in Greener Homes on 2 September 2012
Electric bicycles can get people out of the traffic and into the bike lane.
WHAT if a bicycle could flatten the hills for you? Or help you commute sweat-and lycra-free?
A bike store in Carlton has begun a rolling, four-year trial into why and how people use electric bikes. In early July, Dolomiti handed over the keys for 17 of them, each one fitted with a GPS transmitter.
The participants get effort-free cycling for up to three months, before the two-wheelers are passed onto the next team of rider-volunteers.
Professor Geoff Rose, from Monash University’s Institute of Transport Studies, says the study is the largest field trial of its kind. His research team is helping Dolomiti analyse the results. “We’re going to get extraordinarily rich data about where people use the bikes, what length trips they take and the roads they use,” he explains.
(The Monash researchers are also looking for e-bike owners to participate in an online survey)
Battery-powered bikes are fast becoming popular elsewhere, especially in Europe and the USA, and above all, in China, where nine out of every ten are sold, and where many cities have banned petrol-powered two-wheelers.
But they’ve been slow to gain momentum here. Until recently, Australia had the strictest regulations in the world. In May, the federal government relaxed the power output rules to match standards in European Union.
Most e-bikes look just like a normal pushbike, except they’ve got a battery pack connected to a small motor that generates the extra zip. They can reach speeds of 25 kilometres per hour with power; to go faster, the cyclists have to pedal. On a single charge, the newer models can cover up to 70 kilometres.
“From a rider’s point of view, it’s like you’re on a normal bike,” Professor Rose says, “but, somehow, every time you ride you’ve got a tail wind.”
For that reason, his research shows that electric bikes appeal to many folks who’d otherwise drive or catch public transport: older people and people with medical worries such as heart conditions or rickety knees and hips, as well as commuters who are put off by the distance or the effort of pedalling a conventional bike.
“For some people, it’s a technology that allows them to get back on a bike. And the evidence so far also shows that they really appeal to women riders – the gender balance is a lot more even than with conventional bikes,” he says.
Because many e-bike riders are switching away from cars, Professor Rose says they’re likely to be a plus for the individuals’ health and their environmental footprint.
“If you have an electric bike and purchase green power or install a solar power charging unit at home, then you’re really operating with a sustainable urban transport mode,” he says.
But while the technology is good, it can only be as effective as our cycling infrastructure allows, he cautions. Without safe places to ride, people won’t ditch their car keys.
If you’re keen on an e-bike, you can either buy a purpose-built model (they cost from under $1000 to over $3000), or a conversion kit for your existing bicycle (from under $1000). As with any equipment, it’s wise to do your research before you buy, and make sure you choose business you trust. It’ll help with maintenance, or with purchasing spare parts when things go wrong.
Have you ridden an e-bike? Got any thoughts about the experience? I'm interested in the idea that they get people on the bike who'd otherwise drive or take public transport. If so, that's a big tick. I'm a pushbike rider, and I don't commute very far, so I don't have any need for one. But it seems possible that e-bikes could broaden the appeal of riding, with environmental and health benefits to boot.