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Push-button pedal power: The growing trend of electric bikes

Reprint from The Montreal Gazette

Christopher Cherry, an expert in active transportation who is studying so-called e-bikes, sat down for an interview with the Montreal Gazette.

Prepare to see a lot more electric bicycles on the streets of Montreal.

Electric bikes are the fastest-growing segment of bicycle sales worldwide and, according to an expert on urban mobility, that could be a boon for local cycling, as many of those who buy electric bicycles are new to cycling.

Christopher Cherry, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee and an expert in active transportation has been studying so-called e-bikes for several years now. He’ll be giving a presentation next Thursday as part of Vélo Québec’s Go Bike MTL festival. Ahead of that presentation he sat down for an interview with the Montreal Gazette. Here is a transcript of that interview, edited for length.

When you talk about electric bicycles, what are you referring to, specifically?

We’re talking mostly about pedal-assist bikes (which provide power but only when a user is pedalling and generally have a fixed speed limit of 25 kilometres per hour). There are e-bikes that have a throttle or a push-button, but those diminish most of the physical effects of biking.

How much physical activity do you get using a pedal-assist e-bike?

We did a physical activity study here, and found that you still consume moderate physical activity when you ride an e-bike, even up and down hills. Most (non-electric) bike rides are moderate most of the time, and vigorous for little bouts on hills. What an e-bike does is take the rough edges off. You still do a little bit of work, which is what most people want to do. They don’t want to do what is called vigorous physical activity. It stays in the moderate zone, like a brisk walk.

So who is buying these bicycles? Are e-bikes luring drivers out of their cars?

In general, the e-bike demographic is in many ways like the conventional biking demographic, except it is a bit older, has a few more women, and the people riding them tend to have higher incomes. There are a number of these people who would not otherwise be biking, and a lot of people are substituting car trips with e-bikes. There are plenty of people who have physical ailments or people who are out of shape who start with an electric bike and use it to get back into shape. But a big portion also use it for commuting.

Why are e-bikes so popular now?

Part of it is because of the prices of the bikes coming down. There’s a greater diversity of bikes out there now, so prices have come down quite a bit. You can still buy a $10,000 e-bike, but there are some in the $1,000 to $1,500 price range that are (dependable). The bikes are extremely suitable for urban environments. They provide almost the same level of mobility or even better than car-based modes.

With the popularity of e-bikes, can we expect significantly more cyclists on the road?

There are several barriers to cycling. E-bikes overcome some of those, but not all of those. They can marginally improve people’s comfort level in mixed traffic because they won’t be stranded between cars. I think good infrastructure (bicycle paths and lanes) is still the most important thing you can do (to encourage cycling).

How do you think the city has to adapt to the growth in popularity of e-bikes ? 

E-bikes are at the forefront of this new micro-mobility revolution (that includes electric scooters and skateboards). Cities have a huge responsibility right now to design for a different cohort of people who aren’t the spandex-clad, fearless, confident bike riders. The type of rider is changing and it’s a bigger, more representative group and the infrastructure has to reflect that as well.

How do you think e-bikes would fare in a winter city like Montreal?

They are robust designs, and battery life will suffer in the cold, but you can charge them indoors. In the winter there is some suggestion that e-bikes could help. I ride my bike in the winter and I’m always cold starting out, but then warm up 10 minutes in, and then am underdressed for the rest of the day. E-bikes allow you to just dress for your destination. You can put on a winter coat and head to your destination without sweating or overheating on the way. If I were bike commuting in Montreal, an e-bike in the winter might make a lot of sense.

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