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E-bikes are everywhere, and the CBC is on it
They are getting better and cheaper all the time; just take a look at the new Swytch kit.
I recently did 18 consecutive radio interviews about e-bikes on CBC local drive-home shows from St. John’s to Victoria. It’s exhausting, but by the end, I got the answers down pat.
Are e-bikes “cheating?” No, Studies show that while riding an e-bike, you burn 30% fewer calories per kilometre. But people go farther, an average of 8 km compared to 5.3 km on a regular bike, so it all balances out for the individual. E-bikes let older or less fit people take up cycling and make it easier in hilly places.
Is it better for the environment? If it is replacing a regular bike, not really. But most people who come to e-bikes are coming from cars, and the evidence is clear that they are replacing car trips with e-bike trips, a clear win for the environment. And they are better than e-cars because of the vast reduction in the upfront carbon emissions from their production.
Are they more expensive? Yes; you are adding motors and batteries and, often, a heavier frame. But it’s cheaper than a car! Many people are finding that it can replace the second car and it saves money on gas and parking every time it replaces a car trip.
Whew, by the 18th time, I was getting tired of that last question and of pointing out that there are lots of $5,000 road bikes.
I did mention that one option to reduce the cost and the upfront carbon is to convert your existing bike to an e-bike. A popular conversion kit is the Swytch, where you get a new front wheel with a hub motor and a bracket which holds a removable battery. My daughter rides an old Electra bike with a Swytch conversion and loves it; I have found it to be surprisingly smooth and effective. As noted in my earlier Treehugger review, the battery was enclosed in a sort of fabric power pack with a handle that Emma found awkward to carry. The controls were hard to use and at one point a loose connection inside caused it to lose power. Commenters on that Treehugger post complained about this too.
I am pleased to report that they have completely redesigned the Swytch to eliminate these problems. When I was in London recently, I visited their head offices and met Founder and CEO Oliver Montague, and had an interesting ride on a Swytch-equipped Brompton bike.
The new form factor eliminates the fabric power pack and replaces it with a book-shaped battery that easily snaps into the bracket. The controller is now separated from the power pack and is much easier to use. Because it is separated, the power back can be installed anywhere on the bike, not just on the handlebars; this will be useful for those who want a basket.
The shape of the batteries seemed counterintuitive, a flat surface facing front, although wind resistance on an e-bike is not a major consideration. Oliver noted that it could have been a boxy shape, demonstrating with a cardboard version, but it was designed this way so that it could easily slip into a bag or purse, which makes total sense. He noted that it also keeps it cooler in the breeze.
There are two sizes of batteries available; a 90 Wh that should push the bike 15 km and a 180 Wh good for 30km. I asked why he offered the small one and learned that lithium batteries are subject to severe restrictions on shipping; in Canada and the US, 100 Wh is the limit at which point they are considered dangerous goods. You can even take the small one on an airplane, although I suspect they will look at you closely. Oliver said this made a very big difference in the sale price of the units.
But the biggest difference is that it is a solid, sealed battery without switches or complications. I asked Oliver why it didn’t have a light on the front like the old one; he said he was doing everything he could to reduce the number of connections, the complexity and the chance of failure. This makes sense; everything about the new design seems better. The Swytch has an important role to play. It helps reduce the cost of e-biking and the serious problem of theft; nobody is going to touch my daughter’s old Electra sitting there without a battery.
E-bikes basically let more people ride, more often, for greater distances, in more places, in more varied weather. As I told the CBC, e-bikes are serious transportation in cities but in particular for suburbs, with their longer distances and fewer alternatives. And from the Swytch at one end to the cargo bike at the other, there are now all kinds of options.