week because of our partnership with them.”
Parents now have the opportunity to try out more budget-friendly cargo bike options than most of those offered at stores in Cambridge and Somerville; the models available for loan at the Camberville E-bike Lending Library typically sell for $2,000 to $4,500 online, several thousand dollars cheaper than alternatives commonly found at stores in the Tufts area, which can run from $5,000 to $9,000.
Schmidt operates the library out of his home. Due to limited storage, the library depends on a cycle of continuous loans.
“The key thing is to store them in other people’s garages,” Schmidt said. “My goal really is to keep these bikes in rotation.”
Anyone who is 18 years or older and has a place to store the e-bike securely can borrow one by filling out a request form on the library’s website. Once the bike becomes available, Schmidt arranges a time for the person to come by the library. Between three days and a week later, the bike returns to Schmidt’s home to be loaned out to the next rider.
Hwang’s experience with the library was very positive.
“It was easy. It was convenient. And the bikes are fun,” she said.
Peter Williams, a resident of Watertown, commutes to his job at Harvard using public transportation every day. Williams used the library to test out the feasibility of using an e-bike for his commute.
“It’s a specific group of people for whom [e-bikes] are practical and work well, and it’s certainly not everybody,” he said. “But for my commute, I certainly came out convinced that for where I happen to be, the e-bike would not just be a good option, but I think it would really be the best option.”
For Williams, the e-bike helped bridge gaps in public transportation and avoid congestion.
“Compared to my public transit commute, where I’m not super close to bus stops and work … the e-bike version, the best route I can come up with, is half that time, so 22 or 25 minutes,” Williams said. “The nice thing is that because you’re on the bike lane, it can be rush hour and your commute still takes around the same amount of time.”
Williams also highlighted the community spirit of the library.
“It just feels like a very nice community thing to me, and certainly, it takes a lot of trust on Chris’ part to lend out these expensive [e-bikes] to people and it takes a lot of work to manage it all,” he said. “Participating in it feels like a very ‘getting involved in the community’ kind of experience that can be kind of hard to come by these days.”
Williams believes the library will encourage cycling in the neighborhoods and towns around Tufts.
“Once there’s enough bikes out there, it kind of hits a tipping point where [bicycling] is just sort of a thing that people do, as opposed to this lifestyle choice,” Williams said.