6 Month Report: My E-Bike Ate My Car

CC BY 2.0. Gazelle bike at Fort York/ Lloyd Alter

It changes everything – how you think about bikes and how you think about cars.

I often paraphrase analyst Horace Dediu and say, "E-bikes will eat cars." I have now been riding a Gazelle Medeo e-bike for six months and can report that it's true; it ate my car.

Figuratively, of course. We still own a Subaru Impreza that my wife drives. But the e-bike has totally changed my habits, how much I drive, and even my actual ability to drive. It's changed everything.

Let's talk about the bike first. As I noted in an earlier post, I bought it because it has all the attributes of classic dutch-style bikes: solid, heavy, durable, with a comfortable upright riding position.

It also is a step-through design that is easier to get on and off of when you get older, which I am in the process of doing. I want to be like Egbert Brasjen and be able to do this in 30 years. It has taken some practice, but I no longer swing my leg over the rear, and just step in. It is also a lot easier at red lights without a top bar.

The bike is indeed solid and heavy at 60 pounds. I wouldn't buy this if I needed to drag it up any stairs. But sometimes this is a feature, not a bug; it feels very steady as you ride and soaks up the terrain. The front fork shock absorbers really do their job. The other day while riding in the rain I couldn't avoid potholes because I couldn't see what was happening under all the water, so just drove straight through everything. The bike just ate it all up.

Carrier on bike

A good place for my War on Cars sticker/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Everything about the bike is heavy and solid; the steel in the carrier is so thick that my panniers wouldn't clip on. I bought a new bag that fastens on with Velcro, but I don't use it very much because it is seems so easy to steal.

Three locks on my bike

Three locks on my bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Theft is, in fact, my biggest worry. This is an expensive bike, starting at US$2,500. A lot of bikes get stolen in Toronto and the police don't care much, so you are pretty much on your own. That means being really careful about where you park, and using lots of locks; I have an Abus D-lock and a folding lock that I use all the time. I also use the AXA wheel lock that comes with the bike because I have to; the key stays in the lock when it is open, so someone could lock the bike and steal the battery (same key) and leave you stranded. I would never trust it on its own and wish it wasn't there. [UPDATE: see comments, there is more to this lock than I knew. I love comments.]

lamp post at Marriott

Don't lock your bike to a Marriott lamp post/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We also need a lot more places to lock our bikes. I was attending a green building conference at a downtown Marriott and there was not a ring to be found anywhere. I locked to a lamppost and as I was unlocking a security guard came out to yell, "You can't park there!" I tried to point out that the Marriott was hosting a conference on sustainability and that the least they could do is provide parking.

bike in tour mode

Bike in Tour Mode/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Riding the bike is a joy; the Bosch motor uses cadence, torque and speed sensors to pick up your pedalling and add to it. You can decide how much you want to add by going through eco, tour, sport and turbo modes. I have found that I ride almost exclusively in Tour; I do not want to be going faster than the average cyclist. I do not want to have less reaction time if someone opens a door or steps in front of me. It is dangerous enough riding a bike without having more speed.

When I first got the bike I was always in the lowest gear, going as fast as I could, but then you have to remember to downshift before you come to a stop or it is hard to get started, and, well, I was going too fast for my own good in a crowded city. I have now settled down, keep it in about 7th gear, top out at about 25 km/hr and go with the flow.

A wet bike and a wet biker

A wet bike and a wet biker/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But I also go with the flow much farther than I used to on the bike, and more often. I don't think about the weather as much; if it is hot, you are not as sweaty because you do not have to work as hard; I will find out soon what it is like when it is cold, but suspect that I can wear normal walking clothes because I won't overheat. I don't worry as much about cycling in the rain; I did it just yesterday in a torrential storm and didn't overheat under all that plastic non-breathing rain gear. The weight and the solidity helped in that I didn't feel blown around by the wind.

I have used it to go almost everywhere; I have only driven in the city twice since I got the bike, to a Passive House conference at the edge of town. The problem now is that I have become a very nervous driver; I don't like going out at night and don't like the highway, and when I don't ride the bike I am taking transit far more than I used to. One evening after the Passive House conference a few of us were going downtown for dinner; I asked someone else to drive us there because I was so uncomfortable doing it. The other night, I took a long transit ride to a meeting at a hotel in the suburbs (and a cab home) because I didn't want to drive in a rainy rush hour. I now actively dislike driving, getting stuck in traffic, complaining about all the jerks on the road, worrying about being a jerk on the road. As far as I am concerned, this bike ate my car.

The only bike at a boomer show

The only bike at a boomer show/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

On sister site MNN I write about baby boomers, so I recently rode down to a show for so-called Zoomers. I was kind of surprised to see that I was the only person who rode a bike down there, and more surprised to see nobody was exhibiting them. E-bikes are made for aging baby boomers who want to stay active, keep fit, and get out. But they have to feel safe if they are going to do it.

I am very fortunate to live relatively close to downtown, near some of the few bike lanes in the city, and really close to good transit, so I have a lot of options that others do not. But it wouldn't take much to make this work for everyone in this or any city; as I noted before, three things are needed for the e-bike revolution: Good affordable bikes, safe places to ride, and secure places to park. If we invested in that, e-bikes could take a lot of cars off the road and a lot of pressure off the transit system.

As Henry Grabar recently noted, "No technology holds as much promise as the humble bicycle—especially when we include its newfangled, electrified cousins—to solve the geometry problem that is getting people short distances around a big city." We don't need no flying cars. Just give us a place to ride, and watch e-bikes eat everything.