Tuesday, June 03, 2008

E-bike, or bust!

In last week's column about alternative transportation, I mentioned my own amazing little e-bike. In response I received a number of enquiries about the availability and functionality of e-bikes. Clearly this is an idea that needs greater exploration.

To reiterate, e-bikes fall somewhere between bicycles and motorized scooters. They are propelled by rechargeable batteries and can reach speeds of up to 32 km/hr. While they are relatively new to Canada, e-bikes make up a significant portion of the transportation mix in Europe (where there are an estimated 3 million e-bikes on the road) and China (where a reported 80 million e-bikes are in use).

E-bikes are part of a group of low-speed alternative transportation vehicles that includes Segways, mopeds and other personal mobility devices that are emerging in the marketplace faster than governments can regulate them. In an attempt to encourage these new technologies and allow time to assess them, several provinces have introduced legislation exempting them from certain regulations, including Ontario. To quote Ontario's Ministry of Transportation,

"New types of vehicles arrive in the marketplace everyday. The province realizes the importance of these new market innovations as they expand the mobility for Ontarians and provide an environmentally friendly way to travel."

As a result, the province exempted e-bikes from licensing and insurance requirements for three years, effective October 2006. This translates into an immediate saving of about $500 per year, to say nothing of eliminating the hassle of getting a motorcycle licence.

My own e-bike runs on two rechargeable batteries than take approximately 8 hours to recharge. Given that this is done overnight, when electricity demand is the lowest, recharging my e-bike generates little or no greenhouse gas emissions.

I initially purchased an e-bike for my daily commute back and forth to work, a round trip of approximately 16 km. In my car, the trip takes approximately 12 minutes. My e-bike can do the same distance in less than 20 minutes. Adding approximately 15 minutes to my day seems worth it for an emission-free and fun commute.

However, I recognize that my 8 km commute is the exception, rather than the norm. With that in mind, I decided to push my e-bike to see exactly how far it would go on a single charge. I drove to work in the morning (8 km) and then took a scenic drive at lunch (12 km). An after work appointment added another 11 kms, and the return trip home was 15 kms, brining my daily total to 46 kms.

According to my e-bike manual, it has a maximize range of 85 km, but given my bikes sluggish performance over the last couple of kms, it's my guess that this is based on flat roads and a much lighter passenger. By the time I limped into our driveway, my e-bike and I were just about done.

My sojourn took me onto major thoroughfares during peak hours, which proved to be an unnerving experience. I utilized my e-bike's designation as a bicycle to travel on sidewalks whenever possible, which kept me safely out of the stream of rush hour traffic. Bumping up and down on sidewalks provided an interesting test of my balancing abilities and probably contributed to my decreased mileage. A strong headwind didn't help either.

The conclusion of my experiment is that e-bikes are a great way to travel short distances when the weather is warm and dry. They are easy to park, fun to drive, produce zero tailpipe emissions and almost no noise. Their light weight also means less wear and tear on our roads.

But e-bikes only provide part of the transportation mix, and maybe that's the point. We have to move beyond the idea of a "one-size-fits-all" solution. My e-bike is as unsuited for rush hour traffic as a 7-seat crossover vehicle is for driving to the corner store for a newspaper. The best solution is a variety of solutions, including walking, cycling or even staying home once in a while, carpooling whenever possible, renting larger vehicles as needed and taking public transit when it's convenient. And for the rest of the time there’s always the e-bike!


For more information about e-bikes, check out:

Segways are another very interesting, non-car way to get around. Check out www.segwayofontario.com


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