4 things to hate about e-bikes

Batteries have their place. Don’t get me wrong. Power tools, love toys, cargo bikes used for logistics—they’re all so much better with batteries. But batteries fitted to bikes for one person, when the rider’s own body is a maintenance-free motor? There are at least 4 clear logical flaws with this proposition about which the cycling community ought to be clear.

1. E-Bikes turn the bike path into a road. When travelling by ones own power, slow traffic ahead on the bike path at least provides a chance to slow down and take a bit of a breather. Bikes in your way, going slower than you, are not entirely unwelcome. Hence you rarely see a human powered cyclist barging their way through slow traffic.

By contrast power that feels as though it is free and on tap produces a very different response in the rider of an e-Bike. For him there is nothing to be gained by not going full throttle. If anything his breathlessness will only get worse, from exasperation. So what does he do? He tries his bell, then his AirZound, then spitting.

One of the attractions of the bike path is it is refuge from the pushiness one finds on the road, or even the train. Cycling is what separates us from the animals. With electric bikes on the scene we might as well go back to the zoo and buy cars.

2. E-bike owners can never mature as bike users. Remember your first year using a bike for your transport? Remember upgrading to $50 tires when you learned how much effort you would save by getting rid of the low pressure nobblies that came with your bike? Remember how your trip times got faster as your body got harder? Remember your discovery of hub-generator lights and realising you would no longer be a slave to batteries or charging, but would jump on your bike whenever you pleased! A person buying an e-bike will never ascend to your plane. He will be a stupid darned muppet for as long as he lives.

3. E-bikes perpetuate stupido planning. Suburbs are like cripples who have been living on life support since the day they were born. They need subsidising just to exist. America subsidises its suburbs with a gigantic military that goes out and steals oil. Australia subsidises its suburbs by selling the rights to its minerals to the Chinese. Medium density cities, like London or Amsterdam, can almost break even, but it is high density cities like New York or central Paris that are efficient enough to be net generators of wealth. And you don’t see many e-Bikes in New York or Paris. E-bikes are just another drug in the drip-feed delaying the suburbs’ overdue death by shortening distances that ought not exist.

4. E-bikes are junk. Where a mature cyclist invests over time in smooth running gear to reduce the pain he feels in his legs, thus constructing for himself a bike he can pass to his grandkids, the muppet will compensate for his crappy transmission and bearings with bigger motors and batteries. Within five years the muppet will be putting all of his equipment out on the curb for his local council to dump. With no physical fitness to show for his flirtation with cycling he will return to his fold on the freeway. The maturing cyclist might have thrown out some tires or upgraded his drive train, but he will be on a much improved bike and be more committed than ever to bicycle transport.

Please share this post with anyone contemplating an eBike, and if you know someone with one, do tell them for me they’re a muppet.

GMC-MuppetsOnBikes

Enjoy this glass of cold water thrown in your face? Well then here is an older rant of mine about e-Bikes.

21 Comments

  1. Au contraire, Dr. Behooving, NYC is full of e-bikes ridden by restaurant deliverymen.

    My understanding is that restaurants prefer that the deliverymen ride ebikes because the ebike is a larger investment and thus represents a kind of assurance that the deliveryman will stay in the same job (or at least the same career field). When a deliveryman with a $100 bike gets fed up, he can go wash dishes; when a deliveryman with an $1800 bike gets fed up, he has to lump it. It’s a feature of the capitalist system I believe.

  2. Christopher says:

    It is a healthy debate so here are some contra arguments:

    • E-bikes can provide mobility to people who would have otherwise turned to a motor vehicle so have a positive effect on reducing congestion in crowded cities. It includes seniors.

    • Not all cities are flat, hills and challenging typography can be a hurdle to bike adoption, an e-bike can provide some people with a two wheeled battery power assisted ride as an alternative to a motor vehicle.

    • An e-bike can make a long commute a realistic transport option.

    • Full-power drains the battery faster so e-bike riders would opt for a light or medium setting. Where full-power is necessary, a motorbike is better or an S-Pedelec (with appropriate license, registration and rules). There are some riders who would insist on full-power however the trend in E-bikes is seamless integration, and this cuts out at 25 kmh.

    • In bike congestion in Europe, it is not as smooth as you may expect, faster (human powered) riders want to pass and at traffic lights and stop signs it can get messy – so not just one big happy family.

    • Yes, an e-bike often has a different aesthetic to a bicycle, generally it is functional transport so could also be a comparison been a beautiful Mercedes Benz and a Dacia. They both get you from A to B but the experience is different.

    • Regular bikes certainly outweigh e-bikes in France, though France is a country with the largest e-bike growth rates in Europe. Connecting with planning – dense European cities still have sprawl. Australian cities and suburbs will slowly become denser converting to higher density housing. The hope is that vibrant centers develop and the CBD is no longer the sole central location with the growth of CBD’s. But e-bikes should not dictate planning, so the e-bike pedelec regulations help restrict the capacity and mean that planners can consider them as bikes. Separating and planning for one or the other would be a disaster.

    • E-bike motors and batteries are becoming smaller and more efficient. With the mechanical and electronic parts, how long will they last? How long will the dynamo last, the internal geared hub or the cassette and chain of a regular bike. Bikes have varied lifespans – in Australia the majority of bicycles sold are K-mart (and similar) junk which are worse, and have a far shorter lifespan than your average $2500 E-bike. A classic gentleman’s bike or dutch step-over in contrast can have a far longer lifespan because of the build quality and ease of maintenance and repair.

    To find out more about e-bikes, this is a useful starting point: https://www.bicycles.net.au/2013/05/australianexpert-round-table-buying-ebike-part-1/

    E-bikes are not for everyone. For example, I don’t ride an e-bike but I do feel that they are a fantastic option if it gets a person out of a motor vehicle and onto a bike, or gives a person mobility which they may not have had before.

    Because E-Bikes mean new markets it means a bike push by bike brands for sales – it is now coming on fast and in the marketing sense verges on consumerism or over-consumption. Because of motor vehicle domination/priority in most places across the globe, it is still a better alternative however in the context of your article – shouldn’t be overrated.

    Thanks for raising the topic, it is certainly a good self-check for all.

    • Steven says:

      wrong wrong wrong to infinity and beyond!

      Oldies are being injured on ebikes because they’re tricky things to use at low speeds.
      Hills were built on during feudal times and the age of the street car and car. Give them back to the goats.
      With New York or Paris style densities 6,000,000 people can live within a 15km diameter with average point to point travel times of 24 minutes at 15kph… refer to this proposition for the relevant calculations: http://cycle-space.com/the-velotopia/
      You might be right about “seamless integration” but it doesn’t change that urge to power on through riders ahead if they’re travelling below 25kph—which seems awfully fast given 15 is average in true cycling cities.
      I’m a fast cyclist in Europe (when I am there) and enjoy the breather when I ride up behind slow-pokes. Sure, I’ve seen a few scorchers in Copenhagen and have some mates in that category in Holland. But let’s be honest, it’s the 2-stoke mopeds who give everybody the shits, followed by those riding e-bikes 🙂
      Aesthetically, the ebike is an aberration, having a dirty growth in the shape of a battery and oversize hub.
      If my response is a bit jumbled to your 7th point, it’s because your 7th point was jumbled as well. The suburbs of Europe and the suburbs of the US and Australia should all be united under one flag, and the dense parts of all cities united under another, then we can settle this problem by war. I will gladly bomb the suburbs of Paris and trust my comrades in inner Paris to bomb Newcastle’s suburbs for me. Planning for contradictory modes of transport (cars, e bikes and bikes for example) is like planning for yellow, red and blue dye to make a nice colour when all mixed together in the same glass of water. Venice was mono-modal. Medieval walled cities were too. What could be so wrong with a bike centric city if it accommodated mobility scooters as well?
      I’m not sure many people who are serious about using bikes for their transport would buy a cheap number from K-mart. It would be a choice between a 1K real bike that would get better as parts wore out and were replaced, or what I’m seeing and that’s 1K e-bikes that are like Huffy’s attached to GMC drills: absolute shite.
      Chris, do you have a vested interest you need to declare? I wrote this blog post in reaction to overtures made to me in the past year of so by business people with no real understanding of cycling positioning themselves to profit from the new market. I see some short-term good will come from the buzz… but where are those 1k mopeds now, you know, the ones with the pedals that the junkies all had? And are any of the junkies who bought them still cycling today?
      Sorry if I wasn’t 100% sensible in my response — the internet never flows like a real conversation.

    • Christopher says:

      Thanks Steven, for disclosure I run Bicycles Network Australia (www.bicycles.net.au) which is a cycling community and information site. I provide coverage for all types of bike topics though don’t work for e-bike companies or sell e-bikes, as noted also don’t ride one out of preference.

      The e-bike guide was published following a general lack of information and a number of dodgy brands and operators. It was published online and as an iTunes app (ebook format) for no cost and there was no funding. I should however also disclose I was one of the many who joining community funding for a book titled Cycle Space a few years ago.

      Perhaps you are touching on a problem which will become acute, my observations are that regular bikes dominate and it is the speed pedelecs and petrol powered bikes which I find problematic on the streets (when they think they are bikes).

      In Europe I would generalise to say there are two types of commuters. First is the super-commuter with a good quality bike and often prepared to ride is all-weather conditions, so have the gear and the lights. On the other side are the commuters who ride up a cheap and beat-up bike – often purchased second hand. In Australia there is a popular retailer serving this ‘super cheap’ end of the market and it is about getting on the road and getting mobile for the lowest possible cost. When it is “not about the bike” rather about a convenient transportation option, then it shifts the focus from people who are enthusiastic about bikes.

      For e-bike design, mid-drive solutions are now dominating – this takes away the hub-drive motors and is slowly changing the bike design – it means that e-bikes will start to become invisible / indistinguishable and compound the ‘problem’ you highlight.

      On planning and spaces, it will be hard for me to add too much depth to the conversation.

      A lot of cities however will be interested in the issues you have raised in the context of their understanding of transport and planning.

    • Steven says:

      Bring on those super cheap non-powered bikes for short trips! Salt of the earth! I guess I was thinking more of mono-modal bike commuting that I associate with thousand dollar bikes—about standard in Denmark where the welfare state and insurance means they’re not so concerned about theft. I’m speaking at conference a fortnight from now, stacked to the rafters with battery fanatics who have no understanding of architecture or city planning. That’s because they all live in freestanding houses, god bless them.

  3. Scott Aitch says:

    Very well said. I believe some e-bike buyers think they will pedal the bike and only use the electric motor for assistance on steep hills. The problem is that the sheer weight of the things guarantees that the rider will need to use the electric motor most of the time.

    A much bigger nuisance is posed by the bicycles with 2-stroke petrol motors though. After one goes past, all I can smell is 2-stroke exhaust… the stink lingers for ages. I think the standing joke in the bike community is that the petrol assisted bikes are most likely ridden by car drivers who have lost their licenses.

    • Steven says:

      A bogan on a petrol powered pushy crashed into an old guy walking on a path in Launceston while I was living there. Killed him. Was probably going faster than the cars on the parallel carriageway. I’ve seen plenty of motor scooters going that fast on narrow cycle tracks in the Netherlands too. I go to Naples each year. Anyone in favour of bikes that have motors (electric, petrol, whatever) should go take a look at the endgame.

    • Interestingly CN cities have outlawed petrol 2-wheelers & the quiet, clean electrics are registered. They share the bike lanes & from my observation (but no research) aren’t scaring the cyclists perhaps partly due to to better VRU law. I didn’t see any pedelecs although I eat they are regulated & are legally bicycles.

      Closer to home, fitting a motor to the bottom bracket of a quality bike (Allegro W3) has enabled a friend to keep riding in a hilly, spread-out outer suburb ( I agree it should never have been built), whereas she never thought about a motor when living in the City.

  4. I had one of the first e-bikes in Hobart and boy did I take some shit from the lycra brigade. For some reason they thought that it was their duty to run over the top of me. But then I wasn’t fantasising about taking part in the Tour de France, just commuting to an from work in a city of hills. Happy to be a muppet – preferably Miss Piggy.

  5. Peter says:

    You make some good points. I agree on the potential conflicts of speeding e-bike riders on quiet streets and paths. I also agree with a range of the concerns about people misunderstanding the benefits and costs of e-bikes. But why be so dismissive? There are people out there who make good use of e-bikes. We cannot change our cities overnight. Thats a decades long project. We need to get going with that but also look at ways to reduce energy consumption in a range of ways in the transport sector. I would much rather have a commuter using an e-bike to go on a longer commute than use a car.
    At a personal level, I don’t use an e-bike. I do a regular slow 45 minute inner city commute. I have tried an e-bike out, a good one, and found it manouverable and easy to use at low speeds. They go much further on a charge if you use a pedal assist mode. My brother lives in Hobart. I was surprised when he bought an e-bike because he is fit and does a lot of outdoor stuff. His rationale was that with the hills and his commute distance it made using a bike rather than a car much more feasible and effective.
    So please don’t exclude the possibility that there is a good place for e-bikes. We need to be aware of the problems and deal with them. This makes me think of the proposition that for every complex urban problem there is a simple solution – which is wrong. With transport and urban planning we need all the potential solutions we can find and a nuanced and carefully thought through approach to planning and policy.
    Finally an observation about conflict. The cycling sector is too much caught up in conflict. The male testosterone driven go fast cyclists have been too much a feature of our cycling culture. Let us see more of the slow moving, street / work clothes dressed commuter cyclist who is polite and observes the road rules. I welcome any slow moving, polite and low energy using cyclist to the road network, whether they are human powered or on an e-bike. The biggest challenges are about behaviour and attitude rather than technology and energy source. Please don’t demean people in such a simplistic way. It obscures your argument.

    • Steven says:

      Peter, both yourself, Kathy and Christopher have honoured me with great replies. I’m happy though with the tone of these rants. Each time I write about e-bikes I get a huge rush of page views, mountains of kickback (both here and on facebook and twitter), but at the same time I open peoples eyes to the fundamental town planning regimes that lead to or away from more cycling. Cycling cities are dense and flat. Ours were in Australia, then we followed America up and over the hills with our cities. Anyone with a nuanced understanding of English knows terms like muppet or suburbanite slob are rhetorical provocations. Users of e-bikes aren’t to blame for their actions. They are victims of town planning norms and their own lack of courage to move to a small flat in the city without any parking. Oh fuck it: they’re muppets.

  6. user1 says:

    If these are worst things to hate about e-bikes, then there’s nothing really to hate them at all. Equally convincingly, you could say about similar things to hate telephones (“they shorten distances that ought not exist”), computers (“their users can never mature as typewriter users”), vacuum cleaners (“they’re rubbish”) etc. Most of your points can even be applied to bikes with gears (“they turn a bike path into a road”) or even fenders (“their users are victims of town planning norms and their own lack of courage to move to a country where there’s no rain”).

    And please don’t talk to me about destroying all suburbs and development on hills, as such “world saving” operation would mean material losses incomparable to any war in history.

    • Steven says:

      Witty repartee. Thank you. If cities were purpose built for cycling there wouldn’t be fenders or pneumatic tires, but not because we can stop the rain. We would build roofs over streets because there would be no fumes to be trapped. Once the street is kept dry it could be marble smooth. We could use those wheels that kids have on their scooters.
      More immediately , suburbs don’t need destroying in cities with growth. They just need development limits and new planning guidelines lifting height restrictions to 5 or 6 stories and removing setback requirements from front and rear boundaries. It worked in New York.
      Thanks again

  7. Andrew says:

    1. Is a legitimate criticism. I see the same pushiness on fast ebikes in Australia as I do of the lycra wearing racers – the difference is that the ebike is effortless to get back up to speed, whereas the strava racer wants to preserve all their momentum.

    2. Oozes of able-bodied privilege.

    3. Would only be true, if our cities were designed around the human scale and bicycles – sadly, they are not. You are worried that due to the ebike, planners will no longer care. That may be true, but almost all of them never did in the first place (hence the ugly wasteful built environments that we have now, but I digress).

    4. Many of the cheaper ebikes are complete junk, but this is changing with the euro standards, the Bosch powered bikes are very reliable.

    As you probably have guessed, I have a disability/severe chronic illness. Illness interrupted my adolescence and riding a bike was one of the things I missed most. An ebike is the only way I can ride a bike. Mine has been reliable enough (beyond regular bicycle maintenance) to do 20,000 km on the original LiFePO4 battery pack that is still going strong. The hubmotor, likewise.

    I still have to deal with ignorant people who assume because I am young and thin looking that I should be able to ride unassisted. It must be so nice having a body that works properly that you take it for granted!

    Ebikes get more people on bikes. That is the bottom line and why they should be welcomed.

    • Steven says:

      Hard to argue with that! Nevertheless you have engaged with my salient point, number 3. If there was another way of getting so many cyclists thinking about spatial planning and politics as I routinely do with rants like this against e-bikes, then I would use it. I don’t like offending or seeming offensive. But back to business. Would you be spared the expense of an e-bike and the bother with charging if you lived in some place as dense as Manhattan with much shorter trips?

  8. Architectonic says:

    Late answer, but I would not be on a bike in Manhattan or elsewhere if it were not an ebike.

    If I were not ill, then sure. With a decent metro system and a folding bike you can easily go almost anywhere.

  9. Paul says:

    European Legal and fairly low powered ebikes will get more cyclists on the road. All they really do is flatten out the hills. More cyclists means less drivers and that’s good for all of us. Strangely, Holland, that champion of cycling with its bike friendly train network and flat landscape is turning to ebikes quicker than any other country except Germany.

  10. I’m more swayed by the defense than the prosecution in this thread, although as a new e-biker I suppose I’m entitled to some partiality, even if I agree with half the points in the article. As the owner of a late French automobile (and by “late” I mean dead), I learned that that country’s cars, like its armies, are prodigious surrenderers. Having had enough of repair bills and fuel costs, when my little Marshall Petain waved the white flag for good, I decided to go green on two wheels. However, having run to and from work many times over many, many Jerusalem hills, I decided that I would not last more than a few weeks on a regular bike before ditching it for yet another car. So I went for an e-bike compromise that I planned as a stepping-stone to pure pedal power once I built up my legs a bit.

    As other commenters point out, we can’t flatten the hills or ignore the effects of bad urban planning on our commutes, and this bike has so far met my needs admirably. It has also succeeded in taking another driver off the road, while noticeably increasing my fitness level, and I look forward to swapping it for a regular city bike within the coming year.

    Is it a piece of crap? Indubitably, but that’s as much due to the nascence of the technology as the fact that mine was hacked together by a clan of Levantine howler monkeys who didn’t realize that you can’t put regular bike parts on a 22kg machine and expect them to last. With more time and a developing market, quality and affordability will only rise. So you’re basically stuck with the ebike Borg for the forseeable future, and don’t be shocked to find your own defiant self assimilated one day.

  11. Mike Nomad says:

    “America subsidises its suburbs with a gigantic military that goes out and steals oil”. That is perhaps the most ignorant, mouth-breathing piece of hate speech I have ever encountered on the ‘net.

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