Electric bikes are continuing to evolve in impressive ways, finds Emma Clark.
“It’s cheating!” “Don’t I need a licence?” “I may as well just drive!” Historically, bike riders have been quick to dismiss electric bikes as an annoying oddity – something big and ugly built in the back shed by bearded inventors dreaming of patents and fame. But on a global scale, that negative view is fast becoming obsolete: practical, easy to use, reliable and with modern, sleek-looking designs, electric bikes are quickly becoming mainstream.
Electric bikes merge the benefits of motorised transport – comfort, carrying capacity and consistent speed – with the benefits of regular bike riding: fitness, eco-friendliness and fun. They offer advantages that tempt riders into making bike journeys that they would otherwise dismiss as too difficult.
Ideal for people who may not have the fitness or physical ability to ride a regular bike, e-bikes can help you take on big hills with ease, carry heavy loads and ride long distances. They are increasingly being used by older people who may have ridden in their youth but are unable to ride a regular bike where they want to go due to injury or ailments.
A year ago, Ride On explained that the laws regarding e-bikes were under review. That situation hasn’t changed: state governments and traffic authorities are still examining the legislation surrounding e-bikes. Currently, they are classified legally as bikes if they have the ability to be pedalled (unlike a moped or scooter) and have a maximum power output of 200 watts. The motor supplying the power doesn’t have to be electric, and throttle-only power is allowed, meaning you can stop pedalling and use the bike’s motor as the sole means of propulsion.
The most-likely legislative change will see the allowed motor output increase to 250 watts, bringing the laws in line with Europe and Japan (the biggest e-bike markets outside of China) and opening up the market for the latest e-bikes considerably. The proposed new laws would demand that the bikes be operated in a pedal-assist mode only, making throttle-controlled models no longer classified as bikes. In addition, the pedal-assist would have to be cut off once a speed of 25km/h is reached.
Pedal-assist e-bikes only operate while you are pedalling. You need to put in a rotation or two of the cranks before you feel the motor kick in and the motor stops working when you stop pedalling. As the name suggest, the pedal-assist function is meant to assist your riding; they don’t turn your bike into an electric motorcycle.
Throttle-operated power is similar to a motorbike, in that there is a twist-grip on the handlebars which increases the power and speed of the bike. You can stop pedalling and rely on the bike to push you on, but you won’t go any faster than about 28km/h.
When will new legislation be brought in? That is a question we would all like answered – the current uncertainty is damaging the industry and means the market is closed to some wonderful new models that currently can’t be sold in Australia. Unfortunately, no one is willing to speculate when the law change will happen; it could be soon, but it also may be many months away.
Carrying a load
Cargo bikes and electric bikes are like two pieces of a puzzle: while they both serve a purpose on their own, when combined, they turn a bicycle into a practical and viable alternative to a car. The SUV of bikes, electric cargo bikes have the carrying capacity of a small car or motorbike, with many environmental and health benefits.
The majority of car trips are one person travelling less than 5km, usually carrying nothing more than a single bag. E-bikes are perfect for these sorts of trips, as well as for grocery shopping, dropping kids off at school and carrying pets.
Along with domestic applications, there are a range of commercial possibilities; any business that needs small goods delivered over short to medium distances would likely do better with an electric cargo bike than with a car, ute or truck. On box-style cargo bikes, you can remove the box and replace it with a more customised cabinet which would suit tradesmen, couriers and anyone carrying a lot of gear, such as photographers. A comparatively low initial cost (prices for ready-made electric cargo bikes range from $2,300 to $5,000), almost no running costs, no registration, no parking problems: no excuses!
Currently, there are a few options available in Australia for purchasing electric cargo bikes. Cargocycles are based in Melbourne, but has a comprehensive online store and ships all over Australia, with stockists in Brisbane and Sydney. They stock a range of non-electric cargo bikes and electric models. Glow Worm Bicycles is based in Sydney and ships all over Australia. They sell a converted Kona Ute e-bike, along with conversion kits which will transform any bike, including cargo bikes, into an e-bike. They also stock an electric version of the Bakfiets Dutch cargo bike.
Power-assisted bikes are ideal for people who may not have the physical ability to ride to all the places they would like to go.
With less energy exertion and less sweat, e-bikes are an attractive option for those with long and arduous commutes. The e-bike also allows people to keep up with their partner on a ride even if they’re not as fit.
Power assisted bikes are being used by older people as a form of low weight-bearing supported exercise, and by those whose mobility may be impaired by injury or disease.
Russell Kerr, a 53-year-old computer engineer from Melbourne’s northeast, commutes to work on his Chituma Ranger e-bike, a 60 kilometre round trip that would have been too daunting for him on a conventional bike. “On my first trip, I was amazed at how comfortable and easy the ride was,” he told Ride On.
“I rode 30 kilometres the first time I used it. Now I ride it every day.”
Russell has improved his fitness and lost weight since buying his e-bike eighteen months ago, and has inspired friends to try them.
He describes the extra power provided by the motor as “like a hand pushing you up the hill. It is great for people like me, who love to ride but need to improve their fitness.
“Having the motor is great for big hills. I carry a laptop and the e-bike easily handles the extra weight.”
Maternal health nurses from the City of Melbourne have been using electric bikes to ride to appointments across the city, avoiding traffic congestion and parking issues. “The nurses love them,” says Family Health Co-ordinator Briody Main. “They are great for the environment, make parking so easy and are really fun to ride.
“They make riding around the city so easy. We visit every newborn baby in the municipality, so the bikes make us much more efficient.”
Maternal Health Nurse Patti Reilly has been riding an e-bike for four years and inspired the other Maternal Health clinics to adopt e-bikes as their main form of transportation.
“They are so much better than driving, from an environmental perspective, and great fun. We can cover much bigger distances quickly without having to worry about parking or traffic,” says Patti.
Murray Johnson has been organising regular bike tours of Melbourne for seven years, and has recently begun running tours on electric bikes. He first encountered them on a camping trip around Europe and was impressed.
“I’ve been waiting for them to become lighter and more affordable, and the technology has now developed to a good level,” he says. “Electric bikes are still a novelty here. They have been mainstream in Europe for at least five years and I’m seeing more on the roads here. Many bike shops now stock electric bikes, so I think the wave is about to break.
“Electric bikes give you all the benefits of bikes and scooters in one affordable package. You can still pedal as much or as little as you like and get a workout, but get where you want without getting too sweaty.”
“People who aren’t super-fit and aren’t quite ready to ride a regular bike or get a motorbike licence might be encouraged to get out of their cars, and in the process will discover the joys and freedoms of cycling, with the wind in your hair, which many haven’t experienced since childhood.”
Australia Post is one organisation firmly on the e-bike bandwagon. The mail service recognised the benefits of using e-bikes to reduce dependency on petrol-powered motorbikes and launched an e-bike trial program in 2009 in Victoria and New South Wales.
Around 300 regular postie bicycles were retrofitted with an e-kit using PowerPed EV03 technology. Powered by a removable lithium battery, the bikes have a 200 watt motor on the front wheel. The pilot program was well received by posties and this July, Australia Post will roll out 1,000 e-bikes for use across Australia.
Developed by Melbourne-based e-bike company Electric Vehicles, which manufactures and sells a wide range of electric bikes, the new bikes are serious workhorses (they can carry a whopping 150kg load) and are built to last: the frames and forks are made from chromoly, with extra-strong spokes and bigger batteries.
Andy Trott, Australia Post’s head of sustainability, expects the switch from motorbikes to e-bikes will cut carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by more than 1000 tonnes each year. “As one of the nation’s largest employers . . . Australia Post is in a unique position to introduce improvements to our operations that will have a real impact on reducing our environmental footprint,” Mr Trott said.
Overseas, police in the City of London have been trialling electric bikes. “The extra power of the e-bike allows an officer to move quickly, and definitely fits with our objectives; helping us to cut crime in the Square Mile,” said Sergeant Antony Wilson.
Several UK police forces already use e-bikes in community policing as response vehicles and at high-profile events. E-bikes have also been used by Belgian, Dutch, French and German postal services, and as medical first responders in the Netherlands.
First ride: Aussie Post e-bike
Like most people, I was slightly dubious about riding an e-bike. After an ill-fated spill on a motorbike a few years ago, the thought of riding anything not powered by my own two legs was daunting. At the prospect of riding an Australia Post e-bike, I conjured up images of my childhood hero, Postman Pat, with a Robocop-style jetpack. In reality the experience was, perhaps disappointingly, much like riding a regular bike. There was no shooting off from the traffic lights leaving other riders coughing in my wake, nor was there an impressive roar as I twisted the throttle.
The postie e-bike is much more civilised. Even when riding up a steep hill, it felt like I was always on a slight decline. You still need to pedal, so you get the health and fitness benefits of riding, but can carry a much heavier load and ride further distances. As expected, the bike is heavy (about 35kg without the added weight of the mail) but you don’t notice the bulkiness at all.
Three speeds help tackle hillier mail rounds and the brakes are smooth, with good stopping power. Bicycle posties accustomed to the single-speed, steel-framed sloggers they rode previously will find the new e-bikes a godsend, and motorbike posties will be impressed with how easy they are to ride.
Lithium powered e-bikes generally weigh between 20 and 25 kilograms, with the battery weighing about four kilograms. It is recharged by plugging into a conventional power point, with the charging time normally taking between four and six hours, and giving a range of up to 80km. Commuters would usually want a charger at home and work.
Depending on the type of rider, lithium batteries generally last between two and five years, and can cost up to $600 for a replacement. Even considering the cost of battery replacement, electric bikes are still the cheapest form of motorised transport available; the daily cost of running an electric bike over ten years has been estimated at less than 10 cents a day.
Do you think e-bikes have a genuine role to play in the bike-riding and transport world? Please comment below.
The latest on e-bike regulations.
When is an e-bike not actually a bike?
Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.