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The perfect storm: How e-bikes are changing the world

Why the time is right for electric bikes to take over the world of cycling

Let’s imagine that cars are marbles, bicycles are grains of sand and the city is a funnel that is tasked with squeezing as much through its pinchpoint as possible on any given day.

Where there’s space, the grains of sand filter through the marbles, but often at too great a risk of becoming stuck. Sadly, many will never become those fluidly moving grains of sand that decongest the urban environment – and something has to give when it comes to urban mobility.

That’s according to organisations such as the World Health Organisation, World Economic Forum, European Environment Agency and many more.

Amsterdam is Europe’s share cycling capital, but as recently as the 1960s it was like many other cities around the globe, overwhelmed with a trend toward private motoring.

After the Second World War, the trend across Europe was clear: motoring had swallowed up cycling’s dominance of transport. In Amsterdam, activism in the 70s put a marker down, as the citizens reacted strongly to a rising death toll attributed to motoring.

Now, ‘peak car’ has been reached. Don’t just take it from us – even the world’s largest manufacturers of cars recognise the fact. We’ll cover this in more detail elsewhere in this magazine when looking at the future of the e-bike and e-mobility in general.

Birmingham, York and Brighton are all poised to ban private cars from their city centres in the near future in a bid to address the killer pollution problem.

In Europe, the World Economic Forum estimates dirty air is responsible for some 400,000 premature deaths every year. For context, that’s not far short of a third of all deaths attributed to cancer.

Transport accounts for nearly a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that is even higher in cities. When RideLondon and the London Marathon events close roads in central London it is astonishing to witness the readings of dangerous particulates drop off a cliff edge.

For those lucky enough to be taking advantage, it’s a literal breath of fresh air. For those politicians looking for an answer to health, congestion and pollution woes it is a solution served on a silver platter.

It seems likely that the postwar age of motoring will soon become a chapter in history – and arguably a forgettable one at that. The perfect storm exists for cycling to mirror 1970s Amsterdam and address some very pressing problems for society in the process. 

We’re in business

It won’t be easy – but green shoots are there in abundance. While we must accept that cycling isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, the electric bike brings forth an entirely new experience and one that addresses the vast majority of the most commonly given excuses for not taking to two wheels, in particular for the A to B rider.

Nils Amelinckx of outdoor adventure firm Lyon Equipment believes pedal assistance holds the key to unlocking a generation of commuter cyclists, among other growth areas.

‘It needs to be looked at differently. This is not the same as cycling, this is about e-mobility and it’s a movement. It’s not turning up to your office sweating – it’s looking after the climate by not burning fossil fuels, and it’s getting people off the fence who have recognised that they are not stuck in traffic, they are traffic.’

For those concerned by arriving at the office less fresh than desired, the e-bike’s assistance removes the strain of acceleration efforts off the lights. This means you’re much more likely to be stable and upright before motoring traffic has set off.

‘I’ve sold perhaps 100 bikes while waiting at traffic lights,’ says Ben Jaconelli, owner of London’s electric bike specialist store Fully Charged.

‘People pull up alongside at a red light and take a curious look. By the next set of lights they’re caught up and asking questions, clearly aware that the assistance on offer takes the strain and gets you well ahead of the queuing traffic behind. Even for fitter riders the assistance provided can be a game-changer for arriving fresh and on time.’ 

Going the distance

In the Netherlands more than 50% of cycles sold come now with pedal assistance, a trend that has accelerated quite dramatically.

All indications are that the Dutch, already known for cycling in any weather, view the electric bike as a means to cycle for more transport trips and over longer distances.

A 2018 analysis by the Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy found that of the 23 million bicycles in the country, two million were electric. In a population of only 17 million, that means 8.5% of the population are already choosing to move by e-bike.

Dr Lucas Harms, the study’s co-author, says: ‘We have data that shows that the movement began with elderly people, but is now transitioning quickly to a younger audience.

Most trips are taken recreationally, but increasingly people are opting to utilise the e-bike for the commute too. What’s nice to see is that older people use e-bikes to cycle more often and for longer distances, giving a new lease of life in many cases.

Suddenly, with assistance, people are seeing a commute of 15km as feasible, whereas by pedal power alone they tended to top out at 7.5km. It truly is helping us shift away from a society that is car-dependent.’

More recent data from the Netherlands Travel Survey has concluded that those purchasing electric bikes are choosing them over all other transport forms thereafter, often sticking with the e-bike over a conventional bicycle.

A benefit of this is a tendency to cycle more often and farther. The data indicates that the e-bike is becoming a primary vehicle used for shopping trips, social purposes and cycling to work. 

Mobility for the masses

For those interested in cycling it is all too easy to be drawn in by the best practice example illustrated by the Dutch. Infrastructure plays a significant part in making people feel comfortable on any kind of bicycle.

So too does accessibility, and bike sharing schemes have helped give the masses a taste of how pedal assistance can inspire confidence even where road conditions aren’t ideal.

At its peak, the global bike share business was manufacturing one million hire bikes a month – so high that it actually caused problems for bike makers looking for a slot on Asian production lines.

The image of bike share schemes became somewhat tarnished, as pictures of ‘bike graveyards’’ made headline news around the world. The competition thinned rapidly.

From the ashes of that initial rush to market came something quite remarkable: proof that if you provide the right conditions people will choose to cycle.

Whether it was a perception of safety in numbers or perhaps a normalising of cycling as a mode of transport, where bike share schemes persist, cycling increases its modal share.

Mobike, which launched an electric version of its distinct orange-wheeled share bicycle in selected markets in August 2018, has kept close tabs on its rider data.

The company’s Singapore arm reported shortly after launch that around 75% of its users drove their private cars less and cycled more after discovering dockless bike share.

Half of users reported shunning their personal cars between one and three times a week in favour of bike share, while 30% replaced as many as five trips per week.

Mobike has steadily been withdrawing its British presence, but in its place come the likes of Jump, an electric bike hire scheme now owned and operated by ride-sharing giant Uber.

Even where Uber’s licences have been challenged its Jump Bikes remain and are, for many, their natural first experience of assisted cycling.

In London, between May and October 2019, 800 of the distinctive red electric bikes were ridden by more than 60,000 customers, a global record uptake for the firm, which operates similar schemes in 36 other cities around the world.

Dinika Mahtani, general manager for Jump in London, said: ‘More encouraging is that we’re seeing an average of seven journeys on every Jump bike every day, showing a real demand for electric bikes in the capital.

We’re excited to expand to more neighbourhoods in the coming months and will continue to work with local councils to promote active and environmentally friendly travel.’ 

Far and wide

It is this wider availability for the masses to sling a leg over that holds the key to a change in inner city mobility. Studies consistently show that high modal share cycling areas have a ‘safety in numbers’ effect.

In Cambridge, 57% of adults cycle at least once a week and that goes a long way towards making it more appealing for the less confident.

Tabitha Morrell of Raleigh Bikes suggests that, with an overview of everything from mountain biking to commuter cycling, the most interesting aspect of adding electric bikes to the catalogue has been adding diversity to its customer base.

‘We have taken electric bikes to a broader range of events for people to try. For example, introduction to these cycles at motorhome exhibitions has been interesting to observe.

The knowledge is often very low to begin with, but the curiosity and desire to cycle are high. Where we have been able to provide demos very often couples are keen to buy thereafter; often they will have realised how much easier the cycling experience could become if they are either unfit or ageing.’

Raleigh is based in Nottingham, where hospitals are now using electric bikes to enable consultants to move quickly and efficiently between departments. This, among other developments, is part of an ambition to take the city towards reducing its carbon output to zero by 2028.

‘If that ambition is to be reached, things like electric bikes will have to become a major part of the conversation on transport,’ says Morrell’s colleague Edward Pegram, who oversees the bike giant’s two-wheel portfolio.

‘We are looking closely at electric bikes as part of the transport picture and especially as part of the Cycle to Work salary sacrifice scheme. At present, only around 10% of sales here are electric, but with the lifting of the £1,000 cap [on Cycle to Work] that figure will rapidly grow, maybe towards 30% inside the next three years.’

Forward looking

Global financial consultancy and advisory company Deloitte projects electric bike sales to run at six times those of electric car sales over the coming decade, with as many as 130 million likely to sell in the next three years.

Consumer research group Mintel estimates that around 2.5 million bicycles were sold in the UK during 2018.

And purely on a cost comparison basis, it makes good sense to cut the fuel spend and invest in the electric bike. Depending on both your electricity supply and battery spec, powering up a typical e-bike requires between two and four times the cost of boiling a kettle – just 2.5p.

With those numbers it’s getting safer to say that the inner city roads will soon feature more electric bikes as people re-engage with two-wheeled transport.

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