Can electric bikes take the uphill struggle out of cycling to work?

Jessica Shankleman of Business Green examines the pros and cons of Justebikes Dutch and German e-bikes:

Efforts to get more people to cycle to work in order to help ease road congestion, cut carbon emissions, and make people healthier, have been hailed a resounding success in recent years.

Experts believe about 200,000 people will have got back in the saddle in 2011 as a result of the government’s cycle-to-work initiative, through which employers can loan bikes to staff as a tax-free benefit.

Sparta-2014-electric bike mojo

But some people need more than a tax break to convince them to don their helmets and start pedaling, and a growing number of commentators believe a new generation of electric bikes could prove the perfect solution for those amongst us who cannot bear the thought of getting tired and sweaty cycling into the office of a morning.

Admittedly e-bikes are not quite as green as push bikes because the battery requires electricity, which at the moment is likely to have been produced by a fossil fueled power plant. But, like all electric vehicles, they emit nothing and have a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional combustion engine cars.

James FitzGerald at Justebikes estimates e-bikes re-charged from the grid are responsible for 0.0036kg of carbon dioxide equivilant per mile, which is still around 100 times less than the average passenger car.

He believes the UK could save 3.9 million tonnes of CO2 each year if everyone living less than five miles from work commuted on an e-bike instead of in a car, which is about the same as the four million tonnes of carbon which our forests and woodlands remove from the atmosphere every year.

The e-bike market is booming globally with Europe one of the fastest growing markets, but so far the UK appears to have failed to be convinced of the merits of electric bikes.

According to Frank Jamerson’s Electric Bikes Worldwide Report, annual production of e-bikes in China reached 27 million in 2010 up from just 58,000 in 1998. In the Netherlands, the leading market for e-bikes, sales jumped 40 per cent in 2009.

However, the UK market is slower. Jamerson estimates around 40,000 e-bikes will be sold in the UK this year compared to 215,000 in the Netherlands and 316,000 in Germany.

Nevertheless, he predicts UK sales could reach 100,000 in the UK by 2013, which could create new green jobs in an emerging industry at the same time as cutting emissions.

So what is different about the UK which makes us averse to a helping hand (or foot) when cycling? Jamerson reckons attitude is a major factor, arguing many Brits are reluctant to try something new.

He told BusinessGreen the answer to that question was “very simple”.

“Just as in the USA, the UK is a car driven society and people do not like to change from the comfort and convenience of today’s cars. That is my view of why electric bike sales are low in the UK and USA,” he said.

He also maintained that our bike dealers have yet to realise the market potential. “The bike dealers in Europe have learned they make much more profit from selling electric bikes, that have higher price points, so they push them. Very simple.”

FitzGerald appears to be one of the few bike dealers who has realised the market potential which Jamerson outlines. He spent last summer conducting a major media marketing campaign, has carried out his own research into the benefits of e-bikes, and has lobbied the government to support the emerging technology.

In a straw poll I conducted of cyclists’ attitudes to e-bikes, most turned their nose up at the thought of an e-bike, believing it would rob them of their daily exercise. Earlier this year, FitzGerald lent me two new e-bikes to test out for a month: Bosch’s astonishingly sexy Haibike mountain bike and the Koga E-Comfort town bike.

As a keen cyclist, I found that far from doing less exercise, I did more, simply because I got tired less quickly so could travel further. I even found local pubs were more than willing to let me charge up my battery while I had a drink, especially when I told them it only cost two pence per charge.

FitzGerald argues it is a mistake to target cyclists, given that they are already converted to pedal power. He believes the market for e-bikes lies with fleet operators, early adopters, and the Baby-boomer generation.

He said there were a growing number of women over 50 using e-bikes, many of whom are experiencing a sense freedom from the decades of transporting young families or bags of supermarket shopping across town.

He also argues that construction companies should use e-bikes instead of electric cars for travelling around building sites, because they are cheaper and nippier.

His research has found that if the 22 per cent of people who live within five miles of their workplace but commute by car used an e-bike, it would save £17bn a year for the state, companies, and their employees, by improving air pollution, saving carbon taxes for businesses, and fuel and parking costs.

But like most green technologies, cost is a major drawback. I was hugely tempted to swap my rusty old Raleigh mountain bike for a sparkly new Koga. Unlike some hefty older e-bike models, it is part of a new generation that uses lighter and more reliable lithium ion batteries.

It is glorious to ride – comfortable, fast, simple to operate and secure to park in a city like London that is brimming with bike thieves. Perhaps it would be even better in a hilly city like Sheffield, where commuters could really do with the extra push.

But at £2,500 it would take me two years to pay back the cost, and only then if I spent next-to-nothing on public transport. So I decided to stick with my old faithful.

Some experts believe VAT on e-bikes is unfair, and the government could help reduce the cost and boost sales by removing it altogether.

FitzGerald also argues the Department for Transport should make e-bikes eligible for the plug-in-car grant, which gives buyers a grant to cover 25 per cent of the cost of a plug-in electric car, up to £5,000.

It might make sense given that uptake of the grants has been rather slow. The most recent figures showed that just 786 vehicles registered for the scheme by the third quarter of this year against a possible budget for 2011 that covers grants for 8,600 cars.

The government says the PIC grant is only available for passenger cars at present because they are the biggest source of emissions from road transport, forming almost 60 per cent of total UK domestic CO2 transport emissions.

However, a DfT spokeswoman told BusinessGreen that it would consider including other vehicles.

“We will of course consider any evidence for other vehicles to be included in the scheme as part of the current Plug-In Car Grant review process,” she said, adding that its Office for Low Emissions Vehicles is in regular contact with the The e-Motorcycle Industry Association and the British Electric Bicycle association.

In the mean time, a trend towards cheaper e-bikes is also emerging.

This year, Giant and Raleigh launched ebikes below £1,000, which is the point when bikes become eligible for tax breaks from one of the most popular cycle to work providers Cyclescheme.

This could allow more employers to become aware of the e-bikes and perhaps consider including them in fleets, which could help boost the market without further government support.


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