Do Electric Bikes Make Sense in the City?

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CC BY 2.0. The boar goes to lunch on Queen Street, Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

After taking my last trip downtown on the Boar electric fat bike from Surface 604 before shipping it back, I rode home thinking about the experience of having such a bike in the city, and thought I might revisit the question of whether such bikes belong in the urban milieu. As mentioned in my review, the Surface 604 designers want this bike to be “so fun to ride and so versatile that the second car would just sit in the driveway collecting dust. Or, even better, a bike that would replace the car altogether.”

Over on Copenhagenize, Mikael Colville-Andersen doesn’t believe that people are giving up cars for e-bikes. “This is one of the standard lines I hear from e-bike proponents. Unfortunately, it is purely anecdotal. There is no data to support this claim.” He also worries about the effect it will have on one of the main benefits of cycling: Health.

The health benefits of cycling are well-documented. I’ve been wondering how they will be reduced with the advent of e-bikes. People will be pedalling less. They won’t be getting their pulse up as much, which is incredibly important in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

With a pedelec or electric assist, you do have to pedal for the motor to work; that’s what makes it so easy to use, so intuitive. It still is work. However, checking the data from my apple watch, I found that my heart rate was significantly lower while riding the Boar than it was on my regular bike. You really don’t work as hard.

One has to make it clear that we are not talking about those cheap Chinese scooters that look like bad Vespas and which are everywhere these days. On those, the pedals are decorations to make them legal, and they are controlled by a throttle and mostly driven by maniacs. We are talking real bikes here, with gears and pedals that do real work and relatively sober and responsible cyclists on them. They should not be lumped together as e-bikes and I hope the regulators will figure out the difference.

But notwithstanding that caveat, there is still the question of safety and mixing with other bikes and cars. Yesterday I was late for a doctors appointment 8 kilometres away with a few big hills in between. I took the Boar and for the first time punched it up to 5, the biggest assist, and rode as fast as I could. It’s fast- I was going the speed limit of 30 Km/hr on side streets. I was extremely careful but I can see issues of mixing this both into regular traffic and especially into bike lanes. Now those big fat tires just ate up the potholes and bumps and I always felt solidly in control, But this may well be too much power and speed.

CC BY 2.0. Boar in the City/ Lloyd Alter

Boar in the City/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If there is one problem that I had consistently, it is that I could never find a place to park. All the bike rings and racks are designed for normal bikes, and today I had to walk up and down a whole block finding a ring that I could get up to. Size matters in the city and this bike is big. In the photo at the top where I am locked to a restaurant’s patio railing, I am taking up half the sidewalk.

Another problem I worried about today was running out of electricity; I didn’t plug the battery in properly last night and had only third of its capacity left. Of course it pooped out two blocks from home, where I have two hills to climb. I thought a bike this heavy would be murder but in fact I could go into low gear and managed to get up them without a problem.

In the end, I agree with Mikael’s conclusion:

E-bikes serve a purpose. Absolutely. They are a great niche addition to the existing armada of bicycles that have served citizens for 125 years. They have the potential of increasing the mobility radius of cycling citizens - especially the elderly. All good.

Furthermore, most of the problems of e-bikes won’t be as likely to happen with older riders; they tend to be more careful. They won’t be speeding in the bike lanes. They know why they are on an e-bike and not a Cervélo. E-bikes will also help a lot of cyclists in cities like Seattle, with serious hills, for people who do a lot of shopping with their bikes, for people who pull a lot of cargo.

I am going to miss this bike. It was a serious amount of fun, got me to the doctor on time, and attracted a lot of attention. But Toronto is relatively flat, my trips are relatively short, and I am relatively fit; I can see that for other people in other places it could be a very different story. Tomorrow I will be back on a regular bike that is a third the weight and a fifth the cost. My heart will beat a little faster and I will travel a little slower, but I’m not ready for that e-bike yet. Let’s talk again in a few years.