“I-don’t-want-to-ride-up-hills” objection has been solved – “just buy an electric bike.” I'm not convinced.

Let them eat e-bikes

I live in Newcastle but I write about London lots, and that’s because a lot goes on there, especially now and especially concerning bicycling. It’s inspiring to see London’s new cycle infrastructure taking shape. 

Folks I follow on Twitter post regular updates of the building work, sharing smartphone photographs of the latest developments. Yes, this is kerbnerdery but it’s also an appreciation that, at long last, cyclists are being catered for in the UK with very wide and direct cycleways. 

The protected infrastructure being built on the Embankment, close to the Houses of Parliament, is the most inspiring of all of the capital’s cycleways because this will be seen every day by the powers-that-be. Such in-yer-face infrastructure may lead to copycat cycleways in other parts of the UK: “if even motor-choked London can do it, we can do it.”

Of course, this one of the key reasons why London is getting £1 billion worth of cycle infrastructure over the next 10 years – without it London will grind to a halt. In many other British cities congestion may be bad at times but it’s not – yet – at London levels of perma-gridlock. Newcastle, for instance, gums up on certain roads at certain times of the day but the extensive (and ugly and disfiguring) urban motorway network means that during the rest of the day it’s quick and easy to nip around in a car. When it’s this easy (and convenient and comfortable) there’s little incentive to use other transport modes. Newcastle’s urban rail network – the Metro – is wonderful but, still, many people prefer to use their cars on the mostly free-flowing roads.

It’s important to stress not everybody in the UK has access to a car. A third of British adults (and 100 percent of British kids) don’t have driving licences. Many people rely on either public transport, or on bikes. For all of the talk about MAMILs and hipsters on fixies, there are an awful lot of people on low-incomes who use bikes for everyday transport, usually invisibly. They may buy and ride BSOs – bicycle-shaped objects – but they’re riding nevertheless, although often not out of choice. Chances are they would be the most to benefit from extensive networks of cycleways, but impoverished areas won’t get cycle infrastructure as quickly as gentrified areas. To certain social groups travelling by bicycle is seen as low status. Supermarket BSOs are cheap and often nasty, but they are bought in huge numbers, bringing the average price of a UK bicycle down to £233. In the Netherlands the average price is three times this, which is one of the key reasons why electric bikes sell in the Netherlands but don’t sell in huge numbers in the UK.

But according to some bicycle advocates electric bikes eliminate a notable British objection to cycling: hills. (This objection is often present even in places where there are no hills, i.e. most places.) On Twitter, I was told in all seriousness by a number of advocates, that electric bikes will get the masses into cycling because people can now ride up hills sweat-free. As most electric bikes cost £1000+ – four times the average cost of a bike, and five or six times the cost of a supermarket BSO – this is let-them-eat-cake thinking. It would be great for bike shops if Brits did spend more on bikes but there’s a cultural antipathy to such spending as evidenced by the often-heard phrase “you spent how much on a bike? I could buy a second-hand car for that.” 

Cycling’s cultural cache is definitely on the up and up in the UK but telling a BSO buyer that their hilly commute to work would be eased by the purchase of an electric bike isn’t going to fly for a few years yet.

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