Britain’s leading transport commentator Christian Wolmar visits Justebikes London branch.
I have seen the future. Or have I? by Christial Wolmar.
In 2012, I came across a wide variety of transport innovations and was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised. Normally, I am fairly cynical about wondrous new ideas and how they will reshape the world, and have been quick to dismiss them. However, given the pace of technological change and the number of ideas that appear workable, I am beginning to change my mind and conclude that we all ought to be better at examining and embracing innovation, including me.
Take the latest new concept I saw. In December I dropped in on a new electric bike shop in London’s famous Portobello Road (though sensibly it is at the far northern cheaper end) called Justebikes. The introduction had come through a fellow QPR fan and it was more out of politeness than any great interest that I managed to fit the meeting into my busy post Siberian pre-Christmas schedule. I am a keen cyclist. Actually keen is the wrong word. Cycling is simply fundamental to my lifestyle, able to get me round London quicker and more efficiently than any other method, and as a by product keeping me fit and reducing my carbon footprint. I am keen in the same way that I am keen about having legs.
So my instinct was that e-bikes are for wusses who are too lazy to push down on the pedals, and therefore have at best only a marginal role in the transport mix. I was wrong. Completely wrong. James FitzGerald, the owner of the shop, convinced me that electric bikes could be part of making our cities more liveable. He cited both Holland and Germany, countries with much higher mode shares for cyclists, as having millions of e-bikes.
The e-bikes look like a normal bike except they have a battery pack on the back. The key point is that they enable the range to be extended or, indeed, the number of potential cyclists to increase.
I had a quick ride on one and it was not only amazingly fast, but fantastic fun. It’s like having your dad push you along when you first get rid of the trainer wheels. You pedal a bit and before you know it, you are doing 16 mph, the top speed allowed under EU rules for electric assistance – pedal a bit harder and you can easily reach 20 mph.
Therefore, for a moderate amount of effort, an e-bike allows people to make a journey much greater than the, say, 5-7 miles maximum that an urban cyclist normally would consider. Moreover, it is somewhat safer as you can easily keep up with the urban traffic. Hills are no longer an obstacle and, that British obsession, a shower at the end of the journey, is completely unnecessary.
They are not cheap, mostly the wrong side of £2,000, although there are cheap but less reliable Chinese versions at under £1000, but they don’t get stolen. Not only is there a clever immobilisation system, but even if they are whisked away in a van, there is a tracking device. Mr FitzGerald says only one of his customers’ bikes has been stolen, and that was soon found.
He reckons that most of his customers were not previously cyclists: ‘Of course some have transferred from conventional bikes, especially those who feel they are getting too old for them, but on the whole this is a new market’.
Daisy Goodwin, the Sunday Times columnist, is one of the former, having cycled all her life but wrote a piece saying how she enjoyed the extra acceleration her e-bike gave her, allowing her to outpace the lycra louts or ‘velociraptor cyclists’ as she calls them. Her finest moment, she says, was when she overtook a pair of mountain bikers sweating up a hill when she was using her e-bike ‘in the Swiss Alps wearing a polkadot dress and flip flops’. She recommends any middle aged women to take up an e-bike to get around town.
There is a more serious point, however. These e-bikes do offer a genuine opportunity to extend the numbers using environmentally sound forms of transport. However, inevitably, the British government has failed to encourage this trend. In a rational world, e-bike purchasers would be able to use money from the government fund for e-cars that gives buyers a 20 per cent discount. However, despite lobbying from Mr Fitzgerald, including a meeting with ministers, that is limited to four wheel vehicles. Meanwhile, tens of millions of taxpayers money is going on creating a network of charging points when e-bikes present a cheaper option that should be supported.
But encouraging e-bikes needs more than that. It requires a bit of out of the box thinking and an assessment of what is happening on the Continent. Yet again, Britain looks as if it will miss out on an opportunity offered by technology and innovation.
As for the other innovations I came across in 2012, ranging from cable cars to pods and even driverless cars, I will write about those in the next column. But a warning: I suspect there is a revolution coming in transport just as disruptive as the internet has been to everything from newspaper publishing to Blockbusters, and we should at least understand the nature of innovation or, best, embrace it.