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ELF invasion in Pleasanton

Electric bike is good for you, good for environment -- and pretty darn cute

Jon Scudder, a retired Pleasanton resident who lives near downtown, was smitten when he saw a bright orange egg-shaped machine whiz by on Main Street.

"I said, 'Boy, that was cool,'" Scudder recalled.

A week later he spotted the vehicle again, and this time he took off running in pursuit. Although he didn't catch it, he got close enough to see writing on the side: ELF.

"I went on to the Internet with 'ELF' and that took me to Durham, N.C., and they had lots of pictures to see," Scudder said.

The ELF -- electric, light and fun -- is a large, backward tricycle that can be powered by pedals or a rechargeable battery. It is made by Organic Transit.

The bike-car hybrid standard model measures roughly 9 feet long by 4 feet wide by 5 feet high and weighs 160-180 pounds, depending on the extras. It has a tiny solar-powered motor and can carry up to 350 pounds, including the driver.

Scudder telephoned Organic Transit to ask where he could see an ELF in person and was directed to a bicycle shop in Mountain View.

"I went over there and they had one on the floor and I got to sit in it," Scudder said. "I thought, 'Oh, gee, this is me.'"

He had a three-month wait while a two-toned yellow-and-white ELF was built for him and shipped from North Carolina to California. Although the standard ELF runs about $5,500, it cost more than $1,000 to get it delivered, he noted.

"A guy from Mountain View brought it in a trailer right to my house," Scudder said. "It was ready to roll."

The battery pack recharges in two to three hours with the included charger, which plugs into any standard wall outlet. The solar panel on the roof also acts as a charger, and in full sunlight it will completely recharge in about eight hours.

"I've had it four weeks and I've charged the battery twice, but neither time did I need to," Scudder reported last week. "The sun keeps recharging the thing."

He said he enjoys pedaling along in the shade of the roof and can easily switch to electric power with a thumb switch. And he delights that it takes so little room to park.

The ELF is classified as an electric bicycle in California.

"I have a feeling when rules for bicycles were written, they did not anticipate anything like the ELF," Scudder said. "A bicycle is allowed to ride on the sidewalk so that means these ELFs are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. But hopefully common sense will prevail as rules evolve in the future."

Scudder has since become acquainted with Kaaren Northup, the owner of an orange ELF. Her husband discovered it while researching transportation after her waning vision made it unsafe to drive a car.

"He got online and found this in North Carolina," Northup said. "It fascinated both of us. We flew back to make sure I'd be comfortable on it."

"I hadn't ridden a bike for years but a tricycle would be difficult to fall off of," she added with a laugh. "Mine is bright orange to make sure I am very visible. And my husband installed a flashing light in back."

Northup had to get on a waiting list for her ELF, but it tickled her to learn she was right behind Jerry Seinfeld.

She said the ELF is easy to drive, and she stays cool since it is covered and a breeze passes through as she travels. She uses the battery as her legs tire.

"The hardest part of the whole thing is getting in and getting out," she said. "I am 71, and you must be a little limber. I definitely need to wear pants."

She can take her single-person ELF shopping since it has storage enough in back for eight bags of groceries, with a "trunk" flap that adheres to the roof with Velcro.

Northup has ridden to Dublin and Livermore and travels across town often. She has discovered that Performance Bikes in Dublin can make any repair needed.

"I ride it three times a week for sure -- church on Sunday, Bible study on Wednesday, and when I go to the Senior Center to work on blankets for children," she said.

She attends Lynnewood United Methodist Church on Black Avenue, where fellow churchgoer Bill Behrendt noticed it.

"I liked the fact that it was economical and kind of fun," said Behrendt, who used to ride a bicycle to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before he retired.

He also looked into a Schwinn electric bike that has a motor in the hub of the wheel.

"This one is more stable," Behrendt said.

After a two-month wait, his wasabi green ELF arrived in May. Behrendt takes it on errands and often out to Rancho Los Mochos Boy Scout Camp in the hills south of Livermore where he helps out as handyman.

The three Pleasanton ELF owners say they spend much time talking to people who stop them with questions.

"As soon as I arrive at my destination, people come over and ask me about it," Northup said. "I got some cards made up with a picture of the ELF on the front and all the data on the back."

"Actually, it's fun; I've met a lot of people," Scudder said. "They ask, do you need a license, how fast does it go or how far does it go. The concept is kind of new."

The ELF is designed for use under 30 mph. It can travel up to 30 miles on the battery, but of course can go forever on pedal power. Drivers can use a smartphone app to see their speed, distance, elapsed time, CO2 saved and calories burned.

The environmental aspect is important to Organic Transit, which uses recycled and upcycled materials.

Company founder Rob Cotter is an inventor and former race car technician. He said in a TedX talk at Duke University last spring that 40% of car trips are two miles or less. His team asked why people don't ride bicycles more often and found:

* They don't want to fall over.

* They don't want to be caught in bad weather.

* They don't want to kill themselves going up a big hill.

* They want to be able to carry some cargo.

He also said bike riders were looking for a way to arrive at work fresh but be able to work up a sweat on the way home.

"What we're looking to do is take the bicycle experience and integrate it with car-like functions," Cotter said.

In its June newsletter, Organic Transit stated it had manufactured and sold more than 500 ELFs. And three are here in Pleasanton.

"I love my ELF," Northup said. "I would love to see many more on our streets, especially for use by older or handicapped people -- no gas, no oil, no driver's license."

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