Get on your e-bike

Electric bikes are becoming more common in Europe and China, but Australia is lagging. Given the number of short, inefficient one person car trips, we have the opportunity to pursue a more sustainable transport solution.

Electric bikes are moving from an occasional oddity seen around town to a growing presence in clean transport in Australia.

Their popularity is increasing because of the rising costs associated with cars, the spread of environmental consciousness and a push by people who want to cycle without feeling exhausted at the end of their trip.  

Though exact numbers are hard to come by, industry sources say there are now thousands of electric bikes in Australia. E-bike sales have spiked in Europe in recent years – more than 700,000 were sold in western Europe in 2011 – and in China there are 120 million electric bikes (2010 figures).

If continental European cities are any example, an Australian city with a strong bicycle culture like Melbourne is likely to experience an e-bike boom in coming years. Some high-end car manufacturers like Daimler and Audi have even come out with their own prototype e-bikes.

E-bikes consist of a bicycle or a bicycle-like frame fitted with an electric motor, either frame-mounted or in one of the wheel hubs. The motor is usually powered by a light, lithium-based battery through an electronic speed controller.

On-road e-bikes come in two forms: ‘pedal-assisted’ and ‘throttle-control’.

Pedal-assisted bikes, which only work when a person is pedalling, have a motor of a maximum 250 watts in Australia that generally cuts out when travelling at 25 kilometres/hour. No pedalling is needed when on a throttle-control bike, which can do all the work for you with a motor of up to 200 watts. The average range on a single charge of battery is in the order of 20-40 kilometres.

The rise and potential of electric bikes as a substitute for car travel comes down to a number of factors. Firstly, e-bikes allow more people to cycle – older people and the less fit are able to get on a bike where the effort of pedalling is reduced. A survey by the British Electric Bicycle Association found more than a third of buyers were aged in their 50s. Riding up hills is made easier, and they extend the distance many people can cycle, allowing more car trips to be replaced by the bike.

When you consider that perhaps the majority of car trips are 30 kilometres or less with only one person in the car, it makes sense to replace the petrol-guzzling motor vehicle with an electric bike. More people are coming to this conclusion.

In cities like Melbourne, bicycles have become a favourite for people commuting to work, but they mean workers arrive sweaty, in need of a shower and a change of clothes. Electric bikes can eliminate sweaty cycling and the need for work-time showering, and batteries can be recharged under the desk at work.  

What’s more there is no need to replace an existing bicycle with an e-bike. In recent years conversion kits have appeared that allow people with a few tools and a little DIY know-how to add a motor to virtually any bike. Some conversion kits come with small solar panels for the solar charging of batteries.

One of the most compelling reasons for electric bikes in comparison to other, more traditional forms of transport, relates to the efficiency of weight being moved. A car, bus, tram or train is incredibly heavy compared with its passenger(s). A small car like the Daihatsu Charade weighs over a tonne, yet often carries a sole driver generally weighing less than 100 kilograms. In moving that person from one point to another, effectively the car is coming along for the ride – at a huge trade off in efficiency. A bicycle or electric bike turns this equation around with the bike weighing a small proportion of the vehicle/commuter combination.

As Australians look forward to cleaner, electric transport, the government would do well to review the current regulations and restrictions on e-bikes. Fit cyclists can push over 800 watts with their legs, yet e-bike motors are restricted to a maximum of 250 watts. Many cyclists regularly travel at a speed over 35 kilometres/hour yet electric bike motors cut out at 25 kilometres/hour. In the US there are no power limits for e-bikes.

Despite this challenge, the future for electric bikes, as a mode of clean transport for people of all ages and levels of fitness, is looking increasingly positive. 

Electric bikes will be one of the features at the Alternative Technology Association’s Electric Vehicle Expo in Melbourne on Saturday, April 13, at Swinburne University. For more information visit  http://www.ata.org.au/news/melbourne-electric-vehicle-expo-april-13/

John Knox is the Alternative Technology Association’s technical expert.