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The e-bike revolution is underway

A charging station for e-bikes in Pirna, Germany. Photo/Getty Images

Electric bikes are starting to go mainstream, as commuters take to them in large numbers.

A bicycle is more than just a bicycle. When Iris Murdoch wrote “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart”, it was 1965 and the word “gridlock” had yet to be coined. Murdoch’s last sentence exults less in commuting efficiency than in the sense of what it’s like to feel the wind in your hair.

Conspicuously short of hair though I may be, I catch her drift. I relish the direct contact cycling gives me with the world through which I move: the raucous trill of cicadas in the plane trees; the fresh-baked smell wafting from a pizzeria; the sun on my back.

Riding a bicycle connects us directly to memories of the carefree and unconfined freedom of childhood, when the mere possession of a shabby fixed-gear Raleigh – a scratched hand-me-down from an older sibling perhaps, but solidly made by Englishmen in oily dustcoats – was a licence to travel beyond the horizon, as far as you could go and still be home for tea.

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Our nationwide devotion to making more room for cars is a constant losing bet against an inescapable truth about roading infrastructure: if you build it, they will come (and choke it up again). Get three or more Aucklanders together and we’ll soon start talking about the traffic. Research funded by satnav maker TomTom recently found the city is more congested than Hong Kong. Working from home – and riding a motor scooter when I do go out – I am protected from the rush-hour worst of this, but when circumstances force me behind the wheel and into the commuter stream, I am astonished at how anyone endures it.

Increasingly, of course, they don’t. Auckland Transport figures show that public transport patronage is up almost 5% year-on-year – it topped 80 million trips a year in late 2015 – and much of that is down to the burgeoning rapid transport network (where numbers are up more than 20%).

But beyond the daily commute, the usage figure has flatlined, even dropped a little in the past two years. Perhaps the perceived inconvenience of riding public transport, endurable at rush hour, is less attractive in the middle of the day.

Photo/Getty Images

The most efficient machine ever created?

Enter the bicycle. Nothing much new there. Invented in the mid-19th century (by a Scot or two Frenchmen – no one in their right mind would enter a dispute with that cast of characters), it has a good claim to being the most efficient machine ever created. In an instant, the legs on which we can walk at 4-5km/h can propel us at an easy 20. In terms of energy in versus energy out, the efficiency of a bicycle has been calculated as the equivalent of a car doing 0.18 litres per 100km – or 1600mpg, if you still think in old money. And the fuel cost extends to a couple of bananas.

Non-cyclists typically have three grounds for their misgivings. First, they ask, what if it’s raining? It’s a threat more apparent than real, even in a country Geoffrey Palmer once famously described as “pluvial”. In Auckland, it rains once a month on average at commuting time. A national study in 2004 by now-retired MetService lead weather forecaster Paul Bruce found that “for most times and [in] most places, a cyclist can make a short-to-medium trip in dry conditions, in spite of a forecast of wetness”.

“Wetting rain is likely to occur in Auckland during the hour of travel about once every fortnight, but on shorter rides of, say, 15 minutes, a cyclist may get wet only about half a dozen times in a working year and seriously wet with heavy rain less than twice a year.”

Getting wet on the way home and getting to work saturated are not equivalent inconveniences, and since half of journeys are, by definition, homeward, that means the prospect of three occasions a year in which you might have to cycle in the rain. Getting kitted up for that is no great challenge – and if it’s really bucketing down, you can abandon the bike in favour of your pre-bike transport option.

But it’s dangerous, the naysayers then cry. Well, sort of. It’s half as dangerous as home DIY. Professor Alistair Woodward, a keen cyclist who happens to be an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of Auckland, recently crunched the ACC numbers and found only nine of every 100,000 short urban bike trips resulted in an ACC claim. Put another way, if you rode a bike three times a week, on average you would suffer an injury worthy of an ACC claim every 70 years. You would be 140 times more likely to be injured skiing or snowboarding four times a year and 500 times more likely to be injured playing rugby every three weeks.

And then there are those damn hills.

Electric Bike Hub’s Maurice Wells. Photo/Mike Rooke

Plug and play

Enter the electric bicycle, aka the e-bike. Nothing much new there, either. A US patent for an electrically powered bicycle was issued in 1895, though the torque sensors – which tell the motor how hard you are pedalling and how much help to give you – and variable-power controls that are the essence of the modern e-bike were not developed until 100 years later.

Now they are on the crest of a wave. Global research firm Navigant recorded 32 million sales in 2015 (100 times more than electric car sales). Most of that boom was in China, where e-bikes are popular with the elderly.

NZ Transport Agency figures show that imports of electric bikes, which hovered between 2000 and 3000 a year for the decade to 2015, shot up to 13,000 last year.

Maurice Wells, who owns Electric Bike Hub in Auckland, says e-bike riding has gone from being the domain of true believers “who have been wondering for years why everyone doesn’t do this” to the “early-adopter stage … It feels like it’s starting to go mainstream,” he says. “It’s not unusual any more.”

Interestingly, he says winter is less discouraging for e-bike riders than other cyclists because “the benefits compared with whatever your plan B is are quite stark compared to the humble bicycle”.

“If I’m used to getting from St Heliers to the city [on an electric bike] in, say, 20 minutes, it’s going to take a hell of a big thunderstorm to make me want to do it in an hour on public transport, but if the [non-electric] bicycle takes 35 minutes, it’s a different proposition.”

That 15-minute differential is, of course, down to the drive train, which takes the sweat out of the equation. Cycling around the neighbourhood is one thing, but cycling to work always meant arriving in a lather of perspiration.

Not any more. The e-bike has the power to flatten the hilly Earth. The combination of a motor with three power levels and an eight-gear derailleur system reinstates the wisdom of the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

No longer do I need to plan a route that traces ridgelines or avoids downhill runs that lead to uphill slogs. With a flick of a switch, it’s as if I am being pushed from behind. Going up Bullock Track by Western Springs – at twice the speed of a walker – is (almost) easy; an everyday hill is a doddle, at a speed of about 20km/h.

Bike Auckland’s Barb Cuthbert. Photo/Mike Rooke

If you build it, they will come

Interestingly, Auckland Transport figures show that the increase in overall cycle use to January 2017 (a modest 1.3%) was actually slowing by comparison with the previous few years. But in the areas – principally near the city centre – where the cycleway infrastructure is good, the year-on-year increase tops 10%.

The evidence is that Auckland commuters are taking to bicycles in large numbers. An Auckland Transport report last year showed a big boost in the overall number of cyclists. There were 45,600 more new riders than in 2015, of whom 28,000 were riders making so-called point-to-point journeys – that is, people using the bicycle as a form of transport, rather than just “going for a ride”.

But in accordance with international survey standards, the frequent users are defined as those riding once a week, so there is no distinction between commuters and the Lycra-clad road warriors or the cycle-mounted weekend ramblers. The percentage of people using the bicycle as the default means of daily travel, thus maximising the decongestive potential of cycling, remains stubbornly low at 2%. Far more people (15%) walk to work than cycle.

But the numbers in areas where the cycling infrastructure is good tell a different story: Kathryn King, the head of cycling for Auckland Transport, says areas covered by the Urban Cycleway Project show increases in the order of 44%. Tellingly, 29% of commuters say that they would like to cycle but don’t, and the development of safe cycleways will make a dent in that number. Says Electric Bike Hub’s Wells: “Growth will be led by infrastructure, not bike sales.”

Barb Cuthbert, the CEO (it stands for chief enthusiasm officer) for Bike Auckland (formerly Cycle Action Auckland), is predictably thrilled by the $333 million Urban Cycleway Project, paid for by the Government, Land Transport Fund and local authorities, almost a third of which is being spent in Auckland.

“I massively endorse the programme because it’s so well targeted, and it’s happening in a clever way because it’s being built from the city outwards. People in the suburbs may not be seeing it, but the reality is that most people who [use bikes as everyday transport] are close to the city. If you look at the big bike cities overseas, they don’t dot it around the suburbs; they build it out from the centre.”

The passionate pedaller

In three months, I’ve gone from an occasional pedaller to a passionate one, and all because of the e-bike. For $3000, the cost of a pretty crappy car, I bought a new mid-range e-bike that takes me pretty much everywhere; my scooter now has cobwebs on it. I’m paying nothing for insurance, registration or warrants of fitness. And “filling up” – plugging that lithium-ion battery in for a few hours – costs about 30c for every 100km.

Barely a generation ago, cycle use was a mark of social failure, the recourse of someone who couldn’t afford a car. These days and in this city, it’s a mark of shrewdness and a licence to feel slightly smug as you pass long lines of traffic.

Last week, I pulled up at the lights – in one of those special bays for cyclists at the front of the traffic queue – next to a young woman on a shiny new e-bike. She may have had on a floral frock, with a baguette and a bunch of flowers in a basket on the front.

“Changes your life, huh?” I say to her. We cyclists often engage in slightly smug, solidarity-boosting conversations, admiring each other’s saddlebags or mirrors.

“I love it,” she says. “It is just the best thing. I don’t know why I waited so long.”

She’s had it a week, she tells me as the light turns green and she rides off. Even from behind, I can see she has a smile a mile wide.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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