Electric Bikes. Even more reason for good cycling infrastructure

Electric Bike

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.

Electric Bike
Wisper 905eco Electric Bike

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.

9 thoughts on “Electric Bikes. Even more reason for good cycling infrastructure”

  1. I have heard that electric bikes are hugely popular in Europe. An electric bike is not for me but I do hope they will become enormously popular in NZ as they can play an important role in getting people out of their cars and reclaiming our city!

  2. As a hill dweller who bikes a lot, I find myself wondering about electric assist – particularly late in the day when I’m biking home with panniers full of groceries! At some stage, I realise that I’m just gonna want a bit of help with this!

    Thanks for the article

  3. We need to keep an eye on what counts as an “electric bicycle”. I’ve just been reviewing a conference paper about e-bikes in China sharing bike paths with conventional bikes. They noted that ~75% of the bikes observed were e-bikes, but most of them seemed to be those moped-like “electric bikes” that have virtually useless pedals for actual pedalling and operate more like permanent motor scooters. I suspect they were called “bicycles” to get around a few regulatory restrictions… Are we comfortable having these on bikeways?

    1. A good point about what is allowed on a bike track. I’m often surprised when watching videos of Dutch bike tracks when a petrol powered moped zooms past. What is going to be allowed on Christchurch’s (soon to be a reality) top quality separated cycling network – mopeds, mobility scooters, skateboards?

  4. My feeling with e-bike sales in Europe is that this has nothing to do with a shift in perspective on mobility, but all the more so with the aging population. This really is viewed as an old-people’s bike. I don’t think anybody under 70 wants to be seen on one of these.
    I agree that it is a great alternative to a(n electric) car, but I don’t think that is the reality yet.

  5. I’ve got one and so has my wife, I’m not 70 either! I find it great when I just want to shoot down to the shops and do some jobs without raising a sweat …… My wife has her’s as she has a heart condition but still wants to come on longer rides with me. I allows her to ride when it’s windy as well so gives her the freedom to ride when she wants rather than when the weather dictates.
    They are worth considering, they are no different than an un powered bike as the speed is still the same, it’s just the effort to do that speed is reduced.

  6. I’ve got one, made up from a kit. Some of the points do not agree with my experience. Firstly I get just as hot and sweaty biking, but I’m going a lot faster and get there sooner. Once the batteries are flat I’m biking much slower because of the deadweight – but its not a car and I can still pedal home.

    Defensive cycling becomes a thing too – travelling a bit faster means I will not put my self in the doorzone, ever. And turning traffic has a bad habit of underestimating your approach speed.

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