Tampa helped a car-hating guy buy an e-bike. Will it replace his car?

He’s one of 180 city residents who got vouchers to subsidize the purchase of an electric bike to take cars off the road.
Eddie Leonard commutes to a meeting from his downtown Tampa condo on his new e-bike.
Eddie Leonard commutes to a meeting from his downtown Tampa condo on his new e-bike. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published June 6|Updated June 11

For the record, Eddie Leonard does not like his car.

And not just the car he bought when the pandemic made it too scary to rely on Uber. Cars in general. “I don’t like having cars,” said Leonard, 43, who owns medical clinics and lives in downtown Tampa with his partner. “I don’t like traffic.”

Enter the city’s first-ever electric bike voucher program. With goals including getting cars off the road and improving bike safety, the program subsidizes a Tampa resident’s purchase of an e-bike for between $500-$2,000, depending on the type of bike and the person’s household income.

From 956 who applied, the city held a lottery and recently handed out 180 vouchers from a $170,000 budget to offset the cost of an e-bike, which has an electric bike motor that assists when the rider pedals.

E-bikes being purchased through the program — 20 so far from six designated Tampa bike shops — have had price tags between $1,200 -$6,000. The city will watch how the program works — including some residents who incorrectly thought they would get a free bike — with an eye toward doing it again.

So Leonard found himself with a $1,000 voucher and is now tooling the streets of Tampa on his black cargo e-bike.

A conversation with Leonard about negotiating the city’s notorious roadways — in the rain — and the motorist who once hit him on a bike and then expected him to pay for the damage. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You moved from the more the traffic-intense Dale Mabry and Waters Avenue area. Do you like living downtown?

It’s great. I moved to this building in 2007. The neighborhood is different from when we moved here. Like Curtis Hixon (Waterfront Park) didn’t exist yet. They didn’t redo Julian B. Lane (Riverfront Park) yet.

So you’re embracing the whole downtown lifestyle thing?

I love the downtown lifestyle. I don’t like traffic. (Before the pandemic, he mainly got around by Uber and Lyft.) When Covid hit, I was afraid of getting in an Uber.

Do you have a car? Why don’t you want to use it?

I bought the car right after lockdown. There was a Hertz car sale. I got a steal on it because they just had a ton of inventory all of a sudden. A 2020 Nissan Armada with 5,000 miles. I like the idea of mass transportation versus individual transportation. I consider myself a bit of a transportation advocate. It ends up being cheaper than owning a car. It takes another car off the road.

Eddie Leonard straps on his bike helmet for a recent  commute.
Eddie Leonard straps on his bike helmet for a recent commute. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

What made you apply to the city’s e-bike voucher program?

Because I wanted to see if I could have a car-free and healthier lifestyle. The electric bicycle was kind of something I was flirting with to see if I could do 5 miles or 6 miles. Like, from downtown to International Mall.

You get a little scared on the roads like Dale Mabry. My goal is to not use my car any more if I can. I thought I didn’t have shot in the world (for a voucher), but I’d (apply) anyway.

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Explain an e-bike to the uninitiated. Does it do all the work for you?

No. There’s three classes of e-bikes. The one the voucher is appropriate for is class one. It doesn’t kick the motor on til you start pedaling. As you start pedaling, the gear kicks in and it takes off about half the load. The motor goes up to about 20 miles an hour.

Did you have to prove you were going to use your e-bike for trips that you’d otherwise take in a car?

They inquire about that. Their goal is to reduce cars on the road.

How much did yours cost?

It was $4,200.

How much do you use it?

As much as possible. So everyday. Pretty much any trip that is as far as here to International Mall. I haven’t used my car since I got the bike (two weeks earlier).

What if you go out and have a cocktail?

I’d rather walk or Uber if that’s the case.

You got a cargo bike. What do you take, cargo wise?

Groceries. My laptop bag. The battery charger. A tube kit if you get a flat. I was stuck in the rain yesterday. I waited it out under the awning at the (Tampa) Museum of Art. It happens. I’m bringing a little raincoat in my bag.

Are you keeping your car?

For now. I’ll probably give it a month or two. See if I can brave the summer.

How safe does Tampa feel on a bike?

When there is a secure road (with a protected bike lane) like Cass Street or Jackson, it feels great. Oh man, it’s perfect. When it has a painted bike lane without barriers like Tampa Street, it’s okay. But if you hit a county or state road like Kennedy or Dale Mabry, it’s like, just try to find the safest way across and get off as soon as possible.

Is the biggest problem drivers who are unaware?

Even pedestrians. We’re not a pedestrian or bike friendly city. It’s very car-centric.

Is that changing?

A little bit, especially downtown, since we have a lot more residents. But we have a long way to go

The city has put in these bike lanes. The city did a good job at corners like Kennedy and Tampa Street (narrowing the lanes.) It slows down divers. They’re trying.

Had any hairy situations?

Not on this bike, but on previous scooters and city bikes. I was on that bike path on Cass (Street) on a Spin bike and a driver had a green light and I had a green light and he was trying to make a turn.

The bike smashed into his front left quarter panel. I had to tuck and roll. He decided to yell at me. He tried to take me down for money to fix his car. I said “You ignored the green light.” (There was a security camera) I said, “Dude, I’m glad that’s on camera there.”

I didn‘t feel safe riding it after that. I was a little shook up. I just locked it up.

So what do you think of the voucher program?

I think it’s a good experiment. If you can genuinely find candidates with the intention that would really take cars off the road, then I think it’s a win for taxpayers.

Could you do what you’re doing on a bike if you still lived at Waters and Dale Mabry?

No way.