If a Bike has an Assist, is it Still a Bike? Electric Bikes and Public Opinion

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I just read a letter to Momentum Magazine that made me really sad. Jim Hughes is spitting mad that bike mags are featuring articles on electric bikes (e-bikes). He thinks electric bikes are not bikes at all – on the contrary, they are just as evil as cars, and they should not be allowed on bike paths. He also thinks that electric bikes don’t “have that nasty pedaling requirement” and so have no health benefits.

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Electric Bikes make Cycling Accessible to Average People

Jim is coming from a good place, even if he is not expressing it very kindly – he obviously cares about the planet. But he’s missing a lot of important points. First of all, the best thing about electric bikes is that they make cycling accessible for more people. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Get as many people out of cars as possible, and create a world where there are so many bikes that city planners will have to design cities that meet cyclists’ needs.

Electric bikes are an incredibly exciting innovation that will ultimately broaden the community of cyclists. This is because they make cycling possible for average people – not just the lean, young, able-bodied, fit minority.

I cycle commuted for ten years, but I stopped when I hit some serious ill health (genetic, not self-induced). I missed cycling, and finally got my doctor to agree to my cycling IF I used an assist to make sure I did not over-do things. I had my trusty Devinci hybrid commuter retrofitted with a fabulous Bionx electric bike kit, and I was off and pedalling. After just over a year of cycling with an electric bike, I was ready to go back to regular biking. And my health problems were just a memory. But I still use my Copenhagen plus BionX electric bike kit to get to work, because I have a massive hill to get over. The difference between me and my co-workers who cycle to work on regular bikes: I do it EVERY day, while most days they daunted by the giant hills, and so they drive in, instead. So I do two hours of assisted cycling, while they do two hours of driving. There is no doubt who is getting the health benefit, and who is causing less pollution.

Maggie (Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist) was afraid to bike after major back surgery. I couldn’t blame her – before the surgery she could not even dress herself, and was frequently in excruciating agony, so no wonder she didn’t want to risk hurting her back again. She dared to try it only because the BionX electric bike kit on my Devinci made it safer and easier. Now she is planning to join me on a long weekend getaway that will require 130 km of cycling, loaded up with full panniers – without an assist to be seen for either of us. During the week, she cycle commutes with an electric bike, because without it, she simply couldn’t do 40 km a day (neither of us is 20 any more!)

Electric Bikes help People get Fit

Electric bikes helped both of us get back into shape, and get fit and confident enough to go back to regular bikes. We are relatively lucky – there are many people who will never be able to get back on regular bikes, because of health conditions, or old age. But isn’t it better that they ride an assisted bike, rather than not be able to cycle at all?

For example, my friend Ron Wensel in Ottawa spent his entire life cycle commuting to work, then retired, and then had four heart attacks. His doctor banned him from cycling because all of his heart attacks happened when his heart rate got over 140. Most people would have given up. Ron did not – he built his own electric bike, hooked it up to a heart rate monitor, and now still does cycle tours all over the world on his bike with his wife – completely contrary to what his doctor predicted! He uses his bike like a regular bike until his heart rate gets to the danger zone, then he switches on his assist. The Ottawa Heart Foundation has had Ron come and speak to them, because he is a model of how heart disease can be treated with sensible, controlled exercise. Ron liked his bike so much that he now manufactures and sells them with his son, under the brand name Pedal Easy.

The assist is only an assist – on electric bikes, pedaling is still required, sweat is still generated, and fitness is still built up. Anyone who has seen Maggie walk in dripping with sweat after her extremely hilly, 20-km commute from work could attest to that.

Electric Bikes are Good for the Environment

Electric bike and a Mustang
Does Jim SERIOUSLY think that my assisted bike is just as harmful to the environment as my wife’s Mustang? Come on …

It’s true, as Jim points out, that electric bikes draw from traditional energy sources. But it’s really not fair to say that therefore electric bikes are as bad as cars. Our electric bikes use so little energy it is impossible to detect it on our electricity bills. It’s a TEENY amount. Is that as terrible as a gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing SUV? I don’t think so!

Research has shown that people with electric bikes do far more trips on them than average people with regular bikes (because it’s easier and less daunting), and as a result, usually get fitter than people who buy regular bikes. So … electric bikes are good for the environment, because people who own them actually use them – while not using their cars.

Electric Bikes ARE Bikes – Bikes for the Average Person

So electric bikes ARE bikes. True, your average Lycra-clad athlete would not be seen dead on one. But electric bikes are bikes that make it possible for people with cardiac conditions, seniors, plastic knees, plastic hips, arthritis, and other relatively less able people to join the great community of cyclists and swell its ranks. And that makes electric bikes something to rejoice about, NOT something to be spitting mad about.

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  1. Katherine says

    I agree Joe. Biking is for everyone and not just for the young and fit! I recently saw two seniors riding very large three wheels bikes. Good for them I say. My motto is to move FOREVER not risk serious injury by overdoing it. Who does Jim think he is keeping people like me out of the bike lanes? At least it is one less car on the road.

    • says

      Thanks Katherine. And I agree with you too. If we want to have more people cycling, we have to be as INCLUSIVE as possible, and not be making rules about whether a bike is “pure” enough to count as a bike! If getting more people to bike means putting assists on bikes, or putting 3 wheels on a bike … why on earth not? Bottom line: ANY kind of bike is better for health and the environment than a car.

  2. myna lee johnstone says

    I have had an e bike for 4 years. As a senior, I can do all my errands and get about so easily as well as feel fabulous about not using an automobile.

    • says

      Thanks Myna – that’s exactly my point. I have seen a lot of seniors out and about doing errands on their e-bikes. It seems to be a growing trend. And as I know from having a very active senior mother, this kind of activity keeps people moving, keeps them healthy and fit, and keeps them out of the healthcare system. At the same time as not producing pollution. It’s all good! I’m so happy to hear that you get such a kick out of your e-bike. I must do some posts in the future about the joys in e-biking. The first time I used mine I felt like a super hero – I still do some days!

  3. says

    Very good response Joe. I used to think nothing of ebikes when I could ride past them easily. Now my body is getting the over 40 creaks, and I see them in a whole different light… the flashing red light of their receeding taillights. Funny how it is hard for us to think outside our own life situation and think of our whole societies needs.

    Dickson Lin’s position about e-scooters is a sticky one for me. On one hand, I like to think anything that makes people move down from a car is a good thing, on the other I wonder how many cars they really displace? Maybe they are mostly sold to people “moving up” from bikes or transit. Bike style ebikes are more efficient, easier to store, cheaper and fit well on bike paths. Even if you never plan on pedaling, the pedals are there if your battery runs out. Is there any advantage to scooter style bikes other than swooshy styling? But maybe that styling might sell to a Mustang owner who would never straddle a bike? I dunno.

    • says

      Yes, I have to admit I never thought of e-bikes at all until I was over 40 and having some health challenges. Now I see it as a question of “there’s a time and place for everything.” For people with health challenges of any kind – that’s a good time for an e-bike. For me, I now use a regular bike most of the time, including long tours – BUT my commute to work includes the incredibly long and steep hill from the Fraser River to Metrotown, so that is definitely a time and place for an e-bike. If I had to face that hill without an assist, I just could not do it every day. Especially when I’m lugging my laptop, clothes and lunch.
      I am also not sure about the e-scooter thing – I am divided about it in much the same way you are, John. Still perhaps the bottom line is that if there is one less car out there that could potentially kill a cyclist or pedestrian, that’s a good thing.

  4. says

    The bike vs. e-bike and e-scooter debate, with respect to who should be allowed to ride in what lane, and on what path, often centers around a formal analysis of vehicle shape, size, width, weight, and speed. To analyze the issue in this way is to miss the most important question of all, the answer to which should solely decide which type of vehicle should ride in the bike lane: is it vulnerable in traffic?

    Vulnerability is what separates us from cars, vans, and trucks, and it is the banner under which we should all be able to rally. By “us,” of course, I mean bikes, tandems, e-bikes, e-scooters, unicycles, Pedersens, prones, sociables, penny-farthings, recumbent trikes, and others; any vehicle whose physical limitations put its rider at risk of a fatal accident with a car, van, or truck in traffic.

    I propose that we bury the hatchet over this debate; electrified or not, we are all equally at risk of a fatal accident in traffic. Our mutual vulnerability, coupled with our compassion for other human beings, should forever answer the question of whether to allow e-bikes in bike lanes and on bike paths: “yes.”

    • says

      Steven, that’s a brilliant analysis. In future the issue of vulnerability will be my yardstick.
      Also, your mention of compassion nailed something else for me: precisely what it was about the original letter that made me sad. It was the implicit lack of compassion for less able people. I feel sad for us as a cycling community, and as human beings, when I imagine fit young guys throwing seniors out of “their” bike lanes, and forcing them to risk their lives amongst speeding cars, simply because the seniors have assists on their bikes. Frankly, in real life I don’t believe that would ever happen. Once people are face-to-face, abstract reason tends to yield to human compassion (unless the person is seriously messed up).

  5. Tim says

    I am young (almost 31) and have been riding on my electric bike since 2005. It is great to see an article such as yours for the electric pedal assist bike. When I tell some of my friends that I bike with an electric bike they say I “cheat”. I ask how do they get to work and they all pretty much drive, so then I ask, “Now who is cheating really?” My electric bike has been great. I have probably had more problems with it than your Bionx, but mine is a cheaper one from China. I did get 12000 km on the battery, which now has 1/3 of its original charge capacity, and now 15000 km on the motor. Yup some things break but overall it is great. I am 10-15lbs lighter than I was when I was 23 and am riding 3000km per year. Riding a non electric bike I am way more fit than my 17 year old nephew (who doesn’t do much sports or bike rides). 38 km per day is not too bad with the ebike. I wonder how many people in the Lower Mainland could commute the same distance every day by bike instead of driving?
    My commute by ebike is also very fast I can get to work (18.8 km) in just 40 minutes. With driving in traffic I would not be surprised if it was more time (Alex Fraser or Patullo lineups), public transit? 35 minutes.

    • says

      I completely agree with you that electric bikes make you fit. They only do SOME of the work – and because we have electric bikes for commuting, we use them more consistently. I am definitely the fittest I have ever been in my life. So it’s quite annoying when people see them as cheating! As you say, so much less “cheating” than driving a car! (In which the only exercise is opening the door :) )

      My commute would be over an hour by transit, but on my bike it is only 35 minutes!

  6. Tom Hammer says

    Great article. I have been commuting on my mountain bike/bionx 350 48 v “hybrid” for half a year now, average 100 miles per week. The battery is getting noticeably weaker, but still packs a punch. The cool thing is, as the battery gets weaker, I am getting stronger. It should be fine for another year or more, so I plan to buy a spare soon (big bucks!). My greatest problem is cars and trucks. They don’t see me so well, even though I have lots of very bright lights, used day or night. Many times I have had to stop abruptly when someone turns right in front of me, from ahead or from behind. So the vulerability argument for e-bikes makes the most sense for staying off roads as much as possible. I don’t try to rationalize my assist to friends who claim I’m cheating. I am pushing 60, and the bionx really gets me out pedaling. The high cost can be easily justified based not on carbon footprint (which is easy to do anyway), but on health benefits. With the ridiculous health care costs these days, ANYthing that keeps you healthy seems cheap in comparison to fixing something. So if I don’t get run over, this assisted biking is sure to help me keep getting older!