[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
The odometer on my e-bike clicked over to 4K and, rather than a general-purpose “e-bikes are great” rave, I thought I’d assemble a few concrete arguments for them, suitable for re-use with friends and loved ones in the (likely) case that you’re already convinced. With pictures.
It’s good for you · The skeptics are prone to say that if you want fitness, you should ride a real bike, dammit. They are wrong. Let me end this argument right here and now with Health benefits of electrically-assisted cycling: a systematic review and Riding Electric Bicycles Boon To Health And Not Cheating, Confirms Literature Review and The effect of cycling on cognitive function and well-being in older adults and Metabolic and Cardiovascular Responses to a Simulated Commute on an E-Bike. Or if you want non-academic, there’s a nice NYTimes piece: E-Bikes Can Provide a Good Workout.
It’s important to be clear that by “e-bike” I mean the ones with electric assist; i.e. no throttle, you have to pedal to go, and pedal harder to go faster. Also, you have to keep the boost set at a moderate level. The Bosch electric system that appears on a whole lot of popular e-bikes has four levels: Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. I keep it on Eco and switch to Tour for challenging hills. I’ve never really used the top two levels, nor felt the need.
It’s fast · I find that my average e-bike cruise is something like 25km/h, and I get around town astonishingly fast (note also the numbers in that NYTimes piece above). It helps a lot that Vancouver has a pretty decent bike-route network. And obviously, so does no looking for parking.
Less obviously, when your bike path runs along the side of a road with cars on it that has stop lights and intersections, you realize how agonizingly slow these things are. The endless halts behind someone waiting to turn left or for pedestrians to cross, and behind people inching along looking for parking, you don’t even notice them when you’re driving, but a lot of it you can just breeze through on a bike-path while staying perfectly safe.
For navigating across the city anywhere less than 5km or so, the bike is not going to get me there significantly later than my car. And, I’ll be able to park right in front of where I’m going. And, the parking is free.
It’s never boring · Closely related to the previous point, sitting in traffic look at another car’s ass end, or even worse, stuck behind a truck so you can’t even see ahead, is boring. On a bike, you’re always moving, you’re way more intimate with the scenery, and if you come to a nice view you can stop on impulse and take a picture.
It’s cheap · The bikes themselves are aren’t cheap. For the purposes of this piece, I poked around the landscape to pick out something that’s mid-range, well-reviewed, and from a manufacturer I have respect for: the Trek Verve+ 3. US$3,300 isn’t cheap for a bike but it’s insanely cheaper than anything with four wheels that you’d want to drive, and the running costs are really too low to be worth measuring. I’ve had my bike for three years and a bit and the service charges, including repairs after a pretty bad accident (see below) and a couple upgrades, add up to less than $1,000.
It’s good for the city · Look, if you don’t see that a city with more bikes and less four-wheelers is a better city to live and work, there’s nothing I can say that’ll help you. But I will say this: Nobody wants to live in a house on a main road, but a house on one of our city’s main cycle paths would gain value.
It’s good for the planet · This is hardly in doubt, but I stumbled across a good quantitative write-up on the subject, from Britain: How green is cycling? Riding, walking, ebikes and driving ranked. I’m going to reproduce four of their summary bullet points, which widened my eyes, and encourage you to go read the whole piece.
Cycling has a carbon footprint of about 21g of CO2 per kilometre. That’s less than walking or getting the bus and less than a tenth the emissions of driving
About three-quarters of cycling’s greenhouse gas emissions occur when producing the extra food required to “fuel” cycling, while the rest comes from manufacturing the bicycle
Electric bikes have an even lower carbon footprint than conventional bikes because fewer calories are burned per kilometre, despite the emissions from battery manufacturing and electricity use
If cycling’s popularity in Britain increased six-fold (equivalent to returning to 1940s levels) and all this pedalling replaced driving, this could make a net reduction of 7.7-million tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to 6% of the UK’s transport emissions
Tell me a couple of those didn’t surprise you.
The infrastructure is human-scale · Nobody loves taking their car in to get fixed. The world of bikes is less monopolized, less exploitive, and generally nicer. By way of evidence I offer this:
It’s practical · Once you have an e-bike, you really, really need to spend a little more and get a good pannier. They’ll try to sell you a pair, which I have but only use one. Because I have no trouble getting my laptop, my raingear, and the groceries I picked up on the way home in mine, which doesn’t even look that big.
Did I mention raingear? A decent raincoat and rainpants make all the difference in the world.
Now, let’s be honest. When you’re going to drive away, you just get in the car, fasten the seatbelt, and you’re off. On a bike, you have to get your helmet (and maybe raingear) on, unlock it, and stow your pannier before you’re in motion. When you’re just getting started biking, this feels onerous. But as with most things in life, practice makes perfect. A couple of months in and your muscle memory will have all this stuff — especially the lock/unlock dance — filed away and it’ll happen quickly without even thinking about it.
What about safety? · Yeah, it’s an issue, as you can see below. And I think e-bikes are possibly more dangerous than regular ones. That’s what the numbers say (at least they’re safer than e-scooters).
It’s pretty simple: There are a lot of situations where an e-bike makes it easy to go way faster than is safe. So… don’t go that fast! For example, I got my face decorated, as you see above, when I cut the corner on a T-section in the bike-path, banking through a patch of muddy ground, and BANG! I was on my side on the ground, bleeding.
Before I go on, I want to point out that my helmet saved my life on that occasion. I recommend Bontrager helmets, another product of Trek. And let me confess: When I’m just going five blocks to pick up parmesan and red wine because we’re having pasta, I often don’t wear one. And then I don’t go fast at all.
But yeah, in general, slow down. In particular, I want to point out that bicycle brakes really, really suck on wet pavement, so if you’re going downhill on a rainy road, dial it way the hell back.
My take-away: If you’re careful and if you have a decent bike-route system, the benefits of e-biking overbalance any risk, particular if you don’t bomb along at maximum speed. Now, I do bomb along at maximum speed in places where it’s safe, and damn that’s fun.
E-biking is fun. And good for you. And your city. And your planet. Give it a try.