Wow. I've just had the most fun I've had since the eighties. And, in the process, I’ve had a revelation about the future of urban transport.
With three meetings to attend, in and near central London, and a journey starting in Woodford Green in Essex, I had a long round trip to make. I was damned if I was going to sit on a Tube for up to two hours, or a bus for up to five. And as for driving, I knew I could probably pogo-stick quicker.
Cycling was the obvious option, to get me out in the fresh air, seeing the wonderful sights of London whizz by. But these were especially important meetings, without much time in between, and I didn’t want to be at all tired and flustered. So I decided to get a helping hand.
Having test-ridden a few electric bikes round small circuits at various cycle shows, I knew these were canny machines. But I’d never properly put one through its paces. I got in touch with my friends at the Electric Transport Shop, and they generously lent me an electric Brompton. To say I felt unworthy of such a magnificent machine is putting it mildly.
The three-gear bike came equipped with a 36-volt battery, tucked away inside a pannier on the handlebars, which was connected to a throttle that powers the machine up to 15 miles per hour, or much faster when pedalling simultaneously. The bike’s range – how much distance it can cover when throttling – was around 20-30 miles. The idea is to try to conserve power by throttling only when pedalling uphill, off bends, or when accelerating.
Feeling like a kid in a sweetshop, I throttled like there was no tomorrow. The sensation was quite astonishing. It was like riding a moped, only, despite the slower speeds, it seemed faster, perhaps because the bike was comparatively so small, light and manoeuvrable.
I found myself grinning incessantly – especially when I saw the looks on the faces of bystanders and other cyclists as I rocketed away from traffic lights much faster than they expected. I declined to wear a cycle helmet, although perhaps I should have worn one. The extra speed made the experience a little more seat-of-the-pants than riding my usual clunker. That said, I actually felt safer on the e-bike. Being able to spirit myself along so swiftly meant I cold slot in better with the flow of traffic, or nip away from congestion double-quick.
I arrived at my meetings totally relaxed, without breaking sweat, and not in the slightest bit tired, despite having burnt a few calories. In terms of the charge cost, my round trip worked out at about 10p. Yes, you read that right: 10p. To charge the bike, you just detach the battery (very easy to do – takes half a second) and plug it into a small power pack that connects to a mains socket. You don’t have to drag the bike indoors or anything like that. The battery charges fully in four hours or so.
The only downside of my trip was that I ran out of power in Tottenham, about five miles from home, and had to pedal normally from there. For such a long round trip (over 30 miles) I should have charged the battery halfway through, which would have been easy to do at any of the venues where my meetings were. Yet, in a way, running out of power made the last five miles even more enlightening. Experiencing the difference between an e-bike and a regular bike showed me how revolutionary e-bikes really are.
Electric bikes are to regular bikes as regular bikes are to no bikes at all. Just as the invention of the bicycle multiplied the energy efficiency of individual human beings to a level way beyond anything known in nature, the electric bike multiplies the energy efficiency of regular bicycles to an incredible new level. Truly anyone, no matter how unfit, could cover thirty miles on an e-bike. And whereas a fairly fit person could ride a regular bike, say, for a twenty mile round trip five times a week, realistically the experience would become draining after three or four working days. An electric bike would make life much easier for regular cyclists.
All of which makes it strange that so few Londoners can be seen sporting these amazing machines.
At this point most bloggers would start castigating car drivers. But they’re far too easy – or should I say difficult – targets. Anyone who pays astronomical prices, both environmentally and financially, to sit in a hulking great metal contraption while clogging up their arteries and going nowhere is clearly way beyond reason.
I’m more interested in how electric bikes compare to a mode of transport in London which often escapes censure: the Tube. The government is spending billions of pounds on infrastructure improvements to the London Underground. When it comes to such news, people typically nod righteously, perhaps mentioning the importance of ‘public transport’.
But electric bikes can transport the public just as well – in fact better! These remarkably energy-efficient machines don’t require large investments from the taxpayer or individual users (a monthly travel card costs hundreds of pounds). And they don’t require millions of people descending into damp, dark, dirty tunnels every day – a humanitarian issue, in my opinion.
Electric bikes offer the prospect of shifting transportation and people above ground, where there’s much less hassle involved. Indeed, if everyone in London owned and travelled on an electric bike, we could shift the principle of a Tube-style network above ground, too. A colour-coded cycle map with corresponding road markings on the streets would enable people to cycle from anywhere to anywhere in the capital by following just a few coloured cycle routes. Such a network would have an even bigger carrying capacity than the Tube, and would be far less expensive to maintain (including initial build costs). Moreover, it would help alleviate some of the congestion in central London by enabling direct journeys to be made around the perimeter of the capital.
I learned loads on my e-bike trip around London. Not just about these remarkable machines, thanks to the friendly advice of the staff at the Electric Transport Shop, but about the future of cycling, and indeed the future of transport, in London. How wonderful it would be if Londoners could routinely ride electric bikes around a network of coloured cycle routes, using a London Cycle Map. The capital would become a more affordable, happy, community-spirited, clean, fun and exciting place.
If you haven’t tried out an electric bike yet, do it now. You’ll never look back. And one day London won’t either.