E-Bikes Give Riders, Local Economy Added Boost

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

Mission Electric owner Tyler Justin with a Populo in front of his shop on the corner of Ives and Power in Providence. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News)

Mission Electric owner Tyler Justin with a Populo in front of his shop on the corner of Ives and Power in Providence. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — For a somewhat high-end, somewhat off-the-beaten-track shop, both in its location and in the products it sells, and a shop that’s been in business for only a few weeks, Mission Electric seems to be doing pretty well.

The Friday afternoon that I hung around speaking with owner Tyler Justin and his wife, Emily, began as they wrapped up a sales pitch with two young men.

“That’s e-biking in a nutshell,” Tyler said. “You guys want to try one out?”

“Sure!”

After filling out a brief form, the two rode off, one on a Benno eJoy and the other on a Tern.

A few minutes later we had to take a break from the interview so Emily could pick up a conversation with a woman who had stopped by a few weeks earlier to see what the shop had to offer.

“It always takes a few visits,” Tyler said.

Finally, just as we were wrapping up the interview, Tyler excuses himself to speak with a customer who stopped by only a few days after buying a Populo from Mission Electric.

“I just love the way the motor responds and the huge battery,” the new owner, who had previously been riding a conversion-kit e-bike, said as he and Tyler stepped aside to trade bicycling stories.

So what’s all the fuss about?

“An e-bike makes it easier to want to ride your bike. You’re still pedaling, but it amplifies your pedaling,” Tyler said.

The battery that’s built into the frame provides a boost that, Tyler said, “will get you anywhere. I live at the top of the hill on Ivy Street. It’s been a life-changer for me. And all these bikes can make it easily up James Street [an exceptionally steep street leading from South Main to Benefit].”

And the pedaler can decide just how much of a boost he or she wants. The Tern, for example, has four settings: with its current charge, the Eco setting will take the rider 59 miles, and the most energetic, Tour, will take the rider 23 miles, all at about 18 mph. The battery can be recharged in an hour or two by plugging the bike into a wall outlet back home.

On a mission
Tyler and Emily, whose day job is working as director of music at the Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, have always been avid bicyclists.

Tyler had spent the past several years deeply, if serendipitously, engaged with the world of bicycles. After moving to New York City four years ago, after leaving his job as director of field operations for Monolith Solar in Albany, N.Y., he started biking around the Big Apple while he looked for work. New York City had just launched its bike-sharing project, Citi Bike, so he joined. He also started taking notes about problems with the system.

One day he stopped by the Citi Bike office to drop off a list of things he thought might help the organization work more efficiently.

They offered him a job.

Over the next three years he helped the nation’s largest bike-sharing operation, with 650 stations and 12,000 bikes, renovate its entire operating system, without, he noted proudly, disrupting its day-to-day operations.

When it was time to leave New York, he and Emily checked out a number of cities. They finally chose Providence for two reasons. First, he knew the city fairly well, since he had spent a lot of time at the house on Hogg Island that his family had owned for generations. Second, Emily got the job at Rocky Hill School.

Once they moved, Tyler worked remotely for Citi Bike, as well as helping Boston set up its Hubway bike-sharing system, now called Blue Bikes. He considered working with Providence’s new bike-sharing system, JUMP Bikes.

“But I wanted to do my own thing,” he said. “And I had become more and more interested in e-bikes. They’re really popular, outselling regular bikes in parts of Europe. Something like sixty-five percent of the bikes in Germany are e-bikes now.”

It didn’t take him long to fall in love with Rhode Island’s bicycling scene.

“Being able to ride from here [at the corner of Ives and Power in Fox Point] 16 miles to Bristol on a bike path is pretty special,” he said. “You’re riding along the water a lot of the way. There’s a pretty great biking infrastructure here. And just cruising around the East Side is great, riding by all the beautiful houses.”

Discovering this, he decided he wanted to make e-bikes a part of the community he was coming to love. As he got to know the area, however, he found a number of shops selling e-bikes, but he couldn’t find any that specialized in e-bikes. That’s what he wanted to do.

They opened Mission Electric.

Biker gang
Tyler has been reaching out to the Providence bicycling community. In addition to getting to know other bicycle dealers, he’s gotten to know bike-enthusiast Mayor Jorge Elorza as he has joined him for some of his Bike The Night rides, where people meet at Kennedy Plaza and “go for a cruise, a big loop around town,” as Tyler put it. This has also been one of the ways he has been able to connect with like-minded people in Providence.

His shop’s Instagram account brings in quite a few customers, he said.

One of the reasons most people don’t buy a bike the first time they visit the shop is the cost. The least expensive that he carries, the Populo, sells for $999. The most expensive, made by Stromer, costs $5,000.

To make it easier for e-bikers to buy one of his products, Tyler has made an arrangement with Navigant Credit Union. “Now they can get a personal loan to buy a bike, which usually wouldn’t be acceptable,” he said. “And I have a deal with Blispay where if you want to buy a $3,000 bike, you can go online and get credit, with the first six months being interest free.”

Next, he would like to find a way to provide good deals for artists. But he wants to get everybody into the act.

“I see people waiting for the bus on the corner and I put my head out and say, ‘You could get one of these. If you got financing to buy an e-bike for $80 a month, that’s what you’re paying for a monthly bus pass.’”

He and Emily have, however, made a small exception to their “only e-bikes” rule. Emily’s father, Ben Serotta, is an icon in the bicycle-design business, known internationally for his road-bike frames. So there’s a Duetti and an Amodomio on display in Mission Electric.

“We’re really enjoying Providence, with its restaurants and arts scene. And one of the main things that was really exciting about this is how we’re able to join the Providence community, and to share something I’m really passionate about,” Tyler said. “I’ve always been interested in sustainability, and bikes are a big part of that. I still have my road bike. This e-bike won’t replace my road bike. But it replaces my car.”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He lives in Providence.