Opinion: The persuasive power of electric cycles

As Cycling UK launches 'Making cycling e-asier' this week, Cycling UK chief executive Sarah Mitchell reflects on how and why e-cycles have the power to change the way people travel

Halfway up the Malvern hills I tried a hill start on an electric bike and had a feeling that took me back to my childhood – it was as if some kindly person was running alongside and pushing me gently on my way. I glided up onto the ridge serenely – a far cry from my customary level of effort.

I have to admit I was a sceptic when it came to e-bikes. I’m fairly fit. I love cycling (obviously). I even love hills, so what did an e-cycle have to offer me?

Well, imagine all the fun of elevation – the views, the breeze, the sky and the peace – without the heart-stopping, sweat-slicked drama of the uphill pull. Imagine you could arrange a long and hilly ride with friends, without being worried about whether everyone can keep up. Imagine cycling back from the supermarket up a one-in-three hill with two panniers full of shopping…

E-cycling still feels like cycling, but turning on a little bit of assistance means that you might use your bike for more of those journeys, especially in the hills, where previously it could seem like just a bit too much effort.

And I’m not alone in discovering the joys of e-cycling. Quite a few years back Cycling UK predicted the rise of the e-cycle. Now we’re beginning to see widespread adoption of e-cycling in all its forms.

Early evidence indicates that e-cycles have the potential to appeal to those who don’t currently ride regularly. Research in Denmark and the Netherlands, where e-cycles are already widely adopted, shows that they have particular appeal to non-regular cyclists.

That’s why they are so exciting: they may present a way of encouraging more people to start riding, and perhaps to start swapping some shorter car journeys for cycling.

This is something we are keen to test, and this summer Cycling UK has started delivery of the Department for Transport’s e-cycle trials programme ‘Making cycling e-asier’.

Working in a mix of environments and focusing on those people not currently cycling, we are exploring whether trying an e-cycle (short or long term) gets people hooked, and whether there is other support we can put in place to encourage take-up of e-cycles.

Loans of e-cycles will, we hope, enable people who don’t usually cycle to try it for their work commute, for shopping trips and local journeys. Thanks to their accessibility e-cycles have the potential to help us all escape from the bind of car use, and even car ownership, and may help reduce the pollution in our towns and cities that is impacting all of us.

E-cycling is of course still cycling – it has all the benefits to our health of getting more regular exercise and can also replace short car journeys with fun rides

Sarah Mitchell, Cycling UK chief executive

For some people, an adaptive cycle may open up new freedom for independent travel. Bike Works and Cycle Projects will be working with Cycling UK to provide e-cycle trials for disabled people on adaptive bikes, to ensure that they have the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of cycling.

Personally, I saw the reality of this at the Wheelness Project in Inverness, a three-year project Cycling UK delivered by loaning e-cycles.

E-cycling is of course still cycling – it has all the benefits to our health of getting more regular exercise and can also replace short car journeys with fun rides.

Cost can be a major barrier to e-cycles. With cheaper models still retailing at more than £1,000 they remain beyond the reach of many. That’s one reason we’ve campaigned for over a decade for help to purchase e-cycles; this could be similar to successful schemes in other countries.

But these days you don’t need to buy an e-cycle in order to ride one. E-cycle rental schemes are popping up in our towns and cities, making e-cycles ever more affordable and accessible.

There are also innovative rental schemes starting up in some areas, providing a package of e-bike, insurance and maintenance on a monthly contract. This means you have all the convenience of a bike of your own without a substantial upfront cost.

There is also the rising cost of other forms of transport to consider. Looking ahead it is difficult to imagine a world where fuel prices don’t continue to rise, and that brings with it, for me, a concern about the impact that has on the lives of families already struggling.

The vast majority of our car journeys are under 5 miles, a manageable distance on an e-cycle (even with hills!) for someone new to cycling. So the bad news about fuel prices may have a silver lining if we are able to offer people a positive alternative or their journeys in the form of an e-cycle.

At Cycling UK our vision is to get millions more people cycling. We are agnostic about the type of cycling but we are absolutely committed to ensuring that we welcome more and more people into the world of e-cycling.

While we do this incredibly successfully through our existing behaviour change projects in England and Scotland, I am really excited about the potential of e-cycles to widen out access and love of cycling to more people in new areas across the whole of the UK.

My prediction for the next few years is that more of us will be saving our cars for those journeys when we really need them, replacing that second car with an e-cycle, and enjoying an e-cycle ride to the local shops or to work.