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The Buzz On E-Bikes

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Hannah coming home with daughter Frida and the chook food up the hills of Hobart. Photo by Natalie Mendham

Our cities are becoming more spread out and also more congested. A revolution is needed to help people reach their destinations quickly, sustainably, enjoyably and affordably.

Electric bikes (e-bikes) may be the solution with their energy efficiency, the ease they offer in urban environments by eliminating parking and traffic jam issues, their lack of pollution, and their suitability for riders with compromised fitness or health.

How Do They Work?

E-bikes are pedal bikes that have been modified or manufactured with an electric motor that is powered by a battery. Most electric bikes come with either a lithium-ion (Li-Ion) or a lithium polymer (LiPo) battery.

This battery assistance is commonly known as ‘electric-assist’ or ‘power-assist’, as they need pedal power to enable them. The electric motor augments whatever power you produce as you pedal, allowing you to go further and faster.

Some e-bikes have a throttle system, which with the press of a button propels you forward regardless whether you’re pedalling or not. A few models use a combination of pedal assistance and throttle.

Accessibility

All bikes are great for your health and the environment, however e-bikes also make bike riding accessible to people with different abilities and fitness levels. If you are unfit, have issues with your health, knees, back, feel too old to ride, lack riding confidence or live in a hilly environment, e-bikes make riding safer and easier.

Some cycling purists may say that e-bikes are cheating, but a little pedal assist may be what some people need to reignite a desire to cycle and give them the confidence to get back on the bike. If this means more people outside exercising in the fresh air and out of their vehicles, then that has to be a good thing.

Studies show that riding an e-bike the same distance as a traditional bike while using the highest power assist (meaning the easiest for the rider) will burn half the calories of the regular bike. For a greater workout, simply minimise the power assist.

Another great benefit is that those with only moderate fitness levels can attempt and enjoy more strenuous off-road or mountain bike riding that normally requires a high level of fitness.

Types Of Bikes

E-bikes come in many shapes, sizes and configurations to suit a wide range of needs and purposes. There are mountain bikes, off-road bikes, bikes for the city and commuting, family bikes with cargo carriers for children or groceries, step through bikes for those with limited mobility, road cycles, folding bikes for public transport commuters or travellers, tricycles for the elderly, company-sponsored food/courier bikes and more.

Battery Range

This depends on a number of factors such as the size of the battery, the weight of the rider, the amount of assistance the rider uses, and the environment. One can expect at least 20–30 km using the maximum power assist and over 100 km using less. If the battery does run out, you can still pedal, but because the bikes are heavier, it is harder work.

Recharging The Battery

Batteries can be charged in any 240 V outlet. This can be done at home or work and can be left overnight. Some batteries can be taken off the bikes for charging.

The cost of the electricity needed to fully recharge a battery is 4–10 cents. You can ride from 30 km to 100 km on a full battery depending on how much e-assist you need. Compare this to the price of petrol!

Speed

Pedal assist e-bikes are limited by law to electric-assist up to speeds of 25 km/h and after that the motor stops assisting.

Business

Urban businesses are now catching on. Lack of parking and traffic congestion have made bikes and now e-bikes a practical option. E-bikes are now being used in many cities worldwide for couriers, take-away food deliveries, deliveries of groceries and consumer products. Australia Post is making a slow but steady shift to using e-bikes as delivery vehicles.

E-bikes are perfectly suited for the demands of the job. They facilitate affordable, rapid transportation of goods through busy cities with no parking issues and without generating exhaust or noise.

Economics

A decent quality e-bike for simple urban commuting starts at around $1500–$2500, compared to $700–$900 for a quality pedal bike. As with all bikes you pay significantly more depending on the type, brand and the extras like dual suspension. You can get a high quality, engineered bike from $3000.

It is recommended that your e-bike is purchased through a reputable local dealer so if there are any issues they can be sorted. There can be significant differences in quality and reliability, and buying quality can avoid an expensive disappointment. The quality of the battery is a very important factor when choosing an e-bike as well.

There are also different options for converting a normal pedal bike to elec-assist, which is an attractive alternative, especially for those who already have a good bike.

Environment

Cars, trucks and other forms of transportation are the single largest contributors to air pollution at approximately 20%. Cars produce nearly a fifth of household greenhouse gas emissions. Getting more cars off the road equates to less CO2, less traffic congestion, less stress and better commuter health.

In the Netherlands, the use of e-bikes has extended cycling distances to the extent that experts agree they are eroding car sales. In cities like Melbourne and Adelaide, the cycle culture is well-established, with cycle lanes and bike stands city wide. We need the rest of our cities and towns to catch up and make cycling a safer option. More bikes, less cars, healthier people = healthier planet.

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Photo by Cargocycles

Clockwise from top: E-bikes with child seat attachments make it possible to potentially do away with a car; The crew from The Hood doing the school run fully packed with bags and musical instruments; Anna on her way to work in Melbourne.

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Photo by Louise Sampson
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Photo by Yuki Cameron

True Tales

Anna, aged 52, has chronic back pain. She lives in Melbourne’s inner north and works in the city about 9 kilometres away. Until Hilda, her e-bike, came into her life, Anna would take public transport—a bus, then a tram. Two hours of her time. When the idea of public transport was too much, she would drive and spend $16 on parking.

Anna now cycles to and from work using the bike lanes and paths that wind along roads, creeks, rivers and park reserves. Her ride takes 30 minutes. She bought her e-bike on a payment plan over three years. The repayments are just $5 more per week than public transport. Anna’s family no longer has a second vehicle, saving them a minimum of $12,000 annually. Anna says it’s been a ‘game changer’ for her physical and mental health.

Hannah from Good Life Permaculture in Hobart is also an e-bike fan. ‘We converted one of our bikes to electric when we had our daughter, as we quickly realised that carting her up and down the steep Hobart hills wasn’t overly easy for us on our bikes,’ says Hannah.

The bike often carries Hannah’s three-year-old daughter, any shopping and a sack of chook food (all at the same time). As a result, the family is considering selling their car and converting their other bike to electric, simply hiring cars for work as needed or entering into a car-sharing arrangement.

‘Electric bikes have been life changing for us,’ says Hannah. ‘Not only are they cheaper to run than a car and good for our bodies, they’re also a powerful step away from being so dependent on fossil fuels.’

Yuki and her family live in West Heidelberg, in an informal suburban community of 70 people across 20 households called The Hood. Six or sometimes more children are transported 13 km each way to and from school on e-bikes. The trip takes them on quiet back roads and bike trails, and can be done in 35 minutes (although sometimes longer with the younger children). Yuki says the electric motor really comes in handy for the home trip with tired kids.

The Hood’s stable of e-bikes includes two Yuba Mundo cargo bikes and other custom made bikes designed and built by a member of The Hood. A few times a week their bicycle ‘school bus’ also transports a cello and three violins to school. They also use cargo bikes, which comfortably carry an adult plus three children, for camping trips, play dates and market shopping.

Yuki says that by modelling the use of electric bikes for family transport, they have inspired others around them to do the same.

So, if you are an active cyclist, a lapsed cyclist, a want-tobe cyclist, or someone who simply wants to be car-free and not reliant on public transport, e-bikes offer a huge range of choices for work, family, pleasure or fitness. You’ll find yourself riding to places and distances you wouldn’t have dreamed of, looking forward to that next hill.

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