Electric bicycles are like electric cars. People who don’t like them are usually people who haven’t tried them. I was at a local farmers’ market recently where I got to take a test ride on an electric bicycle. I only drove it for about 50 feet before I knew I wanted one. At an age when creaky knees and hips are beginning to impact my lifestyle choices, an e-bike — sometimes called a pedelec — could fulfill most of my transportation needs, at least in the warmer months.
E-Bike Use Varies By Country
The e-bike is a bit of a regional phenomenon. They are hugely popular in European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and France. In fact, nearly a third of all bicycles sold in the Netherlands today are electric. In the UK, sales are less than half that. In the US, they are still a relatively new phenomenon.
Why An Electric Bike?
What is it about electric bikes that makes them so appealing? “It’s quite difficult to explain what one feels like. You’re still cycling but it’s like being an Olympic athlete. You can go faster and longer; hills are less effort. The acceleration is quite fun, even for the most skeptical grown up,” is how Steve Gardis, operations director for the UK Bicycle Association puts it in a piece in The Guardian. “Ebikes level the playing field,” he says. “People of different abilities and fitness can cycle together. People can cycle with their enthusiast partners. Grandparents can go out with their families because e-bikes close that gap.”
Paul Stewart of UK cycle distributor Moore Large says, “If you look at our cities and the way that we commute, the e-bike gives you the opportunity to get around at a reasonable pace. You don’t need to get all hot and sweaty, you don’t need to pay [car] tax or have a driving licence, because they’re classed as bikes.
What Is An E-Bike?
In its most basic form, an electric bicycle is little more than a conventional bike that has a small electric motor and a battery added. Most have an electronic control system that allows the rider to select the level of assistance desired, ranging from none to full electric operation. The batteries are usually designed so they can be easily detached and brought inside for recharging using a normal electrical outlet when the ride is done. Most have a range of at least 10 miles, with 30 to 40 miles being typical.
Just as with an electric car, the weight of the motor and battery can affect the balance of the bike. In general, integrating the motor into the hub where the pedals attach to the frame and mounting the battery low in the chassis result in the best riding experience. By law, e-bikes are limited to a top speed of between 15 and 20 mph, depending on the country they are used in. Otherwise, they turn into a different vehicle class.
E-bikes come in all shapes and sizes. Some resemble beach cruisers. Others are like mountain bikes. Some are styled to look like old-fashioned motorcycles. While others have small wheels and fold up small enough to carry indoors conveniently.
One Person’s E-Bike Experience
Philip Dalton is one UK rider who has made an electric bicycle his principal vehicle for commuting back and forth to work. There are some hills that need to be traversed along his daily route. “The e-bike is brilliant as it helps me keep a good speed climbing up the hills, meaning that when I get to work I’m not exhausted. It’s almost as fast as taking the car, plus it’s a great way to start the day. I love it. In the four months I’ve been using my e-bike, I’ve got much fitter without really noticing it and don’t have to waste time at the gym because I’ve had my workout getting to the office.
“You need to try an e-bike to really understand what it feels like and to appreciate its benefits,” he says. “When you’re out riding with the breeze blowing in your face, it’s wonderful to know that you’re getting fitter, helping the environment, and saving money. It feels like the future has already arrived.”
But does an e-bike really help riders get fit and stay fit? “Most definitely,” says Dalton. “You still need to make some effort on an e-bike, but you can manage the amount of help you get. If I’m not feeling that energetic then I can use more power, but if I’m up for it I can use less. In the four months I’ve been using my e-bike I’ve got much fitter without really noticing it and don’t have to waste time at the gym because I’ve had my workout getting to the office.”
E-bikes can also help older people or those with disabilities keep cycling by giving them the assistance they need to get up to speed after traffic lights or stop signs more easily.
Then there is the money issue. A good electric bicycle can cost $2,000 or more, but the money saved by not paying for gas, parking, repairs, and maintenance can more than offset the initial cost — usually in a year or less. A recent survey in the UK estimated an e-bike could save the average bicycle commuter as much as $8,000 over three years. Also, many employers and health insurance companies have incentives available that may lower your cost of buying an electric bicycle.
Bicycle Infrastructure Lags In Most Areas
Riding a bicycle still has drawbacks, most of them because cities spend billions on infrastructure for cars but little on accommodating the needs of bicyclists. “In Holland, Denmark, and Germany the investment in cycling infrastructure is 10% of the transport budget. Here it is less than 1%; that is the difference, really,” says Paul Stewart. Norway has recently committed $1 billion for building dedicated bicycle highways to connect people who live in the suburbs to their work locations in cities, but that is by far the exception rather than the rule.
Steve Garidis adds, “When the government thinks about electric vehicles, it thinks cars. They cost an enormous amount of money, they don’t solve congestion problems, and they need a huge amount of infrastructure for charging, whereas e-bikes don’t. They just require a three pin socket.”
Having an e-bike at home is great, but what happens when you travel? Many cities now offer bikesharing systems but many are now adding similar programs that make electric bicycles available to city residents and tourists alike. Lisbon, like Rome, is a city of seven hills, many of them steep enough to deter commuters from tackling them on their way to or from work. Emel, the city’s transportation authority, recently put 100 bicycles into service as part of its bikesharing program — two thirds of them electrics. It plans to increase the fleet to more than 1400 bikes, 940 of which will be electrics.
Pedro Machado, a spokesperson for Emel, says, “Madrid has [shown that] e-bikes solve the problem of hills but they also give you more range. If you’re comfortable riding 3 kilometers on a regular bicycle, then you’ll be comfortable doing 8 kilometers on an e-bike. So it captures people that would not be able to use a normal bike.”
Madrid, which has its share of hilly neighborhoods as well, started BikiMAD, a 100% electric bikesharing program, in 2014. San Francisco now has 100 electric bicycles available for rent through Social Bicycles, which also plans to begin operating in Brighton, England, soon.
The Royal Auto Club of Western Australia has organized two programs to introduce people to the benefits of using an electric bicycle to commute to work. In 2015, 60 people in the city of Perth — the jewel of the country’s western coast — were given free use of an electric bicycle for 10 weeks. This year, the experiment was repeated in the city of Albany, located in Australia’s southwest corner.
At the end of the program, participants reported that they had saved an average of $530 each in transportation costs during the 10 week period. Anne Still, RAC general manager for public policy, says the program was designed to introduce more people to e-bikes. “Western Australia is already a great place to cycle, it’s also really progressing in terms of infrastructure,” she said. “We see e-bikes as a great way of unlocking more demand for cycling.”
In Albany, none of the participants had cycled to and from work before. Yet over the 10 week period, almost half of all commuting trips were done using the e-bikes exclusively. Half of the participants enjoyed riding their electric bicycle so much they purchased it at the end of the experiment. And the majority said they would recommend them to family and friends as a commuting option.
Try It — You Might Like It
Here at CleanTechnica, we make electric cars the focus of much of our reporting, but electric bicycles have many of the same environmental benefits and offer a pathway to better health as well. Since many of them cost 90% less than an electric car, if your area makes biking a comfortable activity, consider using an e-bike to replace at least some of your normal journeys away from home.
Main source: The Guardian