28 March 2018

Will TfL’s electric bike initiative work?

Breaking out from the perceived market for e-bikes should be a key aim

Transport for London has just launched a new site – ebikes.london – to create awareness around electric bikes and to get more people riding them. They cite research saying that “more than a fifth of people who don’t cycle are put off because they think they aren’t fit enough, feel distances are too long or say they are too old”. Electric bikes are the obvious solution for this group and getting them riding will make a difference, but these potential riders aren’t the whole story.

Anyone in London knows there are more and more bikes on the roads, particularly in central London which has substantial traffic problems, overcrowded public transport, large numbers of commuters and the congestion charge. A recent traffic study by the City of London Corporation found that “cyclists [are the] single largest mode of transport counted on City streets” in the morning rush hour. The location (the City) and the time (morning commute) are very telling. What London needs is a greater uptake of cycling in all areas and for all types of journeys.

How can e-bikes help with this?

The story of how cycling has evolved in London is telling. Twenty years ago cycle couriers and a motley collection of other cycling types braved the motor-traffic dominated streets. Since then two big developments  have spawned cycling tribes: British Olympic and Tour de France success have made the sport of cycling mainstream, with road bikes being co-opted for use as commuter transport. Riders are predominantly male and white – the MAMILS who ride fast and shower at work.

A younger, more urban generation saw that cycling was a perfect way to get around the city – but they didn’t have the money to buy a high end road bike and didn’t like the overweight-in-lycra look. Couriers on low-cost stripped-down second-hand frames had bikes at an affordable price plus an overall style and attitude that gave them street cred. This kind of cycling gradually became an adjunct of the hipster movement. Meanwhile changing economic forces have meant that document-delivering cycle couriers have morphed into Deliveroo riders.

As cycling has mushroomed in recent years there are now far more kinds of cyclist out on the roads, but what this history points out is how cycling culture in London (and the UK) differs from those in other European countries. In Germany, Holland or Belgium people have long been accustomed to what I term “utility cycling” – using a bike as a mode of transport in daily life, alongside cars, public transport, etc. These are precisely the same countries where most electric bikes are sold. A 2017 ‘guesstimate’ of the UK e-bike market (population 66 million) by Bike Europe was a maximum of about 50,000 units compared to 720,000 in Germany (population 82 million).

In London cycling tends to be something of a lifestyle choice, something to do when you’re young and active, before you can afford to buy a car or are forced move further out from the centre of the city to get more living space, at which point you maybe use a bike to commute back in.

TfL’s campaign does a great job in creating a resource for people to find out the basics about e-bikes and then makes it easy to find a local retailer who offers test rides, crucial in getting people to understand what an e-bike is and what they can do. The associated advertising and PR will help get electric bikes into the city’s consciousness and will no doubt be some people’s first exposure to them.

While this is will definitely have a positive impact the campaign also needs to broaden the perception of what cycling can offer as a means of transport, with electric bikes amplifying that utility thanks to the motor making them more flexible and useful to more people. E-bikes are a viable alternative on numerous journeys and not just a narrow subset of journeys, including many that are done by car – you can “just take the bike” as easily as you can “just take the car”. Any advocacy of electric bikes also needs to make it clear that they are not just for older people with dodgy knees – they are a great way of travelling around the city for anyone.

TfL’s initiative will definitely have a measurable impact on use of electric bikes in London, though the increase may be hard to spot on the streets as initial numbers are still very low. Reaching European levels of e-bike use require a cultural change in how people view bike use over car use in all parts of London and for all aspects of daily life.

 

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