Days 33 & 34 of 365 Days Of Low Carbon Living: the story of how I finally managed to try travelling by electric bicycle within my city (as distinct from a short pedal around a carpark or a patch of grass) – and what my experience was like.
Many years ago, my bike-mad then-partner introduced me to electric bicycles. We were very keen but lacked the funds to purchase one (even though saving money was one of our motivations). At that stage, I seem to recall that they were classified as motorcycles, with all the regulations and requirements that go with that.
Several years later, I went to a session to try out the next generation of electric bicycles. It had been organised by a local grassroots sustainable living action group.
I had great fun riding in the small suburban park. I could go a lot faster with a lot less effort than ‘normal’ bicycle riding.
I decided then and there that riding an electric bike is a great way to travel locally when riding a standard bike is not really an option because I find it too hard, I have too far to travel and/or I don’t have time.
Then I wondered what I would do if I got a punctured tyre or broke down: the e-bikes were too heavy for me to lift onto a bus or into a cab, and my children were small and I was the only car driver at the time so I would have no-one to come and help rescue me.
So I put on hold my goal of having an electric bike to ride.
A few years later again, I came across the same electric bike supplier at a local sustainable living festival.
There I learned that I could convert a bike that I already owned. It would be much cheaper than buying a new electric bike, I would be using my own bike (which was much lighter and would mean much less cost to me than a standard electric bike) – and the mechanic who could do it for me could also repair my bike (which it sorely needed after a few years of not being used). Here also was a great opportunity to also fix a couple of things that had been niggling me for years on both my bikes (like the saddles not being quite right for me)!
So I promised myself that I would get both of my bicycles fixed up and one of them converted to electric.
It would be a great Christmas present to me. That timing would allow me to get used to riding my new e-bike over the quiet summer holidays, meeting much of transport needs while treading lightly on our earth and getting fitter at the same time.
But I was very busy (and have been for the last 3 years). So then it was going to be my next birthday present to myself…and then the next.
Then late last year, the local sustainability group organised a bulk buy that would enable discounts – including for bike conversions. (Their previous bulk buys only applied to new electric bikes.)
The extra incentive was there – and I put the deadline in my diary.
And now I have finally got around to making my intention a reality.
What I did
The first thing I did was to make an appointment with the electric bicycle business and its bicycle mechanic. I knew my situation was complex and needed time to discuss the issues and work through options. In particular, I wanted to know which bike would be best for me to convert. And there was the long-standing issue of getting saddles that actually suited me as well as making sure that my ‘new’ bike had handlebars that suited me (they are too wide).
Next was getting the bikes there.
That in itself was a major exercise that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say it involved a lot of muscle power and getting hands dirty.
It also involved a bit of a shock: after clearing away the cobwebs to reach my old bike, I discovered that it was in much worse shape than when I last saw it about a year ago. Hopefully, though, the basics were still fine and it would not need much repair than when I took it to be repaired several years ago. (At that time, I was really short of cash and was advised that it would be cheaper to buy a new bike – hence why I now have two.)
After cheerfully unloading my bikes and putting the bike carrier in the boot, the salesperson and I discussed options.
Could I use my own bike?
There were a few things I hadn’t thought about, for example:
- The way some bicycles are constructed makes them unsuitable for off-the-shelf conversion to electric – and the stem (where the handle bars join the main frame) of my old bike is in that boat.
- Adding an electric motor and battery adds considerable weight to a bike – and would make my newer bike too heavy for me.
- They don’t usually convert cheaper bikes.
Hmmm. Even more complicated than I thought.
So we started looking at new bikes, with their different features, handlebars and saddles.
An electric tourer? It wold be lighter but it was considerably more expensive than the other bikes and would need further modification for me.
Then both the salesperson and I had the same idea at the same time: what about a folding electric bike? It was lighter than a standard e-bike. It could be put inside a car or car boot (with help from the wheels) instead of having to be lifted up onto a bike carrier. And it could also be put on a bus’s bike rack.
So I had a little ride around the nearby park.
This little bike was easy for me to get on and off because of its step-through design. And the gears and motor were even easier to use than previous e-bikes I had tried.
When I returned, the mechanic had arrived.
He basically said my old bike was in such a poor state that it would either be expensive to have repaired by most professional bike mechanics or it would be ‘a labour of love’…assuming the frame and handlebars were not too far corroded.
I was sad about my old bike (and angry at myself for neglecting my bike for so long – after all, it was my first major purchase with hard-earned money and I had many fond memories of using it).
But there it was, in stark reality: the consequences of that neglect was evident in the form of a lot of corrosion, and that meant, as the mechanic pointed out, that my dear old bike was clearly already on the way to returning to the earth. (In fact, it was so bad that he thought my bike had been sitting outside at the coast, instead of inside a shed with a paved floor a long way inland and away from the coast’s moist and salty air.)
If the frame and handlebars were not too far gone to have the rest of a bike built around it, repair would take a long time (read expensive, if a standard bike mechanic were employed, and at very least ‘a labour of love’).
All that meant that my decision for an electric bike for travel suddenly became simple:
- check the folding e-bike for travel on two of the main routes I plan to use it on (the company lends bikes to try out free for two days to help with decision-making) and then, if it is suitable, buy it – even though it will cost me more than I was budgeting for
- sell my ‘new’ standard bike, or keep it for non-electric riding when I am fitter
- study the sub-surface corrosion on my old bike to see how deep it is before deciding whether I will pursue a labour of love restoration.
I felt a lot lighter.
The next step was being shown how to fold and re-assemble the electric bike, make sure I could do it myself, and load it into the car. It was still pretty heavy and awkward – I wouldn’t carry it more than a metre or two – but a lot lighter and easier than other bikes. We put it on the back seat, so I could then take my time putting the bike carrier back on the car and putting the bikes I currently own back on it – unrepaired.
The first trial ride
Finally, I was able to try rides I had been imagining for a long time!
For my first trial ride, I wanted to visit a friend three suburbs away. I have several friends and meetings there and it is a high priority trip for me to try out.
- Driving takes about 10 minutes, but is expensive in terms of my contribution to climate damage, air and water pollution, traffic (and thus the need for road space), and fuel and maintenance costs (because the engine does not warm up).
- Although all my destinations there are very close to a bus, in recent years it is really awkward to get there by bus – because there is no longer a cross-suburb route, it takes 2 buses: one towards the CBD and the other back out to the nearby suburb.
- By the time a cab or share-ride arrives, I could have driven there without any extra expense for me (given that I own a car).
- Walking is generally out of the question in our current society and with my current level of fitness: it would take about 1 1/4 hours to get there and longer back (because it is generally up hill and I would be more tired on the return journey).
I eagerly hopped on. This is the view of the front of the bike just before I set off.
The start of my ride was a little up hill, so I put it in first gear for both foot and electric power. As I crossed the street the motor kicked in and it was easy.
Then a couple of turns up pretty steep streets. On a non-motorised bike I find them ‘challenging’, especially if I am a bit low on energy.
So what was my reaction to those first few minutes riding uphill on the e-bike?
Fun and freedom! It was incredible, like I was a child riding around town again, and it took me by surprise.
The e-bike took all the hard slog out of riding. Here once more was all the good things that go with riding a bike.
I continued my along major interconnecting streets to my friend’s place. The route was undulating but more downhill than up on the way there.
On the way back, long up-hill sections of single carriageway that I would previously not have contemplated riding I was now easily managing. Even the car drivers were polite, waiting behind me until the other side of the fairly narrow road was clear for overtaking – something I had not expected, based on my past experience of local drivers.
The result was clear: the electric bike opens up cycling as a way for me to get exercise and have a low carbon method of transport at the same time. Very time efficient and light upon the earth.
The round trip was about 13km and took 20-25 minutes each way.
Surprisingly, although I had been pedalling nearly the whole trip (some of it quite vigorously), my thighs didn’t have that pumped feeling that comes after riding a standard bike – so I obviously hadn’t been working that hard.
My knees, however, knew that I had been pedalling. The next day my bum did too; even though the saddle was a good fit (much wider than my old ones), it was still hard.
I was also reminded of how much more you see (and feel) of the road on a bike compared with in a motor vehicle: all the uneven and broken paving and every bump. Negotiating those hazards and experiencing the jarring bumps took some of the pleasure out of my ride.
The second trial ride
The next day I took my second trial ride, this time to my gym. It’s about 10km away but I don’t like driving there for similar reasons to my previous trip.
This time, as well as having a longer trip I was going to try riding along major roads. The nature of my destination meant that it is almost impossible to get there any other way, without going a long way out of my way.
The two main options for routes both involve 3-lane dual carriage-ways for most of the distance. I chose the flatter one with a nearly continuous bike lane.
Although I was very familiar with the possible routes as a result of travelling in motor vehicles, I carefully studied maps and satellite pictures for the best route. I was aiming for a simple route that would maximise continuity of bike lanes and quieter streets and avoid busy uphill curves without bike lanes.
Being a weekend, the traffic would be much lighter and so, hopefully, the trip would be less daunting on the bits where I would be in the most potential conflict with cars, for example:
- a ‘slip lane’ between two on-road bike lanes – the road engineers have said it is too narrow to include a joining bike lane and they have not taken up my suggestion to widen it
- a narrow on-road bike lane
- an 80km/h road with a bike lane that crossing off-ramps and on-ramps
To be more visible, I decided to wear my high-visibility vest:
I would, of course, be wearing my helmet. After all, as well as reducing any damage that might occur to my head, it is the law.
For physical comfort, I also decided to add my old seat pad to the saddle, to cushion my bum (which was a little tender after the previous day’s ride). This was on top of the cycling gloves I have been using in recent years to cushion my palms from handlebar pressure and bumps in the road.
So off I went.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the uneasy feeling of having insufficient high gears to be able to pedal at speed downhill and on the flat without feeling a loss of control because of no resistance (even without help from the motor). I concluded that was the trade-off of having small wheels and a simple gear system – excellent for going up hills but not so good going down. Still, I consoled myself, even with cars there are trade-offs – and I would rather have the help going up hills and just freewheel and go more slowly down hills and on the flat.
I handled the ‘slip lane’ well.
Having already taken up position in the centre of the lane, I checked for cars behind me before entering the slip lane. And I was lucky that I didn’t have to stop for any traffic on the road I was entering.
Next was the narrow on-road bike lane.
I was glad for the light traffic and the 1m minimum passing distance that is now required where I live.
I was not impressed, though, by the poor state of the road surface in much of it. The combination of the paving being higher than the gutter (creating a lip) and the uneven edge and surface of the paving at the in the bike lane effectively reduced its width from about 60-75cm to less than 30cm. Now I was even more glad for the light traffic, the new passing laws, my safety vest and my prior cycling experience (limited though it is when it comes to traffic).
Then there was the high speed road.
Here I was pleased to see that the bike lane was generally very wide, 2-3m. However, it is narrower at the most dangerous points.
Then there is the issue of how to ride the green-coloured bike lane as it crosses an on- or off-ramp. Looking behind gives me a bit of an idea of vehicles that might be approaching so I can try to time my crossing for when there are no cars. However, they go much faster than me so it is a bit of a lost cause and I find you just have to hope that they will do the right thing. (This is why I would never ride these roads in peak hours.)
So the cars come up to me as I am crossing the ramp…and refuse to slow down and give way – even though motorists must give way to a cyclist in the coloured bicycle lane (according to the law in the Australian Capital Territory). Instead, the motor vehicles overtake me (somewhat circuitously), which sets up a potential crash situation: me crashing into them if they cut it too fine and I cannot slow down in time, or them miscalculating their change of directions at speed and losing control.
I survived, glad that I had enough experience to know what to do – including the importance of not being a nervous rider.
Next was unexpected closure of a path at the second last intersection. A little backtracking and some extra manoeuvring to get back on track.
Finally, I arrived at the gym, and used my bike lock to secure my bike to the bike rail.
I was pleased to see two other people had ridden. I was also pleased that I had already done my warm-up while travelling there (without breaking into a sweat)!
When I came out, the other bikes had changed – and that made 2 of us that had ridden on electric bicycles!
I was glad that I had tried the trip to the gym. Yes, I can do it, but the roads I have to travel on don’t make it a pleasant trip. I will stick with going to the gym by bus, or car when that is not possible. (Bonus, my gym is moving closer to the bus stop!)
And I decided to order myself one of these great bikes to own. I can’t wait!
After my experience with these little trials, I now need to add a new reason to my list: fun!
And freedom – from all the costs and hassles of running a car or using buses, cabs, share rides and car pooling.
Then of course there are the very serious reasons.
Transport is an increasingly large proportion of the pollution that damages our climate and air quality. Riding a bike means less fuel used…which means less damage to our climate. (And my electricity is all from the clean renewable energy – as will all electricity in Canberra by 2020, so there is no climate or air pollution from that.)
I want to see if I could live without a car – and reap the financial, health and other benefits. (Ownership alone costs me about $2000 per year; running costs are on top of that.)
A key to most of us improving our health is undertaking more physical activity. Dietary and lifestyle changes are leading more and more of us to become overweight and unfit, with all their consequences. (Some of the consequences related to climate change are more discomfort during heatwaves and less speed and agility during emergencies.)
I would like a more pleasant urban and suburban environment. Car travel is the least space-efficient form of travel, and it requires lots of infrastructure, which is made from materials that damage out climate and that absorb and re-radiate out heat (contributing to localised ‘heat islands’ ).
The faster we use cars less, the faster less cars will be on the road, so the faster less road will be needed…and the faster our urban areas will become more people friendly (designed for people rather than cars), less expensive to construct and maintain, and less of heat islands in summer.
We need to make rapid transformation to stop the damage to our climate and hopefully turn around the unfolding and accelerating consequences of damage that has already been done.
Think about how riding a standard or electric bike would enable you to travel and get fit.
- If you don’t know how to ride a bike, or it’s been a long time, contact a local cycling association – they are sure to have courses. Or ask a friend who rides to help you.
- Join your local cycling association for a raft of benefits. A major reason I joined Pedal Power many years ago was for insurance cover.
- How could you borrow a bike or an electric bike to see how travelling would work for you?
- If the state of your local bike infrastructure (paths, lanes, surfaces, lights, signage, parking etc) – or lack it – is a major barrier to you cycling or is dangerous or inconvenient, let people know: contact your local elected representatives and officials, write letters to the paper, ring talkback radio, put up signs…
Any change or challenge is easier if you have company along the way.
So let’s embark on this journey together.
- Read my blog every day for ideas, thoughts and experiences for living a lower carbon lifestyle, more in harmony with nature – while also adapting to the consequences of our damaged climate.
- Subscribe to get posts direct to your inbox.
- Commit to taking action yourself.
- Add a comment to let me know you’re joining in the effort to turn around our world so it can remain liveable – and what your experiences are.
- Share with others my posts and what you’re doing – our efforts, progress, experiences and challenges – on Facebook, on Twitter, in conversations with friends, on talkback radio and in letters to the editor.
A problem shared is a problem halved. We’re all affected by the changes to our world so we need to be all in on the action!
Till next time…