The unstoppable surge of e-bikes

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 142.

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n 2016 an estimated 50,000 electric bikes were sold in the UK and in 2017 around 67,500. That represents a 2.7% market share of all the 2.5 million new bicycles in the UK in 2017, up from 2% in 2016. It’s still a relatively small number of bikes, but it’s significant that it’s increasing when overall new bike sales fell in the same time period.

The UK has been quite slow to embrace the e-bike compared to Europe, particularly Holland and Belgium where 30% and 45% respectively of new bike sales are electric. So, what’s changed in the UK – why are e-bikes growing here?

A quick history

Electric bikes have been a long time coming. The first patents for electric bikes came in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that electric bikes started making inroads commercially. Cheap models would typically use bulky batteries making the bikes heavy and difficult to handle. More expensive bikes would come with lighter batteries that had greater capacity resulting in more power available to the rider, and a longer range. Other developments included torque and cadence sensors which enabled the creation of pedelecs: electrically assisted pedal cycles. Where early electric bikes would be controlled by a throttle, like the twist grip of a motorcycle, pedelecs detect the rider turning the pedals and add power. The electric motor will add up to 250W, but only up to 15.5mph – these are the legal limits for electrically-assisted cycles in the UK (and the law also says that you should be over 14 to ride one).

The main developments over the last ten years, and the reason we’ve started to see such an increase in e-bike usage worldwide, have been in battery technology and the efficiency of motors. Batteries are lighter, and have a greater capacity than a decade ago, enabling much more practical and manoeuvrable bikes. This has meant longer commutes are possible. In fact, it can make bicycle commuting achievable by people for whom previously fitness or time requirements would rule it out. There are now electric cargo bikes which can serve as car replacements for some people. However, it may not just be the technology that’s changed, it may be other factors too.

Pluses and minuses

The idea of electric transport, while not completely mainstream yet, is much more normalised – there are many electric cars such as Teslas and Nissan Leafs on the roads of Cambridge. You can see electric charging points at many motorway services too. This familiarity will certainly have an effect.

Austerity will have had an effect too. People looking to cut down on transport costs have done the maths and seen that electric bikes can now provide what they’re looking for: enough range to make a daily commute easy; enough power to make the weekly shop easier to carry. And yet there’s still enough personal effort required to make it an efficient form of exercise. In all these cases, there are savings of time and money to be made. Bikes are still fairly immune to congestion when traffic is stopped, and now e-bikes make it easier to keep up with traffic when it’s flowing, no lycra-clad tour-de-france pedigree required. With these positive factors, there’s still the minus point of the initial costs.

Current pricing

At the moment, e-bikes are still relatively expensive compared to normal bikes, and it’s the high-end e-bikes that have apparently caused the recent surge in sales. Typical prices for e-bikes seem to start around £800, electric cargo bikes around £2000, with high-end electric bikes going for as much as £5000. How long before we start to see budget e-bikes being commonplace, costing £200, or even £100?

Convert to the cause

If you already have a bicycle, you can convert it to an e-bike by buying a conversion kit. The kits are less expensive than a whole new bicycle, but still aren’t cheap. Typical prices would be £500-900. There is a variety of kits available – some place the motor in the front wheel, some in the back. Rarer are conversion kits that provide power to the bottom bracket – they exist but have dwindled in number owing to competition from ready-made e-bikes with motors in the bottom bracket. Whatever the power delivery method, the kit will contain a motor, a battery, sensors (for pedelecs) and controllers. Of these, the battery remains the most expensive component – it will be around 50% of the total cost of the kit.

Amping up

If trends continue, prices will continue to fall as performance improves and we’re likely to see many more electric bikes on UK roads. E-bike sales will boost overall bike sales and may even start to eat into car sales as the technology becomes more affordable.

This means more commuters, families and electric delivery bikes zipping along the bike lanes. Anticipating this future and building infrastructure for these bikes’ needs is essential to ensure everyone can travel where they want to go quickly, healthily and safely.