Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Power pedals – the electric bicycling experience

In March, with the promise of Summer around the corner, I was eying up my somewhat battered bicycle and contemplating last year’s resolution to actually use it to cycle to work when the weather was pleasant. Not only would it be better for me, but as the boss of a company with a serious commitment to minimising the environmental impact of our Web hosting services I really should be making an effort to reduce inefficient, short trips in the car.

I am ashamed to say that I failed to do any such thing with any regularity last year for a number of fairly feeble reasons, principally that the two mile journey was inconveniently uphill almost all the way which meant that by the time I got there I was tired, hot and a feeling like I needed a shower! Of course, being a bit more fit would fix the problem, but that would involve even more effort on my part, and I’m not one for taking the hard path if an alternative is available.

On the same research park as us there is a new company called Natural Discovery that offers trips around the Surrey countryside on an electric bike, the concept being that it takes the sting out of the more strenuous parts of the journey for those of us for whom Davina McCaul’s 30 minute tummy toning exercise video is a serious work out! The idea of an electric bike seemed perfect; I could get to work easily, cheaply, quickly and in an environmentally friendly manner all at the same time!

Speaking with the Natural Discovery boys I uncovered one of the hidden benefits of electric bikes; due to their eco-friendliness the revenue does not regard them as a benefit-in-kind for tax purposes, which means that Memset (my company) could buy the bikes and make them available to staff without a tax increase, as there would be with a company car for instance.

They kindly arranged a trial of their Urban Mover bikes, a mountain bike and a ladies’ town bike the latter of which I borrowed for a week. At first glance they did not look unlike normal bikes; the motor is concealed within the rear hub and the battery nestled against the vertical bar under the seat. They were noticeably heavier when pushing, but once astride they felt just like normal bikes, at least until you started to peddle. Although there is a twist-grip which just kicks in the motor, in normal operation it does not get used, so all you have to do is get on an use it like a normal bike. The difference is that once you start peddling, the bike “helps”; the motor kicking in and assisting you gently but firmly. I rapidly became accustomed to my little helper and within minutes was whizzing back and forth really quite fast (10-15mph) but with very little effort – quite delightful!

The real test was on the daily commute though. I would normally wait until 6pm to avoid the traffic, but that should not be an issue so left at 17:30. Sure enough, I was happily passing the slow-moving traffic, feeling confident enough to move out to the middle of the road and effortlessly swish past the somewhat surprised car drivers. It rapidly became apparent that I needed to be a little careful – I did seem to be surprising people by managing to pull away as fast as them, catching them up from behind and overtaking – not something they were expecting from a girl on a bike, so I tried to give myself extra space as I would when riding my motorbike. Enjoying the downhill run home I was mildly disappointed when the motor maxed out and cut off at 15mph (the legal limit for electric assistance) and I found I had run out of gears, so could not be as much of a speed-freak as I would have liked. Hardly a big problem though!

The following morning I made the same trip back, this time uphill. It was an absolute breeze; the normally arduous journey transformed into a pleasant trip. I could still make it strenuous if I wanted, and that just meant I got there really fast! In fact, on the second morning I decided to go for it a bit, and later that week gleefully received third-hand reports from car commuters who had noticed a “blonde girl hurtling along past all the traffic on bicycle with far too much ease”. It was especially fun racing with some of the uber-fit cyclists who generally did not notice the fact that it was an electric bike until at least a quater mile of hard work keeping up with me! Definitely an unexpected plus to the whole experience.

After the week’s trial I decided to buy some on the company, initially for my brother and myself. I found the riding position of the ladies’ bike a little too upright, and preferring the pseudo-mountain bike’s more usual pose opted for that one (the Urban Mover 36). One minor problem I had found was that the motor tended to kick in and help even when peddling very gently, for example when filtering through traffic resulting in me having to keep jumping on the brakes. In fact, when the motor system was turned on it was hard to ride slowly at all. Therefore when speccing up the new purchase I decided to spend a little extra and get bikes with torque sensors that give graded assistance depending on how hard (specifically with how much force) you are peddling. Having the torque sensor definitely helps, giving a smoother, more controlled ride while also helping to conserve the battery by avoiding unnecessary accelerating and braking.

I also opted for the more expensive lithium polymer batteries which allow me to use it for a week’s worth of commuting (20-ish miles) and some without needing a charge. The total price was not small – around £900 each – but with the tax break (which when taking NI into account is >30%) I felt it was affordable, and I expect the prices will drop in time. You can get cheaper electric bikes, but from speaking to Natural Discovery (who trialled many) I think it is worth going for the more expensive end of the market.

Despite this Summer’s hopeless weather I am now managing to cycle into work a lot more, and am feeling better for it. The eclectic assistance, while helpful, does not eliminate the need for work on the rider’s part so I am getting a bit fitter too. In terms of raw cost-benefit I doubt the bikes pay for themselves, even considering the cost of offsetting a car’s carbon emissions, but when you combine the financial benefits with the reduced peak commute time, easing parking requirements (we have 1 space for every 2 people), environmental friendliness and gently getting fit during your commute, I think the package is very worthwhile indeed.

(also published on Telegraph Earth)

2012 Update

We actually had quite a few problems with the Urban Mover bikes in terms of reliability so switched to Whisper Bikes. I would encourage you to buy quality if investing in a commuter-machine! You can see mine to the left, laden with shopping! I especially like how easy it is to load them up – you can see my hand bag strapped to the back.