The charge of e-bikes

There is a quiet revolution underway in the streets around us. Silent and efficient personal electric vehicles glide through the city – this is the choice of more and more people as a way of getting around. They are improving congestion, improving air quality and improving people’s physical and mental well-being. 

Ah, you say, that’s all well and good, but we can’t all afford Teslas. Revolutions rarely work top-down. Except, electric cars are not the transformation we are talking about. We mean e-bikes. Yes, it has only taken a heady 250W of power, topping out at a modest 15.5mph, to drive these winds of change.

E-bikes are taking the sweat out of cycling. That extra assistance flattens hills, lightens loads and opens up cycling to people who no longer feel able to ride. It’s no coincidence that in the UK, 62 per cent of e-bike sales have been to people over the age of 55. The helping hand that a Bosch or Bafang electric motor offers is an enabler to older cyclists and those that have, through illness or injury, been forced to hang up their crochet mittens. 

As you only get a push from the motor when pedalling, it is still (gentle) exercise and – perhaps just as importantly – it is still a way to generate those endorphins that are every cyclists’ secret addiction.

It is also a great way to take the hard work out of cycle commuting. If you’ve got to carry a laptop and a change of clothes to the office, that’s not a problem – take the pain out of panniers by hanging them on an e-bike. And let’s dismiss that hair-shirt notion that E-bikes are somehow ‘cheating’ – if that’s true, what does that make sitting on a bus or in a car? Giving up completely? 

Fortunately, the 100,000 bike year-on-year growth in Europe and a whopping 1.5 million e-bikes sold in 2016 seems to suggest that such views are in the minority. At this point, it is worth contrasting this mostly (financially) unassisted growth in sales with the hefty subsidies that have been aimed at buyers of electric cars. The relatively small size, light weight and simplicity of e-bikes compared to electric cars has made them a much more attractive and practical proposition from the get-go.

In the UK, E-bikes cut out all assistance at speeds above 15.5mph, and while that gives them the potential to be far faster than any other mode of transport in the City of London (where the average speed of cars in 2016 was only 7.4mph), it’s actually lower than the average speed of cyclists recorded on Strava, based on some 27.4 million journeys. Some have suggested that this artificially imposed speed limit should be raised to 20mph, allowing cyclists to pull away quickly at junctions and potentially get out of the way of cars. 

However, in countries such as the UK, the predominant mode of personal transport is the private car, and people’s understandings of what is normal and acceptable are shaped by this. The capacity of any increase in this e-bike ‘speed limit’ to cause terror and outrage – when one road death caused by a cyclist elicits more column inches and concern than the roughly 1,700 killed annually by cars, trucks and buses – should not be underestimated.

What this shows is that e-bikes inhabit a grey area – where is the dividing line between a vehicle that is fast enough to require registration, insurance and protective clothing and one that isn’t? 

Is it purely speed, or some primitive hindbrain perception of momentum, weight and inertia that dictates where we are happy to draw that line? Despite being generally 10kg heavier than unassisted bikes, e-bikes are still mostly light enough to be jumped on and off of, pushed along when walking with friends or taking shortcuts through pedestrian areas, or even carried upstairs so they are not left out on the street. The usefulness that this flexibility allows should not be underestimated. If this is coupled with the load-lugging capabilities of an Urban Arrow cargo bike or the toughness of a Suru, then that is a transport solution that meets the needs of an incredibly wide variety of users. 

It’s surely only a matter of time before the most-produced vehicle in the world becomes an e-bike. Another winning factor of e-bikes (and of bikes in general); size. A case in point, that should be familiar to many Londoners, is the separated cycle lane on Blackfriars Bridge. It takes up one-fifth of the road space but at peak times carries 70 per cent of the people. The recently-installed digital counters nearby, measuring the number of cyclists using the Embankment and Blackfriars Cycle Superhighways, took only four months to log a million riders, proving pretty conclusively that when it comes to cycleways, if you build them, they will come, in quite large numbers and through a fairly narrow bit of infrastructure. 

This is one thing that we are only just getting our heads around in the UK – e-bikes represent a proper transport solution, an easy way for lots of people to get around conveniently and without too much effort on a daily basis.

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