Preliminary assessment of using e-bikes
for City of Berkeley building inspections
By Tom Lent, E-bike Project Coordinator for Walk Bike Berkeley
Revised April 13, 2023
Purpose & method of assessment
E-bikes have considerable potential advantages for use within a municipal fleet. They can help meet climate goals, improve employee health and morale, reduce capital and operating expenses, improve public relations and encourage citizens to do the same for climate and health. See the ClimateAction Center E-bike Fleets for a complete discussion of advantages and case studies.
The purpose of this assessment was to evaluate the practicality of a sample CIty department use case in Berkeley. Specifically I set out to determine whether a building inspector could utilize an electric bicycle (e-bike) instead of a gas fueled vehicle for typical inspection schedules. I picked the Building Department inspection use case since inspectors do a lot of short distance travel every day in light duty vehicles only very lightly loaded which is a prime use for e-bikes..
All building inspection routes from one day were mapped and measured. A time trial was taken on a midrange route to determine if using an e-bike would require either a lot of exertion by the inspector or extra time. Power consumption and range was analyzed.
In the last section of this paper, I discuss a range of other e-bike implementation concerns for Berkeley, including fleet management and maintenance, weather and car demand surges, and issues around introducing e-bike fleets to employees.
Methodology & results:
Analysis of a sample day of building inspections - all routes
I downloaded one day’s complete building inspection schedule for Berkeley from Berkeley’s Building and Safety Division website using the Today's Scheduled Inspections link on June 22, 2021. The document for that day can be seen where I have saved it at 6/22/21 ACA Scheduled Inspections (PDF)
For each inspector, I used Google Maps to determine a routing starting and ending at the City Permit Center, using the order of addresses to be inspected indicated by the projected timing on the schedule. I recorded Google’s calculation of distance and estimate of time required to complete the route by car and by bicycle. Table 1 shows the results.
Google Maps suggested routes for the day’s inspection routes by car ranged from 7.5 to 13.2 miles. Bike routes ranged from 7.9 to 15.5 miles with total climb ranging from 509 to 1224 feet.
Bike routes suggested by Google favor bike lanes and seek lower angle ascents. For two routes with significant hill climbs, the suggested bike routes were more than 2 miles longer. For the rest the differences were negligible, with bike routes ranging from 0.5 miles shorter than the car route to 0.8 miles longer.
The Google Maps time estimates assume no traffic and do not include parking. Google’s time predictions for completing the routes by bicycle ranged from 16 to 53 minutes longer than by car. Google does not, however, provide an estimate for an e-bike, only a regular pedal bike being pedaled by a casual commuter which will be significantly slower than an e-bike.
Table 1 - Google Map routing on inspection rounds
Car time minutes
Bike time minutes
Link in the Inspector column leads to the Google map route
All distances, times, and elevations are calculated using Google Maps, except E-bike time which is actual from the time trial. Note that these times do NOT include parking time at each location. In many cases, bike parking could be significantly faster.
Time trial test with an e-bike - typical route
In order to test how long an inspector might take to complete the routes by e-bike, I set up a time trial road test with an e-bike. I picked the DJ Montes route for this first test. It is in the middle of the pack of eight routes for the day at 4th longest distance, 4th highest climb. and 3rd longest predicted cycling time. I rode a Gazelle Medeo - an upright commuter e-bike with a modest 250W motor and torque sensors. It is a Class 1 e-bike, meaning that the motor provides no assistance over 20 mph and there is only pedal assist - no throttle only mode.
I rode gently, not pushing hard for speed, gearing down the bike and using full electric support on hills to minimize effort and avoided working up a sweat. Of the 4 levels of electric motor support, I used level 2 on flats, geared down and used level 3 for all uphills, increased it to level 4 for steep hills, and coasted down hills. I followed all traffic rules, coming to a complete stop at all stop signs and red lights. No rolling Idaho stops.
Actual time to complete the route was 55 minutes, just 4 minutes longer than the 51 minutes predicted by Google for a car. I expect that the actual time for a car may have been substantially longer that day as San Pablo was quite congested, trash trucks were on numerous roads in the route, and a moving van completely blocked one street such that a bike could get by, but not a car. Also it is important to note that this time test did not include parking time at each location. Car parking would likely have added more time to the car time, than the ebike time.
Power consumption analysis
Power consumption for this ride, plus an additional ride to the top of Panoramic Way and back for a total of 23 miles was 0.32 kWh or 1.4kWh/100 miles, which converts to 2422 MPGe. E-bikes currently on the market typically have battery ranges anywhere from 20 to 80 miles depending on battery size and how they are used. The range of distances traveled by building inspectors is easily within the bottom end of this range. E-bikes would have plenty of range if charged overnight. If a bike was accidentally not plugged in at the end of one day, it would still have sufficient range for another day’s route with any but the lowest range e-bikes.
Fleet management and maintenance: E-bikes are considerably simpler and less expensive to maintain than cars. Nonetheless, it is a different set of skills and tools than typical car maintenance.
One option would be to contract with the Downtown Berkeley Bike Station at 2023 Center St. It is conveniently located less than a block from the Berkeley City Permit Center and many other City offices. The Berkeley Bike Station offers valet parking weekdays from 7AM to 7PM and offers a full range of bicycle maintenance services. There is a 24/7 bike storage area adjoining it for off hours access. They have been working with an increasing number of e-bikes in recent years. The storage area could probably easily handle a fleet of 20 or so bikes. They also have a large amount of expansion potential, being located in a municipal parking garage. BART is currently in discussions with BikeHub which runs the Bike Station for similar lending library services. There may be useful synergies between these efforts.
There are several other bike shops in downtown Berkeley that also have experience with e-bikes and could participate in providing maintenance services. Using them would probably require separate fleet parking and management.
Bike selection: For a hilly town like Berkeley, it is important to select an ebike that is good on hills. This generally means having multi-speed gears. A single speed ebike may stall out on steeper slopes. Torque sensors may also be preferable for hills. Be sure to test the bike selection on hills. See the Climate Action Center Buyers Guide to selecting an Ebike: Which components matter for more guidance.
Weather & surge demand: Rain and cold temperatures can be a significant barrier to bicycle use - e-bike or regular. In recent years, however, (until the unusual winter of 20222-23) Alameda County, has had trace precipitation (over 0.01 inches) of rain) only an average of 57 days per year (10% of days) .and over one tenth of an inch of rain has only occurred on 36 days. Almost no days have a minimum temperature below freezing. On average, one can ride in Berkeley without gearing up for rain about 85% of the days in a year.
Nonetheless, those rainy days may cause surge problems in demand for the car fleet. It would be unfortunate to have to have sufficient capacity of cars maintained in the fleet for uses that only happen less than a quarter of the days. It may be worthwhile to explore the cost savings could incur by using shorter term rentals for extra car needs in the rainy season.
Introducing e-bike fleets to employees: Many City staff who have never ridden e-bikes may be understandably skeptical of using one for their work assuming it will be hard work, particularly when under time pressures and with hills to climb. They may be uncertain of their cycling skills and concerned about looking bad in front of fellow staff or the public as they learn.
No one should be forced to ride an e-bike and much attention should be given to the introduction process. I suggest undertaking pilots, starting with interested employees in a variety of departments to try out e-bikes for a variety of tasks to demonstrate their usage and learn about where they work the best and what challenges arise.
Consider providing classes for staff to learn good riding technique and safety rules in a safe protected setting. Consider also a lending library of e-bikes that staff can take home for a weekend or try out for commuting for a week or two in order to get familiar with how e-bikes work when not under pressure of work performance and in public exposure settings.
E-bikes can be a great addition to a CIty fleet as part of the electrification process. This study exemplifies just one of many possible applications for e-bikes in municipal fleets. Throughout City operations, they can supplement sedans, SUVs and even light duty trucks in certain applications. They can help meet climate goals, improve employee health and morale, reduce capital and operating expenses, improve public relations and encourage citizens to do the same for climate and health. See the ClimateAction Center E-bike Fleets for a complete discussion of advantages and case studies.
This study was undertaken by the Walk Bike Berkeley Ebike Project in June of 2021.
The report has undergone minor revisions since that time.
 Trace rain has occurred on a maximum of 86 days per year(24%) and minimum of 28 days (8%) from 2013-2020 and greater than one tenth inch a maximum of 59 days (16%) and minimum of 13 days (4%). Rainfall records for Alameda County, Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) https://www.cocorahs.org/ViewData/RainyDaysReport.aspx
 NOAA Comparative Climatic Data https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ghcn/comparative-climatic-data