My last post got under the skin of some pedelec owners, because they know I am right. They picture that gap between their seat tube and their rear tire and hear my critique going around in their heads. Their chain and seat stays have been stretched to make way for a battery that is going to stop working as sure as any electric can opener, at which point their $3000 bike will be about as covetable as a Vladimir Gottwald designed fifty cent piece.
Another argument has some thing or another to do with hills. A century of whistling as you push your bike up a hill, forgotten, like that.
For the sake of a peaceful life I advise you never to say e-bikes are stupid. I was also tweeted at by the famous* British transport consultant @Phil_PJA who wrote:
How charmingly British to leap to the technological fix as though mismatched cycling had never occurred before electric assist was invented. No husband has ever ridden with his wife on a tandem, carried her luggage, let her hold onto his wrist, or just slowed the hell down so she could keep up. The earth was formless and empty and then god said, let there be e-bikes.
I’m not being Luddite. Sat nav is awesome. It chagrins me, that’s all, when novel technologies that are hardly amazing cause everyone to forget elegant ways of being in the world (and I do mean that as a vague reference to Heidegger). We did it to mortars and pestles, that were so much easier to clean than food processors. We did it to wool that has always been warmer than nylon. We did it to cast-iron frying pans that last a hundred times longer than frying pans with teflon coatings. We did it to cycling when we found cars, and we’re about to do it to cycling again with these stupido e-bike contraptions.
The whole reason we’re having this cycling Renaissance is not so we can keep up with the cars. It is so we can go a lot faster than cars. Cars can go incredibly fast, out there in the middle of nowhere. Bring them all to the one place though, some place like a city, and they grind to a halt.
The real speed of the bike, is the speed at which it negotiates tight situations. Add the weight of a motor and the unpredictability of a power source other than that of the body, and you are making the bike more like a car. In the tight situations that are at the heart of the urban mobility problem, electric motors just slow cycling down, making it clumsy, twitchy, heavy, with greater inertia, and dangerous. We’re already seeing accident rates soaring among elderly Dutch riders of pedelecs.
The age of the e-bike that its apologists are witlessly summoning, will also see a major opportunity going to waste. One of the beneficial things to have come from the machine-age, and the age of big finance, is our ability to build really big buildings quite cheaply. Airports and shopping centres are just the beginning. The streets of the future will be undercover, in new cities and districts without any history, and thus far no names. If we play our cards right at the moment, and emphasise the agility and civility of cycling among pedestrians, rather than emphasising the speed of the bike as something that can be used in environments designed for the car, we will be winning a place for the bike in the future, indoor, agora.