Guardian reporter Peter Walker tries a SPARTA e-bike at our new London shop.
At first glance it looks like just another cycle shop, albeit a slightly posh west London one, stocking a mix of sturdy commuter machines, mountain bikes, small-wheeled folding ones, even a tandem. But a closer look reveals the boxy battery packs attached to frames or luggage racks. These are e-bikes, and proponents say they could change urban transport forever.
Electrically assisted bikes, the sort that can be used without a licence or insurance if they stay within certain power and speed restrictions, remain relatively rare in Britain, but elsewhere in Europe they are increasingly big business.
Last year 310,000 e-bikes were sold in Germany, a 55% year-on-year rise. In all more than 700,000 were sold in western Europe. The equivalent figure for electric cars, long touted as the low-carbon transport of the future, was just over 11,500, even with the millions spent on subsidies and on-street charging points.
The UK saw a relatively paltry 20,000 e-bike sales last year, but supporters hope the electric bike could help overcome the longstanding British resistance to cycling as everyday transport. E-bikes, they argue, which provide a smooth but significant extra kick when the pedals are turned, allow people of more or less any age or fitness level to whirr smoothly from place to place, even up steep slopes, arriving unflustered and un-sweaty. This is particularly valuable, they add, in an era of ageing populations.
“You can travel further and faster for less effort – who can argue with that?” says James FitzGerald, whose Suffolk-based Justebikes company has just opened the west London store, its first in the capital. “They’re also safer for city cycling as the added acceleration means e-bike riders can move away from traffic lights more quickly. And in a city they’re much more practical than an electric car.” E-bikes, also known as electronically power assisted cycles (Epacs) or pedelecs, certainly seem to have a wide demographic appeal compared with regular bikes.
While the most common models tend to be commuter bikes, in FitzGerald’s shop are folding models and electric mountain bikes. There is even an electrically assisted bakfiets, the traditional Dutch-style cargo cycle with a container at the front big enough for a couple of children and a weekly shop, the manual versions of which can require iron thighs for the slightest incline.
E-bike technology has moved on considerably from slightly clunky early incarnations. Batteries are lighter and longer-lasting, while the Dutch-made Sparta brand sold by FitzGerald features such gizmos as an electronic speed and power display which doubles as an immobilser – take it off the bike and the motor cannot be used.
FitzGerald says he has held talks with Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat junior transport minister and semi-official voice of cycling in the government, over ways to increase the take-up for e-bikes, while the Department for Transport says it sees e-bikes as a potentially important part of wider strategies to get people on bikes.
It nonetheless remains uncertain whether they will take off in the UK, with its lack of a wider cycling culture: overall, the percentage of journeys made by bike every year is around 2%, against more than 25% in the Netherlands.