Cycling: Electric Avenue

Sarah Newey, August 18, 2015

Set to be worth $11 billion by 2020, the electric bicycle industry is booming – and in Bristol we are spoilt for choice when it comes to where to shop for the vehicles.

So how are the so called e-bikes faring in a city where four times more commuters use bikes in comparison to the national average? 

Alistair McHardy, owner of Atmosphere Electric Bikes on St George’s Road in Hotwells, has been working in the industry in Bristol since 2007: “We were at the beginning of it all, and have seen lots of changes over the years. Growth here is never dramatic, but there is a gradual increase.”

This increase is largely due to changes in technology, meaning bikes have become lighter and have a longer range. 

Gary Harris, from Fred Baker Cycles on Cheltenham Road, suggested sales are also due to changes in attitudes. “They’ve become more socially acceptable. People are seeing more benefits towards them.”

But Alistair thinks conditions in Bristol have encouraged more people here to invest in e-bikes. 

“They make sense in Bristol. Not just because of the hills, but because it means you can leave the car behind – there’s nowhere to park here! Why drive when you can ride?”

Many of Bristol’s bike shops now stock e-bikes, but there are also four specialist electric bike shops in the city. 

Chris Moody, manager of The Electric Transport Shop on Lower Redland Road in Redland, has also seen greater interest in e-bikes in the five years he’s been in the business. But Bristol, and UK in general is, he said, “light years” behind places like Germany, Holland and China. While 45 per cent of e-bikes sold in the EU are in Germany, the UK accounts for just three per cent. 

Alistair suggested that this is unsurprising. “It’s because they’re cycling countries, they cycle anyway so e-bikes are much more natural. And they have the infrastructure – we’re getting there, there are some good cycle lanes around Bristol now, but more needs to be done.”

Chris thinks negative preconceptions are also a cause of the small UK market. “The way electric bikes were seen in Germany initially was different to the way they were seen here”, he said, suggesting that in the UK they were initially seen as “a novelty item almost, or just for older people”.

“It’s taken quite a long time for people to see them differently in this country, to embrace them as a utilitarian form of transport.”

The bikes are battery powered, and work by the principle of ‘assisted pedalling.’ In most models, the amount of pressure applied to the pedals determines how much assistance the motor provides, but power can also be manually adjusted. 

“It’s like having all the fun of riding the bike, but without the effort. You can exercise if you want to, but at least you can choose not to,” Alistair said.  

In 2013, 12 per cent of total bike sales were of e-bikes, and commuters are generally seen as the largest market.

“As time goes on the demographic gets much broader,” Chris explained. “I think they’re popular as commuters don’t want to arrive at work hot and sweaty and needing a shower, they just want to get in, sit at their desks and get to work.”

As an environmentally friendly replacement to a car, and perhaps easier to use traditional bicycle, e-bike popularity is expected to grow.

Retailers in Bristol are optimistic about the future. 

“All I need is for everyone to try it at least once,” Chris says, “and I’d be a very rich man.” 

 

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