E-bikes and Families: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky

Mary and her bike

With the ongoing pandemic, the normal fare for this blog has been shut down. So we’re branching out into a new kind of content: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky, Board Member of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, former Board Member of AURA, and Someone who Bikes for Transportation and Loves to See Other People Do It Too. This is the first interview I’ve done for the blog and I failed to get my audio equipment working, so the below is from my notes. All apologies to both Mary and my readers for anything I mess up!

First, could you tell us about your bike setup?

We have two electric bikes. The first one we got was a Yuba Mundo cargo bike, the kind of bikes usually used for carrying extra stuff. That one has an electric assist unit from a company called Bionic. Sadly, Bionic went out of business so when the battery is done, it will no longer be an electric bike and we’ll have to convert it back to a regular pedal bike. The e-assist is only on when you pedal; if you’re not pedaling, it doesn’t go. That’s a rear assist; you get the extra boost from your back wheel. We also have a Tern GSD that’s also an electric assist. It’s a mid-drive — the motor is in the middle of the bike, not on one of the wheels. Both are cargo bikes, but there are lots of e-bikes that are not cargo bikes. Our bikes have an extra pair of handlebars for the children to hold onto, attached from the seat post. So the kids can hold onto real handlebars when they sit behind the pedaler. We have two locks: a frame lock that prevents the wheel from turning and a U-lock to keep it on the rack. We’ve registered it with the Austin Police Department so that if someone tries taking it to the pawn shop, the pawn shop runs the serial number against the APD database so we have a chance to recover it in case of theft. We’ve also taken pictures of it to make it very clear that it’s ours so that if it did get stolen and we located it, we could prove it was ours.

Mary’s Tern GSD

One of the biggest challenges is storage. Do you have a secure garage? One thing I like about the Tern is that you can stand it up on the back wheel, so you can wheel it into an elevator and bring it up into your apartment. Makes it very portable for people who have an elevator.

Do you ever ride without the kids? How does your setup change?

My husband will often drop the kids off and then ride to work. Or we’ll just go to the grocery store and get a bunch of groceries. If I’m going somewhere, like I needed to go to the Capitol and there’s a big hill, or if it’s really hot out, the e-bike just makes things much more comfortable. Makes it worth it to take a bike. Just today our car battery died, so we had to go to the store on our bike.

Do you swap equipment out?

I pretty much leave it as is. When my smallest child was still a baby, I would take the baby seat on and off. With the Tern, that took less than thirty seconds. That was a big reason why we chose the Tern. It didn’t require special tools and doesn’t take a lot of time.

What kind of streets do you ride on? Are there places you love to go? Places you won’t go?

There are absolutely places I will not go on my bike, whether I have my kids with me or not. Big streets like Lamar or Burnet, unless it’s on the sidewalk and even that only for a block to get to a business. There are roads that are just not safe. But having been riding in Austin for about five years, I have in my head which streets are safe. It’s often the slower streets. There are a limited number of north-south streets in Austin — like we learned that Avenue B is a good route because there’s very little traffic. When you ride, you get to know the routes and learn how to avoid unsafe streets.

How long is your typical ride?

I ride every day to the kids’ school or daycare. It’s about 1.2 miles away so that’s really quick. It’s about five or seven minutes by bike or it would be much longer walking — kids’ legs are slow. There’s all sorts of research out there that says that kids who have an active commute are more active learners. It’s not that far of a trip, but it’s amazing how many people will drive that distance. When my husband drops them off, he bikes to school — that’s one mile, then on to work — that’s another four miles, so five miles altogether. The electric bike allows him to wear professional clothes and arrive at work looking reasonable. One really nice thing about a bicycle commute is that it provides you a lot of consistency. With a car, you have to worry about traffic and sometimes you have to worry about traffic with the bus as well. For my husband, it’s pretty much the same 21 minutes there and home no matter what. No worries about traffic or finding a parking spot.

The Pustejovsky family and their bikes.

How much did it cost, all told?  How much is annual maintenance?

The Tern list price is $4,000. We got it on sale for $3,600 — accessories for another couple hundred dollars. The worst thing you can skimp on is a lock! If you’re spending money on a nice bike, you want a really heavy-duty lock. Annual maintenance is really not much. We just got our brake pads replaced for about $20. We charge the battery but someone ran the numbers for that and it costs about $5/year. A patch kit for a flat is about $5.

We only have one car and I started tracking how much we spent on it in a year. Insurance, gas, tires, new battery — it’s so much more expensive than my bike. It’s so easy to spend money on a car and people don’t blink. One thing I hear about bikes is that $4,000 is a lot of money up front. People don’t have that kind of cash lying around. There’s a great resource called the Clean Energy Credit Union; they’ll provide you with a loan at a pretty reasonable rate of interest to purchase an e-bike. There’s also the Austin Energy rebate. If you live in Austin, you can get a rebate for the purchase of an e-bike. I got a $200 rebate from Austin Energy.

Do you have insurance on your bike?

I’m glad you asked about this. Many people tell me it’s covered by your renters’ insurance or your homeowners’ insurance. I called a few times to check to make sure that it’s covered. Some people have said they had to do a rider on their insurance policy like you would for an expensive piece of jewelry. Talk to your insurance company; there’s a lot of gray area on this. Some people have said it would be covered, but their deductible was more than their purchase cost for their bike. There is something called Velosurance — I know some people do that, but we decided against it.

How often do people stop you and ask you about your setup?

In my neighborhood, people have gotten used to me. But when I go further to neighborhoods I’m not used to, it happens all the time. I can’t even count the number of times. It happens all the time. When we first got it, we were very much an oddity. We didn’t see other people with setups like this. In the past five years, it’s changed. It used to be “what is that?” now it’s “oh, is that electric? My sister has got one like that.” People say they’ve tried it and they like it.

I think electric gives a lot of power to democratize biking, for people who are worried about unsafe streets or aren’t in peak physical condition. Friends who have some disabilities or anyone can use it to make cycling more comfortable. I don’t think of myself as a “cyclist.” I think of myself as someone who bikes for transportation. I’ve never ridden a 50-mile or 100-mile ride; I’m not that kind of person. I’m just your average person. That’s what’s so great about e-bikes. They’re for everyone. E is for everyone.

What would make bicycling better for you in Austin?

It’s such a simple thing: make streets safe for people. There are a lot of ways to do that. That’s why I care about Vision Zero. We need to make streets designed so that cars go slower. Narrower lanes, bike lanes that have actual protection and not just a stripe of paint. There are bike lanes I wouldn’t allow my 6-year-old to go on. Slower streets for everyone.

Thank you, Mary!

Thank you! I really hope we’ll seize the moment to make things safer for people who might not be able to afford the car or can’t drive for other reasons. I just want to make it so that it’s safe for everyone.