There is a quiet revolution underway in the streets around us. Silent and efficient personal electric vehicles glide through the city, 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% 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 pedaling, 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 - got to carry a laptop and a change of clothes for the office? No 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 one hundred thousand bike year-on-year growth in Europe and a whopping 1.5million 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 relative 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. After all, when it comes down to it, those range anxieties can simply be pedaled away.
In the UK, E-bikes cut out all assistance at speeds above 15.5mph. And whilst 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, such as Scott Snaith the CEO of London E-bike retailer 50 Cycles, 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, where 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 1700 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 hind-brain 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 and E-bike (and thus de-thrones the legendary Honda Super Cub).
So, E-bikes might get faster, they will almost certainly get lighter and bit by bit they are getting more sophisticated. A fantastic example of this is the Gocycle, a magnesium-framed, small-wheeled urban E-bike, that features full suspension, lights neatly integrated into the handlebars and single-sided forks and stays that hold the wheels in place by means of clever formula one-style fastenings. The sort of thing Sir Alex Moulton might possibly consider, if he were still alive. Spreading the net wider, mention should also be made of Cambridge-based company ARCC, creators of an impressive retro-fit system that allows pretty much any bike to turned into an E-bike. Not only does it utilize compact, off-the-shelf Bosch power tool batteries in an ingenious manner, it also adds an intelligent control system that even features a form of ‘launch control’ for those all-important first off the lights bragging rights. It will be interesting to see how many people want to keep hold of their faithful current ride or whether the draw of a shiny new set of wheels is just too much. Add to this on-bike navigation systems such as the promising-looking Beeline, for fuzzy navigation around town and E-bikes are looking like a smart mixture of the best features of a normal bike (simplicity and flexibility) and clever solutions to their weaknesses (which can be summed up as, let’s be honest, it’s hard to ride them uphill).
All of this leads onto the other winning factor of E-bikes (and of bikes in general, to be fair); size. Put quite simply, if you want to fit more people onto a road at any given time, you will get more on, if you put them in smaller boxes. Or not in boxes at all. 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% 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 cycle ways, 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.
So, it should not be that surprising that companies are starting to sit up and take notice of the competitive advantages that can be had from using E-bikes. Pedalme is an E-bike taxi app that allows users to call up one of a fleet of cargo bikes that an carry up to two adults (or five children) within five miles of Waterloo Bridge. So far, so fringe, perhaps more significantly, the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s started trialing electrically-assisted cargo bikes to carry out some of the home delivery orders from their branch in Streatham, South London. Over an eight hour shift the bikes can deliver just as many groceries as the vans that are normally used and, fascinatingly, to have an average speed of 12.3mph. As opposed to the 3.4mph of the vans. For similar reasons, companies such as UPS, DHL and many more are all looking more and more closely at the roll E-cargo bikes can play in their last-mile delivery services. They are not as pleasingly Sci-Fi as drones but they are here now and getting the job done.
As E-bikes have made cycling more accessible, they have also opened up many new markets and opportunities for both bike manufacturers and service providers. As companies such as Pedalme or the Cargo E-bikes used for deliveries by firms such as Deliveroo and UberEats show, there is a great scope for innovative service design based around the convenience of pedelecs for getting around town centres. The advent of E-bikes also opens the door to more radical thinking about the way we have been content to design and build bikes for the last hundred or so years. Composite construction allows the awkward shapes of bottom-bracket-mounted electric motors to be cleanly accommodated and large batteries to be concealed. Not only that, it could enable more distinct frame profiles - markedly different to the traditional ‘double-triangle’ - giving brands clear and tangible ways to differentiate their bikes from those of their competitors. Lights could be integrated as could luggage racks and mud and chainguards. Frame geometry will be less beholden to the ergonomics of peak performance and more attuned to comfort and everyday usability. It could be a new era for distinctive bikes that deliver effortless performance.
The lessons from all of this? E-bikes are going to be a more important part of our urban mobility solutions in future than might be immediately obvious. The awkward-looking, heavy, first generation of pedelecs has been replaced by ever-more sophisticated machines that bridge the gap between traditional bikes and mopeds. In doing this, they are making it viable for more and more people to consider cycling as a means of transport. They make it possible to use bikes as a key part of supply chains, to deliver groceries and shopping and in doing so, they free up vital space on our congested streets. E-bikes are here now and they don’t need sky hooks or magical unicorn thinking to work. They represent probably one of the most fundamental changes to bicycles since the introduction of carbon fibre frames into mainstream bike manufacturing. The importance of E-bikes lies not in the extremes of performance that they might be capable of but form the incremental improvements that they offer to the all-round usefulness of a bike. The revolution that they are helping to usher in may well be one that is heralded not by gunshots or a fanfare but by the gentle glow of an LED that comes on when a 500Wh battery is plugged in to charge.