When it comes to publicity about electric power in the transport sector it seems that electric cars get all the kudos. The era of electric cars is apparently just round the corner. Electric bikes get so little coverage there must be a lot of people out there who don’t even know they exist. Still, hats off to Bob Parker. I’ve never seen him in an electric car but he has definitely been seen on an electric bike.
But what is the real situation with electric cars and bikes? European sales figures for last year reveal a very different picture from what might be expected. For the first time annual sales of electric bikes in Europe exceeded one million in 2011 after a rapid increase in volume for several years. The growth isn’t restricted to one market, it is happening right across Europe and the world too with world sales of around 30 million in 2011.
And what was happening to sales of electric cars in the same year? Several European countries including the UK have offered large subsidies to encourage sales of electric cars. While European sales of electric bikes shot through the one million barrier in 2011 total sales of electric cars in the same market, despite all of the subsidies, added up to 11,563. That means that for each electric car sale, around 90 electric bikes were sold. Not only is the quantity higher, the value of the sales market is much bigger despite the higher price of electric cars. No wonder several well known car manufacturers have already moved into making electric bikes.
It seems that the general public have worked out well ahead of their politicians that there has been a big shift in the reality of moving around. It no longer makes sense to carry a ton of metal with you everywhere you go and whatever power source you use to move that ton of metal, you are still using, and paying for, a heck of a lot of power. On an electric bike the majority of the power is still human generated and with the very much lower weight of a bike the amount of electricity needed to go a bit faster or to get up steep hills is tiny when compared with that used by an electric car.
The amount of electricity needed is so small that it could quite easily be generated by a solar panel on the roof of a house. That way, any number of electric bikes could be in use without any impact on the national power grid. Honda has already built a test house to show how it can be done. It’s a pity their example shows an electric car but of course with a bike it would be even easier and cheaper.
How would electric bikes impact on the use of cycling infrastructure in Christchurch? There are several groups of people who would be more likely to use a bike instead of a car if the bike had a bit of help from an electric motor:
- People who don’t want to get hot and sweaty. While showering facilities at work might be essential for a lot of people who use an ordinary bike the extra power provided by the electric motor would reduce the effort required.
- Older people. If the legs are giving out the electric motor will come to the rescue.
- Long distance commuters. A bit of extra speed and power makes longer commutes easier. Some statistics have already come out of Holland showing that the average commute on an electric bike is 9.8km while on a standard bike it is 6.3km.
- People carrying luggage, shopping, children etc. The extra weight would be no problem with an electric bike.
- Hill dwellers. If you live up in the hills and bike down into town the last part of the return trip will be easy with electric assistance.
I’m sure you can think of other groups of people who would be encouraged to use a bike if it had a bit of added power. If there was any doubt in the minds of those holding the purse strings that spending on a complete high quality separated cycle network in Christchurch was a wise decision any such doubt must surely be removed by the increased benefits that will come with the expanding use of electric bikes.
Is there any down side to electric bikes? It doesn’t appear that they use much (if any) more energy than a human powered bike. And lithium batteries have replaced lead-acid batteries and are considered to be non-hazardous waste when disposed of. However, there are some considerations when designing and building a cycling network.
- There is already a lot of variation in the speed at which cyclists travel and this will increase with electric bikes. Bike tracks need to be built wide enough to allow for safe overtaking.
- Numbers of cyclists will go up with the introduction of electric bikes so we will need more tracks and bigger tracks.
Any designs for bike tracks in Christchurch should take the impending growth of the electric bike market into consideration and make sure that the network has plenty of capacity to handle that growth.