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Are e-bikes the product to give cycling universal appeal?

As the UK’s largest all-electric bike-share scheme settles in at Derby, Rhodri Clark reports on the growth of the e-bike and the opportunities and challenges it presents

03 August 2018
Derby’s bikeshare scheme features 
200 e-bikes
Derby’s bikeshare scheme features 200 e-bikes
Pedal and Post uses e-bikes to redistribute bikes for two of Oxford’s dockless bike hire schemes
Pedal and Post uses e-bikes to redistribute bikes for two of Oxford’s dockless bike hire schemes


Proponents of cycling have long argued that more should be done to encourage a fuller cross-section of society onto the saddle. Better infrastructure is part of the solution but even in cities such as London, where extensive cycle routes are in place, a large proportion of the population continues to eschew the bicycle.

Electrically assisted bikes are making cycling accessible to many people who previously regarded it as too strenuous. Crucially, this includes elderly or overweight people who lack the fitness or stamina to use pedal-only bikes – people who also stand to gain some of the biggest health benefits from cycling. E-bikes also extend the distances that people are willing to cycle, particularly in hilly cities or dispersed urban areas.

There are also early signs that e-bikes could transform bicycle courier services. A cyclist on an e-bike can move a heavier payload than is possible on a pedal bike. This could move cycle distribution into the mainstream of last-mile delivery services.

What is an e-bike?

Bicycles with electric assistance, sometimes known as pedelecs, are pedal cycles with a battery and motor. The motor operates when the rider pedals. Usually the amount of assistance increases as more effort is put into pedalling. Maximum assistance can be three times the cyclist’s effort.

Kits to convert pedal cycles to e-bikes are available from £130 and the most basic e-bikes currently retail for about £370. Many purchasers pay more than £1,000 to gain the benefit of better batteries or motors. Batteries may need replacing after a few years, when a further outlay of £300 or more is needed.

As the market has evolved, battery assistance has spread to folding bikes and even mountain bikes. Some have the motor in a wheel hub. More expensive models have motors connected to the pedal cranks, facilitating maintenance (particularly of wheels).

E-bikes with ‘walking mode’ provide low-power assistance where cycling is prohibited or impractical, a useful feature for people who would otherwise tire when walking with an e-bike (which is heavier than a pedal cycle).

There’s no need to hold a licence to ride e-bikes in Great Britain, where they’re treated the same as pedal cycles – provided the speed is limited to 15.5mph and the motor to 250 Watts. Children aged under 14 years are, however, prohibited from riding e-bikes in public areas. 

Things are different in Northern Ireland where e-bike users must hold a moped licence, register their e-bike and provide proof of insurance. E-bikes are not permitted on off-road routes where pedal cycles are allowed. Legislation to give e-bikes parity with pedal cycles has been delayed by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Last year the Environmental Transport Association, which provides bike insurance and other services, voiced support for a change in the law to allow e-bikes to travel at up to 30mph in the UK. It said sales of such models were soaring in the Netherlands.

Andy Cope, director of Sustrans’ insight, research and monitoring unit, says: “There are some unrestricted models on the Continent that are appreciably faster than the types of e-bike currently allowed in the UK.” Those faster bikes would be worrying if they were to be permitted here, he says.

Living Streets concurs. Policy coordinator Rachel Lee said: “The creation of shared use routes must not be at the expense of pedestrian space, safety or amenity. Any bike that can reach speeds of 30mph would threaten that and should therefore not be anywhere near pedestrians. Any move to introduce e-bikes capable of 30mph should be accompanied by restricting their use to on-road only.”

It’s already possible to ride a 30mph e-bike legally on UK roads, provided the rider complies with the rules that apply to mopeds. The e-bike must be authorised by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency under the Motorcycle Single Vehicles Approval.

The European Commission said in May that e-bikes fall within the scope of the Motor Insurance Directive, and considers that all riders should therefore have third-party motor vehicle insurance. It said member states could exempt e-bikes and other electric vehicles (such as Segways) but only if they have a national compensation fund that guarantees compensation for accident victims.

The DfT says insurance is “not yet required in the UK” for e-bike riders because UK domestic law has not implemented the 2014 judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the case of Slovenian farmworker, Damijan Vnuk, who was injured in a tractor accident. A DfT spokeswoman said the European Commission published its legislative proposal in June, which would “codify” the Vnuk judgment in the text of the Motor Insurance Directive, but the proposal has not yet begun the EU legislative process.

Health benefits

Academic studies are attempting to quantify the health benefits of using e-bikes, which require less effort from riders than pedal cycles do. Last year researchers at the University of Agder in Norway monitored six men and two women of various ages as they cycled two routes, once on a pedal cycle and once on an e-bike. They found that e-bike riders were physically active, moderately or vigorously, for 95 per cent of the time. Their activity rates were about 22 per cent lower on the e-bikes than on the pedal cycles. Participants completed the hilly test route 29 per cent faster on average when on e-bikes.

For a given journey length, physical activity is lower on e-bikes. However, there is evidence from bikeshare operators that e-bike riders make longer journeys, which could involve more physical activity than shorter journeys on pedal cycles.

Further insight can be gleaned from the 2016 Cycle BOOM study, led by Tim Jones of Oxford Brookes University. The research involved older people in Oxford, Reading, Bristol and Cardiff, with an average age of 63.

“A proportion of e-bike participants opted to forgo power assistance (around 15 per cent of the total time) and this made overall physical exertion equivalent to their pedal cycle counterparts,” Jones reported.

The report suggested that e-bikes could reduce safety concerns. “E-bike participants also reported feeling safer riding an e-bike compared to an ordinary pedal cycle because it allowed them to move away from junctions more quickly and to avoid wobbling up hills and inclines.”

Participants also said e-bikes provided opportunities to ride “with a more agile partner or friend”. One particularly enjoyed overtaking her husband when going uphill! 

The prospect of reaching work in a sweat may deter many commuters from cycling. Some workplaces provide showering facilities, but many commuters might regard stripping off, washing and dressing before work as too much trouble or too time-consuming. Andy Cope says it would be fantastic if e-bikes were to overcome that deterrent. “We’re never quite sure of the extent to which that is a real barrier or not. It’s something that’s often reported back in surveys.”

Hire schemes

The potential of e-bike hire has caught the attention of Uber, which bought Jump in April and plans to launch new schemes in many European cities this year. Jump was a start-up business in New York that had worked with Uber to make e-bike hire available through Uber’s app.

Many established UK bikeshare schemes are diversifying into e-bikes, often without requiring additional external funding. Some authorities specify e-bikes for new schemes or expansions of existing ones. Edinburgh’s new scheme provided by Serco will, for instance, feature 100 e-bikes (LTT 25 May). Derby City Council recently procured a bikeshare scheme, operated by Hourbike, featuring 200 e-bikes. This is the UK’s largest exclusively e-bike scheme to date. Funding came from the D2N2 local enterprise partnership and the University of Derby.

A city council spokesman says: “Evidence from other cities demonstrates that e-bikes offer better value and appeal to wider user group, plus data from mixed-fleet schemes is showing that individuals make longer distance trips on e-bikes compared to pedal bikes.” Derby’s e-bikes did not cost any extra for the council, since Hourbike wanted Derby to be its flagship scheme. 

Mixed-fleet schemes can be more operationally complex, involving the management of dual tariffs and the redistribution of two types of machine between docking stations. Hourbike already provides e-bikes in Oxford and Lincoln, with users paying almost double the usual hire fee for the benefit of electric assistance. The booking app informs users how much charge is in each bike’s battery.

The additional costs for operators aren’t limited to the higher capital costs of the bikes. Without charging facilities at every docking station, or if dockless parking is permitted, the operator must routinely collect e-bikes for recharging.

The UK’s first e-bike share scheme was launched in Exeter in October 2016, with Co-bike providing 20 e-bikes at six docking stations, including at university campuses and main railway stations. With the support of the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), Devon County Council has committed to delivering more sites in Exeter and the East of Exeter Growth Point to expand the network to over 100 bikes in 20 locations. The expansion involves docked and dockless sites. The £240,000 required will come primarily from the NPIF, with £33,000 from property developers’ Section 106 payments. Additionally, the city’s IKEA store and the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital will install their respective docking stations.


The relatively high cost of purchasing an e-bike could be a deterrent for many potential users. Cope says: “It would make sense to have grants available, but they’re difficult to administer and make it easier for the more prosperous groups to access things. Designing a scheme so that it helps the most needy is quite a challenge.”

Transport Scotland acknowledged the benefits and relatively high costs of e-bikes in June, inviting applications from individuals and businesses for interest-free loans of up to £3,000 for the purchase of e-bikes. It has set aside £500,000 from its Low Carbon Transport Loan Fund.

In the medium term, growing sales of e-bikes are likely to drive down prices of new bikes through economies of scale. A second-hand market should also evolve.

One of the biggest barriers to greater take-up of e-bikes is a lack of awareness of their benefits, or even of their existence. Tim Caswell, managing director of Hourbike, has come across many sceptics whose perception of e-bikes was “wholly changed” once they had the chance to try one. He acknowledges that the industry has an education task. Where Hourbike introduces e-bikes, it takes them to companies to let employees try them out for free. “People won’t naturally understand the benefits until they have a go,” he says.

Transport Scotland is embarking on a £100,000 demonstrator programme at community centres and other locations, in the expectation that many who try an e-bike will wish to acquire one. This funding is part of an £800,000 e-Bike Grant Fund for councils, colleges, other public sector bodies and community groups to establish pool schemes, secure parking for e-bikes and safety equipment.

The 2016 Cycle BOOM report notes that many ebike trial participants commented on the difficulties of storing the bicycles at home. There were also difficulties with cycle parking areas in public places and parking areas, “particularly in town centres and transport hubs, as well as gates, steps and bridges that were sometimes encountered along journeys – the additional weight of e-bikes compounded these issues. There was also concern about leaving cycles, and particularly more expensive e-bikes, in public places because of fear of theft.”

Cargo e-bikes

In April Sainsbury’s launched the UK’s first e-bike grocery delivery service, using five cargo bikes based at its Streatham Common store, south London.

Pedal and Post, a bicycle courier company in Oxford, has trialled an e-bike on the service it operates, on behalf of two bikeshare operators, to redistribute bikes. The bikes are loaded onto a trailer. Managing director Christopher Benton says: “Without e-assist, it just wouldn’t be doable. The accelerating pressure on the knees and joints would just be too much.”

He now plans to convert the rest of his fleet of ten cargo bikes. “The only limiting factor is the cost. It’s maybe £1,600 for each bike. We’re going to retrofit our old fleet, one by one. We monitor the distance and speed by GPS trackers. The e-bike and trailer is constantly top of the table.” Once converted, the bikes will haul box trailers for general goods with almost five times the storage volume of the cargo bikes. 

Jesse Norman, cycling and walking minister, announced in May that the Government was considering options for reducing last-mile delivery emissions, including financial incentives for the use of e-cargo bikes.

Trailers are also useful for parents or grandparents with small children. E-assist could make this option more attractive because a trailer considerably increases drag, especially in a headwind. 

Should cycle infrastructure providers anticipate more bikes towing trailers? Cope responds: “We need to keep an eye on it, but my sense is that most of the infrastructure we’ve got would work reasonably well with trailers of a reasonable size. We need to ensure that people aren’t using trailers beyond reasonable dimensions.”

He says Sainsbury’s e-bikes use Quietways routes in London. “It’s working in that sort of setting. There’s enough space for all users to be able to do that. It’s not causing a problem.”

Benton predicts: “For logistics, we will see a lot more trailers. With regards to families and kids, I think we will see a lot more cargo bikes with things like back seats [for children] and the Urban Arrow as well, which is a front-loading bike. In Oxford it’s become more a status thing: This is how I ferry my kids around. It’s equivalent to having a Range Rover.”

Charging facilities

Benton reports that his company’s e-bike completes an eight-hour shift on one charge. “That’s easily 20 to 30 miles, with the trailer and extra weight on the back.”

The absence of e-bike charging facilities in public areas may be less of a barrier to take-up than the shortage of charging points for cars, since a fully charged e-bike is good for a full day’s cycling and flat batteries don’t immobilise e-bikes. However, the Cycle BOOM study recorded instances of trial participants running out of charge and having to pedal a relatively heavy bike home.

Facilities to charge e-bikes at home, including where multiple households occupy the same building, may need to be considered by local authorities, housing developers and owners of sheltered housing.

Caswell says e-bike charging facilities may in future be needed in public places. “With the growth in electric cars and charging infrastructure for them, can the bike industry marry up with that same charging infrastructure so that you have areas where you can charge your electric car or maybe charge your private e-bike for a fee?” he says. “It would be disastrous for three or four companies to dig up the road to put in [separate] charging facilities for cars, private bikes and hired bikes.

“Bringing different parts of the private sector together to try to work together is a challenge, without regulations or rules to make that happen.”

Recharging is a complication for bikeshare operators. At powered docking stations, recharging automatically begins when the machine is parked. Caswell says it’s relatively easy to install powered stations in places such as hospitals and university campuses, but not on highway infrastructure.

“Getting power to public spaces [on highways] is extremely expensive and the process is pretty lengthy, with the number of partners involved. As an industry, we’re looking at ways of extending the battery life, and there’s lots of research going into solar charging options.” One possibility is that structures similar to bus shelters, with solar panels on their roofs, will feed power into static batteries for recharging bikes. Caswell says this could be cheaper to install in street environments than a mains power supply.

“It’s a part of the bike share industry where there’s a lot of research going on. How do we manage charging needs and infrastructure? If you’re looking at getting thousands of e-bikes into large cities, there needs to be a sustainable, practical way of recharging those bikes.”  

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