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Pedal power: how ‘e-bikes’ are changing the way we commute
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Pedal power: how ‘e-bikes’ are changing the way we commute

Ben Martin

1st March, 2012

Greener than cars and healthier than the tube, the ‘e-bike’ looks set to become one of 2012’s top travel trends

As concerns about congestion, carbon and cost continue to grow, more and more people in the UK are ditching their cars and turning to cycling as an efficient, cheap and enjoyable way to get about. According to the Department of Transport, one in six of us are regular bike users, and with the Times’ popular CycleSafe campaign currently in the headlines, awareness of two-wheeled transport is at an all-time high.

But according to some, the world of cycling is about to change up a gear, as a new form of cycle hits the streets. Electric bikes – or 'e-bikes', as they’re known - look like any other bicycle at first glance. Look again, however, and you’ll spot a diminutive but powerful electric motor, powered by a lithium battery and hooked up to a control on the handlebars.

Although e-bikes have been around for a while, their true potential is only now becoming apparent, as Scott Snaith, owner of e-bike retailer 50cycles, explains. 'The technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last two years or so. Now we’ve got batteries that can run for about 80 miles per charge, last four years and take over 1100 charges. And they’re only about four to five kilogrammes heavier than a normal bike.’ The motor doesn’t replace pedal power, but augments it – reducing toil for the rider and providing a welcome boost for steep hills, headwinds and long journeys, Snaith explains. ‘Basically, the e-bike is designed to flatten hills. It takes the hard part out of cycling, and reduces the fear of those steep climbs that can put people off making journeys by bike.’

But e-bikes aren’t just for lazy people who can’t be bothered to pedal. ‘In fact, the exercise you get on an e-bike is steady, constant, and doesn’t strain the heart too much on hills – it’s ideal,’ adds Snaith. Tim Blackman, owner of e-bike manufacturer aXcess, agrees. ‘The extra power from the motor really opens up cycling to everyone – young, middling and older – at whatever fitness level. The biggest market for us has been people of perhaps 50 years or more, who aren’t really as fit as they used to be, and they really love how our e-bikes let them cycle like they’re 13 again.’

What’s more, journeys that would seem Odyssean on a push bike become a breeze with the help of an electric motor. 'The average car journey is about six miles long,' Snaith points out. ‘E-bikes now make it possible and realistic to cycle those kinds of distances, more often and more consistently. It’s a feasible form of transport even for longer journeys.’ In fact, according to Blackman, while regular bike users travel about 15 miles a week on average, e-bike owners clock up five times that amount. ‘We’ve found that people in rural locations like to use them too, often because they have very little public transport. If it’s 24 miles to the nearest shop, that’s a lot easier to do on an e-bike, and saves money and emissions compared to using your car.’

Environmentally, the e-bike’s credentials are hard to fault. After factoring in CO2 emissions produced during electricity generation, an e-bike’s carbon footprint is just 2.6 grams of CO2 per mile, compared to 150 grams for most electric cars and 136 grams for scooters. As well as saving on carbon, switching to an e-bike has indirect benefits as well, as Blackman explains. ‘The biggest environmental contribution that the e-bike makes is as a replacement for your car. Of the millions of car journeys people do, 50 per cent are under three miles. So if we could eradicate people using their cars for short journeys, then we’d have fewer emissions, less congestion, and fewer cars on the road.’

They might also save you time. The average speed of a car journey in London is below 10mph, and less than 3mph in the city centre, but e-bikes can zip around clogged traffic with ease, and with a top speed of around 15mph, they’re a surprisingly speedy way to get around. And, because the bike’s doing most of the work for you, you’ll arrive at your destination looking fresh rather than hot and sweaty.

E-bikes are, of course, more expensive than a traditional cycle, but they need not break the bank. Mark Loveridge, Secretary of the British Electric Bike Association, explains. ‘A quality e-bike will cost you about £1000 but they’re covered by the Cycle-to-Work scheme, so if you’re commuting you can get a discount of up to 42 per cent. And, in terms of running costs, it’s by far the cheapest form of motorised transport out there.’

In fact, says e-bike pioneer Hamant Chayya, in the long run, they might just save you money. ‘First of all, e-bikes are far, far cheaper to run than a car. Petrol prices are going up and up but with an e-bike you don’t need to worry about that – recharging the battery costs about the same as boiling your kettle. You don’t need to worry about parking charges, you don’t need an MOT, there’s no tax, no congestion charge, and you don’t need to pay for a licence. Nothing in life is free, but if you look at the savings in time, money and health from having an e-bike, you really can’t put a price on that.’

 

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