E-cycle loans boost Cycling UK's Scottish projects

The ‘e-bike smile’ in action
Can e-cycles turn miles into smiles? With their popularity soaring, Suzanne Forup, Cycling UK’s head of development Scotland, takes a look at how loaning out e-cycles has enabled more people to get pedalling in Scotland

I saw my first ‘electric bike smile’ in 2014 when my friend Meg purchased an e-bike to help her get around her local area. Living with ME/CFS (chronic fatigue), walking any distance wasn’t viable for Meg, but the e-bike enabled her to get to the Co-op and her GP.

The e-bike gave Meg back some independence, and the joy was tangible as she showed off her newfound freedom. I could feel the power as I took a turn, not just from the motor, but for what it could mean for people who thought cycling was out of their reach.

E-cycles might not be a panacea for all of Scotland’s hills, inclement weather or head winds, not to mention old age, long-term illness or disability, but they do provide an opportunity for many who thought cycling wasn’t for them.

Cycling UK in Scotland has more than 120 e-cycles that we loan out across the country, mainly found in our place-based projects which are located in rural areas. As well as standard, upright e-bikes, we have e-cargo bikes that can carry children and less precious cargo, plus e-trikes and e-side-by-side tandems that enable people with balance issues, or who need another person to ride with, to get around by bike.

We lend e-cycles to individuals and local businesses, just as we loan out standard cycles and non-e-cycles. Our projects enable people to try out cycles before deciding on a purchase and help them research what might suit their lifestyle, budget and situation.

We regularly hear about the life-changing impact that an e-bike can make, but we’ve also learned over the years about the challenges that remain to put the ‘e-bike smile’ on more faces across Scotland.

woman on e-bike smiling

E-cycles can be for anyone

When e-cycles first started appearing, some of the first adopters were those that felt their hill-climbing days might be behind them due to older age. But the power of e-cycles to flatten hills, and give riders confidence to venture out for longer or in foul weather conditions has appealed to a wide range of our participants.

Some of our first e-bike loans in Scotland were through our WheelNess programme, in Inverness and surrounding towns. It focused on supporting those with long-term health conditions and who were living in transport poverty. The participants who chose e-bikes ranged from 16 to 82 years old, and made the choice for a range of reasons such as health conditions, local topography or their rural location.

Jane* from Dingwall received an e-bike from WheelNess in 2021 and said: “The e-bike has given me the freedom to cycle, the electric bike means I can go further and enjoy the journey.”

E-cycles on a budget

While the initial cost of an e-bike is prohibitive for many on lower incomes, we’ve seen different ways that participants frame the costs compared to other forms of transport.

For example, Geraldine*, one of our e-bike loan participants at the Golspie Bothy, made the leap to purchase an e-bike after she calculated that her journey to work would cost 11p by e-bike instead of £4.98 by car. An interest-free agreement from her local bike shop meant she was able to purchase her e-bike over a period that worked for her budget.

“The environmental issues we are facing is what made me look into an e-bike. It is going to be my mode of transport for work. The cost of an e-bike was a lot of money, so it had to be a big saving.

“Seeing how much I could save per week/day is what helped me make that decision, along with having a longer-term loan to see if I would use it.

“Everything else I then got from riding the e-bike was an added bonus. It’s a pleasure coming out of work to know I’m going to get some fresh air and exercise all on my journey home.”

Really helpful to try out an e-bike before buying. I was very undecided but am so glad I have bought an e-bike. I love it!

Rural Connections participant, Caithness

E-bikes edge out car journeys

Many of our participants take an e-bike on loan and are surprised by the number of journeys they swap, with a long loan enabling people to see how they can fit it into their life.

In an evaluation of our Active Cairngorms E-bikes (ACE) programme, a pilot funded by the Cairngorms Trust, 72% of people who took part said they used their car less during the loan period.

Bill* said: “In the time I had the e-bike I never used the car to go to the local shop once, I made 200 fewer car journeys and saved two tanks of fuel!

“Having the e-bike changed our lives while we had it. It became the norm to jump on the bike to go to the shop and take evening rides around the village and further afield. I will be buying one, as will my wife.”

Despite the escalation of energy prices, charging an e-cycle is a bargain compared to the petrol pump, with some of our e-cycles managing 70 miles on a 35p charge.

As the availability of e-bikes increases, we should see more on the second-hand market, making them financially viable for more people. Innovation in technology means that there is a swift uptake of e-bike conversion kits, giving standard cycles an e-boost.

E-bikes bring the joy to journeys

Our non-standard e-bikes bring joy to everyone that meets them – participants, the stoker (person pedalling), passing pedestrians and people driving past. Our wheelchair e-bike has been visiting different Rural Connections project locations, demonstrating the joy of inclusive cycling across seven remote and rural areas of the country.

Some people who took part in our WheelNess project faced serious health challenges but found that an e-cycle gave them new options.

Tracie* found that riding an e-trike boosted both her mental and physical health: “I have MS [multiple sclerosis] and spinal issues. Cycling has helped my physical fitness but the biggest impact has been on my mental health.

"I love being outside and the impact of regular cycling shows me that I can still exercise even though I can’t walk. I love it! I wouldn’t have this freedom and independence without the WheelNess project."

In Scotland we have ‘wellbeing’ at the centre of our national performance framework, so we’re particularly interested in our participants’ evaluation of the impact of our work on their mental and physical health. A resounding 81% of our ACE participants reported that their e-bike made them happier, which is a real endorsement of the power of e-cycling.

E-bike smiles not for everyone

We’ve also found that e-bikes created challenges for some that have tried them out with us.

Some participants felt concerned about the responsibility of looking after a significant financial asset, others feared attempted theft that could put their personal safety at risk, and a couple felt that the weight and increased bulk of the e-cycle compared to a standard bike prevented them from using the e-bike as much as they had wanted to.

Challenges around secure and accessible storage, routine maintenance, repairs, and battery life make owning an e-bike more complex than a standard cycle, particularly for those on lower incomes or in rural areas where cycle shops are few and far between.

Not least are the concerns about the cost; our partners at Energy Saving Trust offer e-bike financial loans over four years, but that could still be unaffordable for many. Some participants have indicated that a contract service would work for them, where an affordable monthly charge would be preferable to an ownership model.

We know that e-bikes are part of the cycling revolution we need to see in Scotland, but that revolution needs to be accessible for everyone whatever their circumstances.

*Please note that names have been changed to protect participants’ privacy.