I rode the new A34 cycleway for the inspection ride on a borrowed German Riese und Müller e-bike (right). At the time I was recovering from a nasty virus, and was getting fatigued easily, but I didn't want to miss this inspection of Birmingham's first proper cycleway, so I jumped at the offer of the loan of an e-bike. But there was a catch; I first had to get to the e-bike, and that meant a ride on my Brompton. Letting the train take the strain for part of the journey seemed like a good idea. As it happened, on the day it was warm and sunny, so as I headed towards Selly Oak station I thought, "ride along the tow path in the warm sunshine and be there on time, or risk a points failure at New Street / signal failure at Five Ways / customer failure at Northfield (again)". I didn't feel too bad so I opted for the former, but by the time I arrived at Lancaster Circus I felt like death warmed up. I was a little early, so I lay on a wall under the A38 flyover, quietly loathing the urban environment based entirely on prioritising car travel over absolutely everything else, and thinking of my last blog post on Smelly Oak. Fifteen minutes later I didn't feel much better for the start of the A34 inspection ride. But switching to the e-bike, I was easily the fastest on the cycleway, and my energy returned. I then went on to ride all the way back to Selly Oak, taking a look at the progress on the A38 cycleway. Back at Selly Oak I felt much the same as I had when I had opted to cycle into town, but there I had to swap back to the Brompton, and the fatigue soon returned.
E-bikes are a real game-changer. They tip the balance in favour of riding a bike rather than using a traditional, vastly less efficient motorised vehicle. It doesn't really matter what is weighing down the "don't cycle it" side of the balance. It might be acute or chronic health problems. It might be age-related infirmity, or physical disability. Or it might be the need to carry a heavy load (such as a large family shop), or the need to carry a child too young to cycle themselves. It might be excessively hilly terrain, or the need to travel further than is comfortable or timely on a conventional cycle. And of course it might just be reluctance to switch from many years of car usage to cycling.
In my role as a cycling campaigner I have been told more than once by councillors that Birmingham is a city reliant on car manufacture, and we mustn't do anything to damage that. This is one of the most ignorant arguments against building cycling infrastructure I have ever come across. The only car manufacturer left in Birmingham is JLR, an Indian-owned company. Germany, on the other hand, has Mercedes, BMW, and the enormous VAG group, all German owned. Germans love their cars, and they own more per head of population than the the British. But they drive them less. Instead for local journeys many Germans hop on their bikes, because they can. The infrastructure that encourages cycling in Germany is inferior to that in the Netherlands, but it is way in advance of what we have here. E-bikes are huge business in those countries where cycling is considered a normal and desirable activity. Several years ago I paused outside a small German bike shop with a traditional display shop front. On one side of the entranceway the shop window was filled with conventional bikes, whilst the other display window was filled with e-bikes. In a country where cycling is popular, it was looking like 50% of bike sales were e-bikes. That's a big market, and one the UK is missing out on because of stubbornly stupid reluctance in government to move away from the failed idea from the last century that we should drive everywhere. With almost no cycling infrastructure, British government is throttling this market almost to death. It is, however, trying to encourage us to drive electric cars (I should say that other European governments are doing the same). But as I said in my last article in this series, electric cars just don't make any sense. E-bikes, on the other hand, very much do make sense for those times when a conventional bike represents an unacceptable level of physical effort. Let's examine why that is.
The biggest issue with electric cars is the battery. It limits the vehicle's range, there are serious issues with materials, and recharging causes all sorts of practical problems that are unlikely to disappear. E-bikes use the same battery technology, but on a much, much smaller scale. So the materials issues are less severe, and charging is simply a matter of plugging into any normal electrical outlet. Whilst there would be an impact on the supply grid by a mass switch to e-bikes, it would be tiny compared the impact of mass use of electric cars.
Use of any rechargeable battery causes its range to deteriorate, but when it's time to replace an e-bike battery, it's not the huge issue that it is with electric cars. Despite the dramatically smaller battery, the range it offers is much more than most people would be willing to undertake on a bike (the trip into town and back had no visible impact on the state of charge indicator of the Riese und Müller e-bike I rode for the A34 inspection ride). Should the battery run out during a ride, there is always the option to switch to unassisted pedalling. Driving an electric car, the only likely option in the event of a flat battery is to call for a tow.
E-bikes have almost all of the fundamental benefits of conventional bikes. Firstly, they offer door-to-door personal transport. Their small size means they have the same ability to address the problem of congestion as do conventional bikes, and like conventional bikes they do not require the huge amount of space required by cars for parking.
E-bikes are more expensive than conventional bikes, but whilst electric cars are fantastically expensive even with government incentives, e-bikes are at least reasonably affordable. It's worth saying it will cost me more to resurface my driveway than it would cost me to buy an e-bike, but if I were to replace my car with an electric cargo bike I wouldn't need a driveway. And there is a hidden cost with electric cars. At the time of writing I had just listened to an interview on RTÉ with someone who owned an electric car. It emerged that he also had a petrol driven car for longer journeys. The electric car was a second car, for local journeys, and he and his wife shared the two cars. Needless to say the vehicle with the shorter range was vastly more expensive than the other (which, it's worth adding, achieves a claimed 63mpg, despite being quite a large vehicle). Had they bought an e-bike as their local vehicle, the cost ratio would have been the other way around. Indeed they could have bought two e-bikes, for when they were both making local journeys, and saved tens of thousands of Euros. But cycling for transport in Ireland is much the same as in the UK.
It has been said that e-bikes do not offer the exercise benefits of conventional bikes, but according to the European Union's PRESTO Cycling Policy Guide, "At an average speed of 22 km/h with average assistance, the [e-bike] cyclist uses 80% of the energy he would use on a conventional bicycle". People on e-bikes tend to cycle further than people on conventional bikes, and e-bikes encourage people to cycle rather than drive (which means they will be getting significant exercise rather than none at all). Also, e-bikes have the additional health benefit that they are much less polluting than any conventional or electric car, both during manufacture and during use, so their impact on the environment in which we all have to live is less. Finally, e-bikes open up opportunities for replacing fossil-fuelled, exercise-free vans with practical alternatives that require physical activity. The European Union is working on this with its PRO-E-BIKE project, but in some European countries major organisations such as Deutsche Post are already making use of e-bikes (see photo below). Meanwhile in the UK, we're still fighting to remain in the automotive city world of the 1960s, and (despite all the contrary evidence) don't believe that cycling can work as transport.
What's stopping the e-bike revolution from taking off in the UK like it has on the continent is cycling infrastructure, as riders of e-bikes feel threatened by motor traffic just as much as those riding conventional bikes. As a campaigner, I'm still hearing the same old complaints about cost and difficulty. For "difficult" read "reluctance to change". Once one crosses that bridge, the cost is trivial compared with the cost of building for private car travel, or building a tram line that serves almost nobody. Much of the infrastructure is already built, it just needs repurposing and some filtered permeability. That's what the Dutch and the Germans do (see photos below). And the money saved from not building yet another scheme for private cars can be used for creating more and better quality cycling infrastructure.
We need to be embracing the e-bike revolution, not fighting against it.