How an electric bike changes daily behaviour, and it’s impact on city transportation systems

By: Dr. Jan Storgards

Dr. Jan Storgards: electric bike enthusiast
Dr Jan Storgards

My friend and entrepreneur Sean Moroney, CEO of Cambridge Electric Transport Ltd, asked me to review their electric bike in Summer 2017. Sean wanted to know how to improve the product and the riding experience.

Cambridge Electric Transport’s mission is to change how we:

  • Commute to work;
  • Move around town;
  • Travel between villages.

So my review is not about features. I’ll share my experience of upgrading from an ordinary hybrid city bicycle to an electric bicycle. In addition, I’ll explain how my use of private and public transport changed. My behaviour changed for the better.

Hybrid city-bicycle cyclist

I live 2.5 miles outside Cambridge city centre, where I now work. At first I walked to work. I then purchased a bicycle, and on most weekdays cycled everywhere within the city.

I’d say I am in “normal condition”. However, I often cycled too fast, and sometimes arrived feeling slightly sweaty. Like many cyclists, I believed if I switched to an assisted bicycle, I’d lose the exercise benefits.

Thus, I had no need for an electric bicycle. However, I twisted my ankle whilst running. Cycling to work became painful…….

Electric bicycle cyclist

I’ve used the electric bike for over 6 months. I like it. It fits my everyday needs, and it changed my opinion about electric bikes.

Now, I cycle more. It’s still exercise, although a little lighter. I travel faster, so am more likely to commute by electric bicycle. I don’t change clothes at work. More importantly riding the electric bicycle feels great. Riding it is so different to riding a conventional bike, a noisy moped or motorcycle, or driving a car.

My new role in traffic

My role in traffic changed, due to my increased speed, different user controls, and enhanced mechanics. Now I am:

  • In front of traffic, instead of behind it;
  • A faster cyclist, overtaking ‘casual’ cyclists,
    • Although nobody can beat those super-fast cyclists;
  • Enjoying overtaking cars during rush hour.

Electric bike purchase criteria

After a couple of weeks, I purchased the bike. Many electric bike designs are available. Some look nice, others look distinctive. My purchase criteria was:

  • Entry level pricing;
  • Basic design: something that looks like a push-bike;
  • Unisex step-through design, so my wife could use it;
  • Accessories:
    • Kickstand,
    • Mudguards,
    • Pannier rack,
    • Bell,
    • Front and back lights.

Additional features I would like:

  • Disc brakes: which I think are a necessity in city traffic;
  • Suspension: to cope with Cambridge’s potholes and rough road surfaces;
  • Less weight. Although the design is robust, and the frame is guaranteed for three years, it:
    • Is not as agile as my other bike and
    • Weighs a relatively heavy 25kg;

My electric bike is perfect for the city. However, I can’t ride off-road since it:

  • Lacks suspension;
  • Is too heavy to cycle on muddy tracks.

My new behaviour

Most importantly, my first transport option is to cycle. I always cycle to meetings and to places within the city.

I still drive to the supermarket for our weekly shop. However when I’m shopping for small items, usually in a rush, I cycle rather than drive the one mile to the shop.

Usually, I cycle to work and back much faster than before. I don’t feel sweaty, nor exhausted. I don’t have to change clothes after arriving at work.

Cycling up Castle Hill is no problem. The engine is powerful and eases uphill cycling.

I don’t miss my old hybrid city bike. Perhaps I might use it in summer for cross country cycling, but that’s about all.

Practical matters

For me, it’s easy to charge and store the e-bike. as my garage has an electric power socket. It takes about five second to plug in the charger.

The battery has never run out whilst cycling around Cambridge. Cambridge Electric specify a 35 mile range on a full battery.

The weather doesn’t bother me. I have appropriate waterproofs. Anyway, for the last six months it hasn’t rained much. Hailing from Scandinavia I find British weather rather mild.

Regulations limit an electric bikes’ maximum motor-assisted speed to 15mph. You are allowed to pedal faster, but this speed is enough in the city.

Overall review of my electric cycling experience

I’d summarise my experience as follows:

Positive

  • For me, it’s good value for money;
  • It offers a good return on investment. I saved money on:
    • Driving,
    • Taxis,
    • Buses,
    • Parking.
  • I saved time during rush hours;
  • I changed my cycling behavior,
    • My first priority is to travel by electric bicycle;
  • I enjoy cycling more

Challenges

My challenges include:

  • Electric bikes are quite expensive:
    • Compared to a standard £200-300 hybrid.
  • There are fewer designs compared to traditional bikes.
  • All electric bikes are quite heavy.
  • You have to be more careful in traffic, due to the:
    • Enhanced power,
    • Different control compared to a hybrid bike.

Challenges emerging after 6 months

The challenges that emerged after six months use include:

  • How to obtain spare keys?
  • Riding over bumps can cause the battery to disconnect. So:
    • The motor stops working,
    • The lights turn off,
    • Everything stops.
    • You might have to stop, and put the battery back in its place.
  • Sometimes if I cycle too strongly the chain comes off, so:
    • There is a risk of falling off,
    • I feel less in control.
  • I broke the front light stand, but:
    • It was my fault,
    • All the usual bike accessories are available.

My future needs and conclusions

I would like to persuade my wife to use ‘our’ e-bike. However, she doesn’t like the design and thinks e-cycling is not exercise. Nevertheless, before I discovered the joy of e-cycling, I held similar opinions.

We have a small baby girl. Soon we will be taking her to nursery. We need to find appropriate accessories that I can attach to the e-bike, which is easily solved.

However, my role in traffic will change. On an e-bike, I will be faster that average, but wider when towing a child trailer. My wife will also be (stuck) in the traffic as well.

My purchase criteria for my next electric bike will probably include:

  • A slightly higher budget, above £750;
  • Disc brakes: a must have;
  • Suspension;
  • A more distinctive appearance;
  • A slightly lighter weight.

Future urban needs

Clearly, when electric bikes are widely adopted urban traffic flows change, as does the role of commuters. Picture an everyday rush-house, when, e.g. 50% of current cyclist plus some car-drivers ride electric bikes.

Hence, there will be increasing pressure to improve the infrastructure to accommodate electric bikes. Electric bikes are not the same as conventional bikes, even if they appear similar. Soon new, innovative transportation vehicle will enter the urban environment, e.g. autonomous and human controlled vehicles.

I would like to see simulations that model this challenge.

Dr. Jan Storgards is Director of REACTOR. Anglia Ruskin University leads this regional development project which the European Regional Development Fund partially funds.

Dr Jan Storgards