14 February 2014

The E-bike Sceptic

I often voice my scepticism about the hype surrounding e-bikes in the many interviews I give, but I realised I'd never written an article about it. So here goes.

There has been an enormous amount of hype surrounding e-bikes.
Rule #1: Whenever there is a thick cloud of hype, there is most often another side to the issue that is being neglected. Which is what I've been exploring. When that thick cloud of hype is generated by profit-based industry, your grain of salt just got bigger.

E-bikes serve a purpose. Absolutely. They are a great niche addition to the existing armada of bicycles that have served citizens for 125 years. They have the potential of increasing the mobility radius of cycling citizens - especially the elderly. All good.

Safety and Speed
The first point that should be of interest to anyone working in urban mobility, active transportation or whatever they call it where you're from is the safety aspect. The average speed of Citizen Cycling in Copenhagen and Amsterdam is about 16/kmh. Putting vehicles zipping along at 25 km/h into that equation would not seem to be wise.

If you've been to Amsterdam or, to a lesser extent, Copenhagen, you will know the scourge of the scooters. Fast-moving vehicles that cause injury and death to the riders and others in their path. Adding more scooters to the cycle tracks and bike lanes is hardly beneficial to the development of better traffic safety. Especially when these New Scooters appear suddenly and silently, whereas at least the Old Scooters make in infernal noise.

So, e-bikes to increase mobility radii for people "cycling" from farther distances are generally a good thing. But in densely-populated urban centres with bicycle traffic and pedestrians? Nah. Unwise. Nobody wants more scooters. Unless they use the car lanes. Fortunately, I don't see many e-bikes in Copenhagen and there aren't many in Amsterdam. I only see a few here every week. You can spot them easily. They're the ones braking hard and abrupt at intersections.

The City of Groningen has even taken the step to create e-bike lanes parallel to existing bike lanes, in order to separate these two different forms of transport.

A propos Groningen, when I was working there late last year, a city planner I was speaking to outed himself as an e-bike sceptic. He was concerned about the speed factor - casting faster-moving vehicles into an existing flow. He mentioned that 11% of cyclist fatalities were caused by the fact that the cyclist was on an e-bike. Going too fast, losing control, motorists surprised by a speed faster than the average cyclist. He was also concerned about the lack of interest in such matters.

Interestingly, a headline here in Denmark today was much the same. A study by the Road Directorate found out that 10% of cyclist fatalities were on e-bikes. Going too fast, losing control, etc. Most were elderly citizens, which is similar to the Dutch experience. Today, there are calls for e-bike courses to teach people how to use them.

A Swiss national study about e-bike safety says, "The most important findings: according to official statistics, e-bike accidents are more serious than bicycle accidents, and serious single-vehicle accidents are more frequent than serious collisions"

The point here is that there is clearly a bit of an issue. One that isn't mentioned in the Hype Cloud.

Another interesting point was raised by a Dutch colleague who uses an e-bike on occasion. Dutch drivers are used to cyclists, of course, but they're also used to their speed. Motorists stop when turning, check over their shoulder and then decide to continue with the turn if they can see that the oncoming bicycle is far enough away. My colleague has had to brake hard because the motorist had more than enough time to turn if the cyclist was heading towards them at an average speed, but it is hard to see that the e-bike is doing double the speed.

Another point that is invisible in the Hype Cloud is the Chinese experience. They have had large numbers of e-bikes and e-scooters for over a decade. As you can read in this article in the Wall Street Journal called "E-Yikes! Electric Bikes Terrorize the Streets of China". The article doesn't mention is that almost every month, another Chinese city bans e-bikes. Simply because of the alarming rise in accidents and deaths. We don't often fancy looking to China for inspiration, but in many cases we should.

Classification and Branding

I've noticed that there is a bit of a confusion about how to classify e-bikes. The word "pedelec" is used to denote a bicycle with an electic assist motor. You have to keep pedalling in order to get some juice. The motor cuts out at 25 km/h. Let's face it, "pedelec" is not a word that will catch on in the general population. To the pleasure of the e-bike industry, who have been lobbying to get any bike with a motor classified as a "bicycle", even e-scooters. At least over the past couple of years I've noticed that "e-scooter" is used more often, in order to differeniate. Nevertheless, we all need to figure out some clear terminology for the general population.

Marketing and Messaging
When you have powerful industry looking to make some cash behind any product line, you have cause to be sceptical. Unlike the bicycle industry, the e-bike industry is pushing hard to make their products mainstream. In an article on BikeBiz we can read that Hannes Neupert, founder and president of ExtraEnergy, an electric vehicle lobbying organisation based in Germany, has declared that:

“Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle within a few years like it has killed many other mechanical products. Bicycles…will remain as historical items hanging on the wall.”

He isn't the first. Many e-bike websites feature similar claims. It's odd to see that there are clear battle lines drawn.

I first noticed e-bikes on my radar back in 2010. A rumour that pro racer Fabian Cancellara used an e-bike in a pro race went viral on the internet. The rumour led to a frenzied flock of journalists around the world trying to find out if it was true. I remember saying here at the office when the story hit that "within a week, a company name will emerge". Sure enough, journalists that were fed the rumour found out that a motor existed but it was a couple of milimetres too thick to fit into Cancellara's frame. He was then free from suspicion. The Austrian company that produced the motor was all over the press, however.

I have no idea if the Austrian company was behind it all. It's probably unlikely. I remain convinced, however, that it was one of the most brilliant guerilla marketing campaigns I've ever seen, regardless of who started it.

Since then, I've been wary of the massive industry - like any other massive industry - and their tactics.

"Motorists are hopping out of their cars and onto e-bikes!"
No, they're not. This is one of the standard lines I hear from e-bike proponents. Unfortuately, it is purely anecdotal. There is no data to support this claim. Like most standard lines repeated ad nauseum, you can trace them back to the source, which is the e-bike industry. As this humourous YouTube video suggests, the e-bike industry is desperate in their attempts to brand e-bikes as "sexy" to able-bodied young adults. With limited success.

Many people have an anecdote to tell me. About him or her who now use an e-bike. Of course there are good stories to tell. I  know some myself. My main problem with anecdotes is that they are often presented as The Big Picture. Just because one person's dad or grandmother hopped onto an e-bike doesn't mean that everyone is. But the neo-religious Hype Cloud fogs up the lens sometimes. Another grain of salt, please.

The fact remains that there is only one way to get motorists to change their behaviour. And here it is.

Health Benefits
The health benefits of cycling are well-documented. I've been wondering how they will be reduced with the advent of e-bikes. People will be pedalling less. They won't be getting their pulse up as much, which is incredibly important in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It's great if the elderly use e-bikes to extend their active mobility, absolutely. There are benefits there. In the Netherlands, the average age of an e-bike rider is over 60. Lots of elderly people will benefit. I just wonder about the big picture. Nobody else seems to be doing it.

At this point, because I've learned the nature of how many people read blog articles, I'm going to repeat this for clarity:

E-bikes serve a purpose. Absolutely. They are a great niche addition to the existing armada of bicycles that have served citizens for 125 years. They have the potential of increasing the mobility radius of cycling citizens - especially the elderly. All good.

All I've done is questioned the Hype Cloud. Looking at important issues like safety. Mostly because too many people are dazzled by the e-bike industry rhetoric and I want to explore both sides of the coin.

I hope that when I'm elderly, I'll be fit and able enough to ride a bicycle. Having an e-option, however, is good. We'll see how it works out when I get there.

I remain convinced that the bicycle as we know it can continue to have a transformational effect on our socities and our cities, just as it has done for 125 years.

Remember, people rode bicycles sans motors in all of our cities for decades and decades. On bicycles heavier and clumsier than modern models. Their offspring can do the same today if infrastructure is put into place to keep them safe.

I believe in the bicycle. From a rational and historical perspective. The e-bike is a nice addition but despite what the e-bike industry tells you, it ain't the new sliced bread.

Those of us working towards creating more liveable cities should be well-versed in both sides of the coin and act based on that instead of blindly allowing the Hype Cloud to envelop us.


Dmitri F said...

Agree 100%. Too much hype around e-bikes. Feels a bit like the SUV-hype...

miss swiss heidi said...

I think E-bikes definitely have their place. I have actually considered getting an E-bike if I have to switch campuses. I currently bike from Copenhagen to DTU in Lyngby daily, which is about 15km per way, and it takes about the same time as public transport.

But if I had to go to DTU in Hørsholm every day, I don't think I could manage 50kms total per day on my standard bike. And considering how quickly most of the people pass me on their race bikes, I don't think there would be a big discrepancy in speed with me on the E-bike.

Replace the bike, they will not though :) And I would still have my regular bike for city outings.

dr2chase said...

I'd be a little wary of news from the WSJ; they also have their spin, and it is generally not pro-bicycle, not pro-environment, not pro-health. For example, when they talk of injuries, they do not compare to motorbikes, which in many cases are what people were riding before they switched to e-bikes. What I read says that the gas-bike ban was what really helped the e-bike market, so these are not former bikers as much as former motorbikers.

Nonetheless, you are right about the danger of excess speed. 20mph is a frequent limit here in the US, and I agree that this could be too high. I have a modest proposal -- mandatory courses in Effective Cycling for anyone who wishes to ride an e-bike with assist to more than 15mph -- that should take do a lot to slow their adoption.

Jason Tinkey said...

I was rather surprised, before last month I think I may have seen one of these things in my life. I went to NYC for a weekend and they were all over the place.

Blogger Sucks said...

My think: require a toggle switch which limits speed to 15 kph. In urban areas, they can post a speed limit, and the e-bike's speed is limited. Cross-country or in an unregulated zone, you can toggle maximum speed.

zmau said...

"11% of cyclist fatalities were caused by the fact that the cyclist was on an e-bike
motorists surprised by a speed faster than the average cyclist"

Hey, why mention this in context of e-bike pros & cons ? Classic victim blaming!
This is a story of nothing but automobilic autism, and we must be perfectly clear about it, specially on this blog. If they "do not expect", make them expect. What if I hurry on my common bike at 30km/h ? Would the cause of that murder also be that "I was speeding" ?

Jean-Christophe said...

We bought an pedelec for my wife as she was pregnant and carying the bike+chariot around was getting every day a bit heavier (she was also doing about 15km commuting).

That’s how I got introduce to pedelec (often mistakenly called e-bike as you mentioned) and since then I have used extensively her bike to do my own commuting (30km a day) when she did not need it.

As someone who as been cycling with both type of bicycles (traditional and pedelec), I agree with many of the arguments that on a pedelec you are faster than on an normal bike, that other road users do not expect you to be faster, and that if you do not anticipate these wrong assumptions made by the other users you could get yourself into trouble. So I am also of the opinion that we should educate the pedelec and e-bike riders, but also the other road users. In addition, elderly people should have specific training, much like it is also advisable when they use other mean of transport.

However, I have to add that I was also disappointed by your article. You basically put next to each other the average speed of standard bikes (16km/h) in comparison to the 25km/h which is the speed after which the engine of pedelecs stop assisting you, it is not the average speed of e-bikers. I can even tell you that my average speed on a standard bike is higher than the one of most pedelec riders. Also it is a pity that you are suddenly telling "the e-bike is doing double the speed” it is again an exaggeration, if you take 16km/h as the average speed of normal bikes, pedelec do not go 32km/h.

I usually really like your writings, I hope you will update this article with a more balanced comparison. I do agree with your point that there is a hype and we should be cautious, but by exaggerating the problems you might cause more harm than benefit.

I had published an article comparing my average speed on a regular bike and on a pedelec, in 2 scenarios: easy (casual cycling so that I do not need to change clothes when I arrive at work) and fast (were on a regular bike I start sweating, and I better have a change). The average speed was measured on my daily 30km commuting by my Garmin GPS. My commuting does not bring me through city centres but I stay on the outskirt of 2 cities, so mostly uninhabited zone. The comparison includes also the average speed as reported by my car on-board computer, here the difference between easy and fast is only about the density of traffic. So on days where I am lucky (during holidays) and do not have too much traffic, I reach almost 38km/h average compare to other days (outside of holidays) were the average is about 34km/h.

SaraLe said...

Like Jean-Christophe I agree with your main point, but find that the overall attitude is a bit too sceptic, not recognizing in how many niches the e-motor can be significantly beneficial. Certainly I wouldn't want all cyclers in cph to switch to e-bikes and race at "double-speed". But for my wife and I, having a "pedelec"-motor on our christiania bike makes it realistic for us to avoid getting a car. This is surely one of the "anecdotes", i just think you may be underestimating their sginificance in your attempt to kill the beast of "the ebike taking over".

tstreet said...

I think that when I become "elderly", whatever that is, I might consider a bike with an electric assist to get up the more onerous hills. However, I am 67 and still do not feel that I am close to being so feeble that I cannot rider a regular bike, including a trike, which is a good alternative for those who might have lost some of their balance capability as they get older.

There are those who fit in the elderly category in the sense that they are too feeble or have too many other physical issues to maneuver a regular bike. However, it is not clear to me whether they will be able to safely handle an ebike either, especially if it has the speed issues that you talk about.

Come to think about it, a recumbent trike is already a good alternative for those who have physical problems that make it difficult to ride a bicycle. I have one and I ride it often simply because it is a lot more comfortable than a bike. Further, I think an electrified recumbent trike would make a lot more sense than an ebike for those who have physical problems.

Ideally, we move toward cities and towns that are largely car free where people can get most of their daily activities accomplished through walking, light biking and triking, buses, trams, subways, etc. The electric issue mainly comes to the fore if one has the need to cover long distances.

Anyway, if people are buying an ebike because they do not want to put in the time to get in reasonable shape, then they are detracting from a very good form of exercise. People with real disabilities will not be riding a bike.

Paul M said...

I am sure I read something the other day, on another blog, that cycle traffic Copenhagen is actually quite fast, indeed that the "green wave" of traffic light phasing on one major cycle street is set to a speed above 20kph. Is that not the case?

I can't personally see much advantage in pedelecs in flat landscapes like Netherlands or Denmark, but I should imagine that the electric assistance could come in very handy where the land is lumpier. Where I live for example the gradients can be quite challenging for an unassisted utility bike, and a MTB with a wide gear rage would be desirable for unassisted cycling.

orillia3 said...

Typical ebike detractors ploy, compare an supposed average speed of pedal bikes to maximum allowed speed of an electric bike. Average speed includes stops and slow downs in traffic, up hills, etc, do you not think electric bikes encounter the same slow downs? Maybe on an unencumbered flat stretch an ebike can maintain 24 km/h but so can a fit cyclist, and more. A 100 year old man holds the record for 100 year old cyclists at 24 km/h, so I am sure the average fit cyclist can go faster. A brisk walk is 5 km/h, jogging 10 km/h, most marathon winners average over 20 km/h and that is for several hours over many kilometers. To suggest pedal bikes can only maintain 16 km is simply not true, you are being disingenuous.

orillia3 said...

A Dutch study shows people on electric bikes go further and more often, and are used by a greater range of people. They are simply more useful. If you want more people riding two wheels you have to put aside your minor misgivings. You will not increase the number of commuter cyclists as the ones who want to cycle are probably already doing so, without some incentive like an easier ride, saving money, saving time by making such a choice. Cycling is for the young and fit, and the few who can grow old without the many joint and muscle, and even heart and lung, and even worse disabilities that eventually seem to afflict the majority. Even the fit can benefit by increasing their commuter distance, saving time, and avoiding the sweat and need of a shower and change.

Paul Cooke said...

"orillia3 said...

Even the fit can benefit by increasing their commuter distance, saving time, and avoiding the sweat and need of a shower and change."

exactly. I'm sick and tired of being all hot and sweaty when getting to work or arriving home. I've got a nasty hill coming home and a very long slight uphill on the way to work which saps my ability to keep up a good speed without getting all sweaty...

Demi Allen said...

Mikael: You should come to Seattle sometime and see our hills - they might give you a different perspective on the potential value of e-bikes. In Seattle, e-bikes can actually make biking possible for a large group of people for whom it would otherwise not be a practical option, and that's a very good thing.

Richard Johns said...

I ride an ebike in Canada, where they can be faster and more powerful than in Europe, although they are still basically similar to human power and speed.

Mikael is right that ebikes aren't a panacea, and the most important barriers to cycling (safety and weather) also apply to ebikes.

However, I think ebikes have more value than Mikael says (helping elderly, and increasing range). Others have pointed out that they help with hills, and reduce the need for a shower or change of clothes.

I ride a electric cargo bike, and the motor allows me to tow heavy loads when climbing hills. Since we don't have a continuous bike network, my higher speed (40 km/h and above) allows me to take busier roads occasionally, especially when travelling longer distances. Adding a motor does indeed make a bicycle more useful, and suitable for more trips.

dr2chase said...

@Richard Johns - I agree, except for the implicit assumption that traveling at higher speed (40km/h -- which is on the other hand only 25mph, a speed a small but non-zero fraction of human cyclists attains) is safer for the busy roads. It's clear (from motorcycle fatality rates, which are extraordinarily high) that there is a speed at which 2-wheeled transportation becomes very dangerous indeed, which means that there is a lower speed where it is merely more dangerous, and I think that 25mph might be above that threshold. (i.e., you are trading off exposure measured in time and vehicle passes against the increased risk from higher speed when anything goes wrong. Eventually, the increased crash risk appears to dominate.)

Richard Johns said...

@dr2chase. I agree with your general point that there is a "sweet spot" for ebike speed on busier roads, above which the risk increases again.

In Vancouver there's a large DIY ebike community, and some people are building 100V systems capable of 80km/h and above, similar to a motorbike. For me, 35-40km/h (22-25 mph)feels very gentle and relaxed, when conditions permit (not on bike paths). It's nothing like the speed of a motorcycle, or even a professional cyclist. But I don't think anyone has studied the question of what the ideal speed is.

Tharan said...

I cycled in Amsterdam last autumn and was desperately envious of the range I could do on a normal heavy ladies bike in normal ladies clothes - the same clothes you think we should all wear cycling allways sans helmet. I live and cycle in Oslo. A nice town but rotten in terms of infra - and hilly. I cycle to work and at work - inspecting rivers and going to meetings around town. I do that with pleasure in the summer in the light and as long as I can take the tube up the long slog hills to run down with the rivers - although cycling round the center of town and home up the hills is no bother. But the winter.. after 10-11 hour working days, slogging up 150 m with shopping in the pissing rain and sleet. Give me a break, give me an e-bike - that looks and rides like an ordinary ladies Ansterdam bike and that I can ride with regular clothes. Of course I and all other e-bikers have to be as equally polite to other road users as on my regular horse. I would just be equal to any regular BMW or AUDI SUV driver otherwise. You can't really get around a good geared up stiff frame for a city like Oslo and sports clothing for and long distances. The terrain is simply too hilly. Cycling on an e-bike is like cycling in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, you can go long distance in an easy manner on a comfotable bike in comfortable clothes.I really believe they can get more people that have long distance hilly commutes geared up for cycling. That is not a bad thing and they should not be sneered at by cycling purists.

Gegen Ueber said...

Hi Mikael,
I understand your point and agree to the fact that most pedelec-hysteria is triggered by the industry - and also the retailers to have some additional profit.

BUT: I'm afraid your analysis is too short-handed. You talk about "no evidence" on pedelecs impact on the joice of means of transportation etc.

Not true. You didn't find any, ok. But that does not mean, that there are none. Please check out www.landrad.at. A very old project (in the history of pedelecs: 2009 and 2010), sorry. But the assessment of user behaviour with 500 people for the period of 1 full year clearly shows evidence, that pedelecs can be a "bridging technology" from the car on to the bike. Cheers.

Any by the way: landrad is not driven by "the industry", but by a small social-business!