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.

Indeed, they are discussing whether e-bikes should have mandatory helmet laws, like motorbikes. In this segment, in Dutch, the issue is discussed in detail.
They highlight that 20% of e-bike crashes send the cyclist into intensive care. Only 6% of crashes on normal bikes end up in intensive. It is worth noting that car crashes keep the driver and/or passengers in the hospital longer than any bike crash.

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.

In October 2015, the head architect of the City of Copenhagen, Tina Saaby, stated that she had tried an e-bike for three months... and hated every moment. Motorised vehicles go against all the knowledge we have about how to create liveable cities. She referred to Jan Gehl's body of work about the necessity of slowing a city down to a human speed.

"It's Green!"
Anything that needs to be hooked up to power plants should not be labelled as green. Let alone the whole lithium question.

The e-bike industry are quick to slap the GREEN label on their products but, as always, a grain of salt is required.

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.

Sales are Booming!
This is the primary rallying cry heard by e-bike proponents and the industry. "Look at the sales numbers!" All sorts of stats are thrown around like confetti at a wedding. 1 million e-bikes sold in the Netherlands. 28% of bike sales are e-bikes in the Netherlands, they say. It is 6% in Denmark and rising. And so on.

When working in Bergen, Norway last year, I spoke with a guy working at a bike shop. He knew about my scepticism regarding the e-bike hype. He said they sold many of them but, he added with a wry smile, we never see them again.

They leave the shop, but never come back. "They're just standing unused in a garage somewhere", he added. Interesting. I started asking other bike shops around Europe and every time the answer was the same. Quick profit on the sale, but many of them are unused and therefore require no maintenance.

So when someone bangs on about sales, ask them how many e-bikes are actually on the urban landscape. Again, there is no data about this. If there was, it wouldn't serve the hype very well.

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. Few others seem 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.