Let’s stop even talking about e-bikes being “cheating”

Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter) Transportation / Bikes August 30, 2017

© Riide

It’s been going on for years. April wrote in 2014 that many people think an e-bike is cheating. Sami wrote “I remember many cycling enthusiasts scoffing: “It’s cheating.” But so much has happened in the last few years that this idea should really be relegated to the dustbin of history. I have written about this before:

..there are places where e-bikes have a real role to play; in cities like Seattle with lots of hills; for people who have really long commutes; or possibly, for people who are pretty sedentary and would have trouble switching from a car to a bike for commuting to work.

I would extend that now to say that e-bikes have a role to play everywhere. In the last few weeks there have been a series of articles about how they are changing lives, changing the way people get around.

Citibikes at Grand CentralCitibikes at Grand Central Station/CC BY 2.0

In the New Yorker, Thomas Beller discusses the electric bike conundrum. He starts with a cycling friend who says “It’s a cheat!” and then admits they work for many people, if not him just yet.

“There is this one hill just before the G. W. Bridge that is a good six-degree grade, and it goes for half a mile,” he told me. “If you commute to Manhattan on your bike, you have to find a way to get up that hill. A lot of people are just not willing to commit to that much exercise on their way to work.” Recently, though, he has noticed a lot of people cruising effortlessly up the hill on electric bikes. “It’s a purely pragmatic decision for them,” he said. “It’s just a much cheaper and faster way of getting to work than a car. So they use an electric bike.”

He also talks to a bike advocate who makes a very good point, comparing it to getting gears on a bike, that it is all about making moving easier.

How do you deal with technology and the frailties of being a human being? Bicycles are mechanical augmentation of walking, really. It gets pretty ethereal—why is it bad to have a motor when you are already using gears? Who gives a sh*t if you are using a motor?

Read it all in the New Yorker.

Electric bicycle EVELOEVELO/Promo imageFrom Should you buy an electric bike? Your questions answered!

In the Guardian, Philippa Perry writes Why I’m proud to ride an e-bike. She gets right to the point:

The idea of power-assisted cycling seems to exasperate some people. When I talk about e-bikes, I hear: “It’s cheating!” and “The point of cycling is exercise.” It’s not cheating because we are not racing, life is not a competition and neither is going to the shops. Nor does it mean you don’t exercise on an electric bike – you still have to pedal – it’s just that your pedalling can be assisted when the wind is against you or you need help up a hill.

She is talking about pedelecs, which are what electric bikes are in Europe. They have no throttle but give you a boost when you pedal, are limited to 250 watt motors and have a maximum speed of 15.5 MPH, all of which I think North American e-bikes should be limited to as well; it really is necessary if they are going to play nice with bikes in the bike lanes. (Derek will probably disagree; he keeps showing these monsters)

Philippa also notes how e-bikes are great for all kinds of people, and collected some great quotes:

“Since getting his electric bike my 80-year-old dad has been given a new lease of life”; “I live on the South Downs – I’d have to use my car far more often if I didn’t have one”; “All the rage here in hilly Oslo, especially for hauling kids and bulky goods”; “Perfect for cobbled, windy Edinburgh”; “As an ex-athlete with knackered knees, I need the electric bike for hills I could not otherwise do”; “On my e-bike I can keep up with my fitter friends so we can ride together”; “Good for the days I would’ve opted for the car because too tired to go on my regular bike”; “If we didn’t have one, we’d have to have two cars”; “I’ve got a walking disability and the electric bike means I can get out.”

But she does it because it’s fun. More in the Guardian.

faraday side© Faraday bikesFrom What’s the perfect urban electric bike?

Behind the paywall in the Financial Times, David Firn writes about How an e-bike can ease the return-to-work commute.

He normally uses a regular bike to get to work at the pink paper, but tried out an e-bike this summer because “London gets hot enough to make me wish I arrived at work a little fresher.” He is also on a legal Pedelec, so has to work a little.

Did it take the sweat out of summer commuting? Well I would be lying if I said I arrived at work dry, I was doing some of the work, after all. Despite a bit of a glow, however, I definitely was not too damp in any of the wrong places. That left me with just one question: is an e-bike cheating? The answer is: I don’t care. I may have burnt fewer calories, but I am sure it was offset by a boost to my endorphins and that is always the best way to start a day in the office whatever the season.

Actually, studies have found that cyclists who switched to e-bikes didn’t burn a whole lot fewer calories; they often just went faster. See Riding an Electric Bike is NOT Cheating. Here’s the Data to Prove It.

me on boarI’m on a Boar/CC BY 2.0

When I tested a Boar electric fat bike, I used it to go a lot farther. I wrote:

Before this test drive I would have flat out dismissed a fat-tired e-bike for city use. But as we age and those hills seem to get longer and higher, and as our cities get more congested with cars while every parking lot sprouts a condo, I can see this being a viable option for a lot of people, young and old. And even Mikael at Copenhagenize sees a role for e-bikes among older users, noting that in the Netherlands, the average age of an e-bike rider is over sixty.

E-bikes are getting better every day as batteries improve and more companies pour into the market. They let people ride longer and more comfortably in hot and cold weather. They are great for cities if they actually get people out of cars, which anecdotally appears to be happening. They are most definitely not cheating.

guy on scooterGuy smoking joint on electric scooter with loud boom box playing old heavy metal music/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Again I will make a plea for changing the rules to ban these electric scooters that are too fast and too big to be in the bike lanes. The Europeans have it right with their pedelec rules, where nobody really cares if it is electric- just get out and ride.

Build Your Own Mobility Hub: 7 Lessons for Cities from Bremen, Germany

By June 16, 2017News
Michael Glotz-Richter first came upon the idea of integrated mobility hubs nearly two decades ago, when looking for new solutions to reduce the number of cars on the road in Bremen, Germany and reclaim street space for other uses.

Mobility hubs—a new idea then, and still far from common today—combine multiple modes of transportation together in one physical location, often clustered around a high-frequency public transit stop. Typical components include carshare stations, bike parking, wayfinding elements and universal fare payment via a single smartcard or mobile app.

Because mobility hubs make it easy to access a wide range of travel options for different trip types, they can help to reduce reliance on private autos and support multimodal lifestyles.

As the senior project manager of sustainable mobility for the City of Bremen, Michael believed these hubs could help address increasing traffic congestion and parking pressures. Thanks to his efforts, the first Mobil.Punkt (“Mobility Point”) stations—featuring carsharing, bike parking and transit—launched in 2003, and today number more than 25. The hubs have succeeded in promoting more sustainable forms of transportation, and a recent analysis suggested Bremen’s 290 carshare cars have removed more than 4,200 privately owned cars from the road.

As U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle now work to build mobility hubs of their own, we asked Michael to share his advice and lessons learned from his work over the last 15 years.

  1. Build Around Strong Transit Stops

“Transit is the cornerstone to creating a life where you don’t need to depend on car ownership,” says Michael. At the Shared-Use Mobility Center, we also often describe public transit as the “backbone” that helps to support a diverse, equitable transportation system.

It’s hard to get people to get out of their cars if there aren’t enough alternatives. And it’s hard to support a diverse array of options without transit, which is affordable, serves long-distance trips, and is often used for commuting.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when selecting a site for a new mobility hub, the first thing Michael looks for is a thriving transit stop to build around.

  1. Target Areas with High Parking Pressure

To have the biggest impact on mode shift, it’s also important to target areas where pressure on street parking is high.

“We want to get into areas where people are a little pissed off with car ownership,” Michael says. “The willingness to give up private cars is higher when owning a car is a pain in the butt.”

With the hassle of car ownership acting as a behavioral “stick,” mobility hubs can help offer a variety of alternatives to encourage people to make the switch to more sustainable modes of transport.

It also helps to find areas where a significant amount of travel is already taking place by cycling or walking, Michael says—in other words, where active transportation choices are a reasonable alternative and are able to capture a higher share of private auto trips.

Even though parking may be at a premium, cities shouldn’t be afraid to dedicate street space to mobility hubs. For instance, limited street space did not stop the City of Bremen from taking away even more spaces for carsharing and other shared modes. Bremen has also focused on integrating carsharing into new residential developments, and revised its regulations to allow developers to make carsharing available instead of building expensive individual parking spaces.

  1. Get As Close As Possible to Your Users

“The next thing we learned is that it’s important for hubs to be close to the needs of their users,” Michael says. “They should be close to where people live, or to the buildings where they work.”

To infiltrate into dense city neighborhoods with narrow streets, the City of Bremen developed a second, smaller type of Mobil.Punkt called “mobil.pünktchen” (a pünktchen is a small dot or point). These sites, of which there are now 15, simply feature 2-3 carshare cars parked on the street in parallel to the curb, and work as a complement to the larger hubs. (The City plans to implement 10 to 15 additional ‘mobil.pünktchen’ stations each year.)

According to Michael, when it comes to everyday use, 70 to 80 percent of demand is for compact cars. Vehicles that people use more occasionally, like vans or large sedans, are better located at larger mobility hubs where there’s more space. And since people don’t use these vehicles on a daily basis, they don’t mind traveling a little further to a larger hub to access them.

  1. Leverage Mobile Technology for Wayfinding and Fare Integration

A good mobility hub should help make transfers between modes as seamless as possible. To support multimodal trip planning, many hubs feature wayfinding resources via tablets, interactive kiosks or physical maps.

Fare integration is another important element, and one where Germany – which has nearly 40 different local transit systems all operating on the same fare system – is admittedly at an advantage. (The country’s national railway, Deutsche Bahn, also operates its own carsharing and bikesharing services.)

However, some U.S. cities are making progress on integrating new forms of shared mobility and transit together into the same systems. In the Twin Cities, HourCar users have been able to access carshare vehicles using their transit pass for years. In Los Angeles, Metro Bike Share members can use their TAP cards to check out bikes. And agencies such as TriMet in Portland have been working to develop mobile apps that combine trip planning and payment for many modes together in one place.

Users of Bremen’s Mobil.Punkt hubs can also connect with a call center, whose staff can handle bookings for taxis and carshare cars. Some cities also have plans to make mobility hubs Wi-Fi hotspots, which can help increase access to residents who have smartphones but no data plans, while also providing an added amenity for travelers and helping to support place-making efforts.

  1. Use Mobility Hubs to Promote Multimodal Living, Not (Necessarily) Multimodal Trips

While seamless transfers and first/last mile connections to transit are important, Michael says that, ultimately, mobility hubs should be about encouraging multimodal living, not multimodal trips.

To change travel behavior, shared mobility must be able to compete with the convenience of the private automobile. And that’s hard to do when you factor in added time and hassle from transfers between modes.

“Just go to the needs of the user,” Michael says. “Car trips are generally point-to-point. You wouldn’t normally take transit and then a car, for instance.”

While encouraging connections is an integral part of the mobility hub concept, Michael suggests that mobility hubs are at their best when serving as a “one-stop-shop” where riders can walk up and select a mobility option that best meets their needs for the day.

  1. Make Mobility Hubs Visible

“Mobil.Punkt is well known,” says Michael. “It’s a brand, and it’s also quite symbolic—you are proudly presenting your service. Accessibility and visibility are really important.”

Every Mobil.Punkt station is marked with a big blue pillar and conspicuous signage. To make sure that local residents are aware of new hubs, Michael and his team also engage in hands-on community outreach, including putting up flyers, sending out mailers to neighborhood residents and meeting with local groups and stakeholders.

“The most important thing is awareness, awareness, awareness,” says Michael.

  1. Market Mobility Hubs

The City of Bremen has also employed a variety of marketing campaigns over the years to promote the Mobil.Punkt program. Michael developed a cartoon mascot named “Udo” (short for “use, don’t own”) to highlight the convenience of mobility hubs (“We put convenience front and center, not environmental benefits,” says Michael).

The city has also advertised on billboards and signage near public transit stops, staged an elaborate celebration on the 10th anniversary of the Mobil.Punkt program, and developed a series of promotional videos that show James Bond fleeing a Russian agent via bikesharing and carsharing, while his car-using adversary sits in traffic.

Michael’s efforts to promote the mobility hub concept have also extended to the national level, and even internationally. In 2010, Mobil.Punkt was selected as an “urban best practice” at EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, and was featured in a pavilion display that was visited by more than 1 million attendees.

For more information on mobility hubs, you can read Michael’s paper on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans. To keep up to date about SUMC’s work on mobility hubs and other issues, be sure to sign up for our regular newsletter.

Image credit: mobil.punkt

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