Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Riding e-bikes does not lead to health benefits

A recent study ("Transport mode choice and body mass index: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from a European-wide study" by Evi Dons and others) compared the effect of different modes of transport on the BMI of thousands of European commuters. Each participant provided details of their height, weight and age as well as their mode of transport, followed by a second survey 18 months later asking the same questions. The effect of different modes of transport on BMI could therefore be compared and the effect on body weight due to daily exercise related to mode of transport was ranked:
  1. Riders of normal bicycles, powered by human muscles alone. These participants had the best score, achieving relatively low BMI.
  2. Pedestrians were in second place. Walking is beneficial for the body, but walked journeys tend to be extremely short due to the time taken to cover distance so this limits the overall benefit.
  3. Users of public transport came in third. Almost all users of public transport get exercise walking to bus stops or train stations.
  4. Motor cyclists score similarly to people who use public transport.
  5. Riders of e-bikes came in second to last.
  6. Drivers of cars took the last place, with the highest BMI.
E-bike parked on the street in Assen. Note that the top gear is
selected. Almost all parked e-bikes are the same. Users select
top gear and maximum assistance from the motor, resulting
in so little effort possible being required from the rider.
It was noted by the researchers that walking or running even to a bus stop burns more calories than hopping onto a bike with a motor immediately outside the door. This is why even travelling on public transport gave more exercise than an e-bike.

Participants who swapped from driving to cycling during the study lost weight. For men, this weight was loss averaged 0.75 kg while women lost a little less.  On the other hand, the BMI outcome for e-bike riders, motorcyclists and car drivers in this study is extremely close. Using a motorised mode of transport does not give a health benefit.

Conclusion
E-bikes can genuinely be of assistance for people who are less active due to age or health problems as they allow those people to remain more mobile than might be the case without a motor, but it shouldn't be a surprise that the health benefits of cycling disappear if you fit a motor to a bicycle. The exercise benefits of pedalling are lost when you're no longer pushing the pedals hard.

If you're a healthy and able human then an e-bike is as bad for your health as any other motorized vehicle such as a motorbike or a car. We each need to exercise on the order of 30 minutes a day just to get enough exercise to remain healthy. On a human powered bicycle that equates to riding around 5000 km a year.

Update 13 September
This blog post does nothing but report on the study linked at the top. The scope of the study was changes in BMI due to using different modes of transport and the resulting personal health benefits, if any, which resulted. A few people have responded by telling me that they exercise while riding their e-bike. That's great but it has nothing much to do with the study. Neither the study authors or myself ever claimed that it was impossible to exercise while riding an e-bike.  This relatively long term study suggests that, on average when considering thousands of people's behaviour, those who choose an e-bike to make their journeys do not get significant exercise while those who ride human powered bicycles do get significant exercise.

Other effects such as local air pollution or CO2 footprint of different modes of transport are beyond the scope of the study.

Several people have criticized my use of the term "health benefits" in the title of this piece as if this didn't come from the study itself. In fact, it was taken directly from the conclusion at the end of the abstract: "Conclusions: Our analyses showed that people lower their BMI when starting or increasing cycling, demonstrating the health benefits of active mobility." It's quite clear that being active is the key. Also note that "cycling" in this case refers to human powered bicycles. The same health benefit was not found for riding an e-bike and the inference is that many people who ride e-bikes are significantly less active than those who ride normal bicycles.

The type of e-bike which the study refers to is a 25 km/h maximum assisted speed pedelec. Anything else is not a legal e-bike and would fall outside the scope of the study. You have to turn the pedals to make the assistance work on these, but you don't necessarily have to push the pedals very hard so it is possible to select top gear and do the minimum of work.

Average speeds of Dutch cyclists. There's not much of a
workout to be had even on an unassisted bike at 12 km/h.
You get less exercise if going barely faster with a motor.
Source: Mobiliteitsbeeld 2017 / KiM
Why does rider health not always benefit from riding an e-bike?
We can only speculate on this subject because there is no data. I suggest that it comes down to habit as much as anything else. In the past people have suggested changes of behaviour such as that drivers of cars could improve their health by, for example, parking their cars one km from work and running the last kilometre. A few people might do things like this, but the majority of car commuters drive all the way to their place of work as that is most convenient for them. I suggest a similar situation arises with e-bike riders: i.e. many could well begin with the intention of pushing the pedals harder, but they slowly find that it makes little difference to their journey time whether they work hard or let the battery do the work so it's easy to fall into doing less.

There are many e-bikes in the Netherlands and it is clear from watching how people ride these bikes that very many riders take the option of riding with an extremely low cadence in top gear and letting the motor take the strain. That the speeds of e-bikes are barely greater than the speeds of unassisted bikes supports this argument.

E-bikes for children ?
Dutch children have historically scored well for low obesity and good well-being in comparison with children from other nations. This comes in no small part due to the exercise of everyday cycling, to school and back, to visit friends and for other purposes. School children are increasingly using e-bikes are increasingly being given to school children, and manufacturers have been happy to push this demand, providing lower cost e-bikes for children (from €1200) and some manufacturers have gone as far as to suggest that the majority of children will have electric bikes within a few years. A child who is barely pushing the pedals will not get as much exercise as his classmates who provide all their own energy. I am not the first person to note that the relatively good fitness of Dutch people could be undermined by e-bikes.

Am I some kind of anti e-bike monster ?
Some of the more bizarre responses which I've received have suggested that I'm either part of the car lobby or that I'm part of the bicycle lobby. Neither is the case. I've simply told you the result of a study.

In the Netherlands, where I live, there are many classes of vehicles which use the cycle-paths. They do this mostly without causing significant problems for one-another, except in some places where the infrastructure is inadequate. These vehicles include, but are not limited to:
  • normal bicycles
  • racing bicycles
  • recumbents
  • cargo bikes
  • e-bikes (25 km/h, as considered by the study)
  • e-cargo bikes (sometimes quite large for kindergarten use)
  • mopeds limited to 25 km/h
  • electric mopeds limited to 25 km/h.
In rural areas they are joined by similar classes of electric and internal combustion engine vehicles limited to 40 km/h. All these vehicles have been getting along quite well for a long time in the Netherlands.

I don't personally want an e-bike because it would not benefit me, but it doesn't concern me at all that other people ride them. That's their choice.

25 km/h e-bikes have a similar effect on other users of cycle-paths to 25 km/h mopeds, especially the electric versions which don't produce air pollution or noise. i.e. they don't cause a significant problem to other users of cycle-paths.

Your laws on e-bikes may be different. That's beyond the scope of this blog post and the study.

Isn't it the same as gearing/aerodynamic improvements/lighter components on a normal bike?
It's a popular line of argument to suggest that someone who is perceived as being "against" e-bikes would also argue against other improvements to bicycles. This is not a logical argument.

Any improvement to a bicycle which improves its efficiency will indeed allow the rider to travel a little further and/or faster for the same effort, but all the energy required to power that bicycle will still come from the rider.

Adding a motor to a bicycle has a very different effect: It makes pedaling to some extent optional. A modern pedelec requires the rider to turn the pedals, but it does not require them to push the pedals with any significant force. In the Netherlands there are hundreds of thousands of e-bikes. They are not used to travel significantly faster than non-assisted bikes, their riders just do less work. People who switch to an e-bike almost always get less exercise as a result.

No-one ever says "since I added an aerodynamic seat-post to my racing bike I've been able to ride to work without sweating", but plenty of people will tell you that their e-bike allows them to reach their destination without working up a sweat. That is made possible because the motor did the vast majority of the work.

The speed-pedelec of the 1970s. A friend of mine had one of
these. Did he pedal it? Of course not. Credit/rights: wikipedia
We've been here before
Ever since the invention of bicycles, people have added motors to them to increase speed or reduce the effort required of the rider. You can see this even from the etymology of words such as motorbike, moped, pedelec, e-bike, bromfiets, snorfiets. Several of these types of motorized bicycles have pedals.

How often do you see someone actually pedal a moped ? Often these pedals are designed only to meet a legal requirement to have pedals. It's actually easier not to bother with them. People who buy mopeds intend to use them as powered vehicles. The same is largely true for e-bikes. While it is possible to exercise on an e-bike, many owners use their electrically assisted bikes as if they are small motorbikes, putting in the minimum effort required to turn the pedals so that the motor operates.

See also my previous blog post about how pushing e-bikes won't result in mass cycling. The benefits for individuals and society that result from mass cycling come about when safe infrastructure is provided which encourages cycling. The answer is not a different type of bike, especially not one which doesn't require the user to push the pedals hard to make progress.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Building a safe and legal rainbow crossing

My last blog post included the photo above, which no-one commented on. Many places have of course installed rainbow crossings before Assen, but some careful thought went into this which I think is noteworthy.

Bear in mind that rainbow crossings have two purposes, which are not related to one another:
  1. The political purpose: A rainbow crossing indicates that the city within which it appears supports the rights of LGBT people.
  2. A practical purpose: It must function as a crossing.
Unfortunately, many examples of rainbow crossings do a good job of looking like a rainbow but have a form which is such that they are no longer legal zebra crossings. It is important to get this right for several reasons:
  1. Drivers may not stop for a crossing which doesn't look like they were taught
  2. It may be difficult to prosecute a driver who does not stop and who injures a pedestrian if the crossing is in fact not a legal crossing.
  3. Unusual colours may not be visible at night or in poor weather
  4. If a non legal crossing is installed without the intention of giving pedestrians priority, pedestrians may still think that they have priority and this could cause dangerous situations.
The solution
In the Netherlands, road surfaces can be made of many materials with different colours. These include black, red or green asphalt, grey concrete and red or grey tiles. Regardless of the colour of the road surface, a legal zebra crossing is made of a particularly sized sequence of white stripes which contrast with the colour of the road surface.

A noteworthy design
Assen's rainbow crossing, though it has arrived later those in some other cities, is noteworthy because this design is legally a zebra and difficult for anyone to confuse as anything other than a zebra. At the same time, it's also obviously a rainbow so it fulfills both objectives successfully.

The rules in your country may be different. Whatever they are, please make sure that you build rainbow crossings, and all other pedestrians crossings, so that they have the force of law behind them and so that they are obvious in intent to all their users, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

A further note on zebra crossings in the Netherlands
White stripes on a zebra crossing make it very obvious where pedestrians should be able to cross safely. They usually indicate that pedestrians have priority at this point and that cyclists and drivers of motor vehicles must stop for pedestrians crossing the road. In Assen this is the case. A zebra indicates pedestrian priority. Other pedestrian crossings where motorists have priority do not have zebra markings painted on the road.

Unfortunately, there is an inconsistency in the Netherlands. Groningen and Utrecht are amongst the cities which use zebra markings even on traffic light controlled crossings. This mean that drivers must get used to stopping for a zebra only sometimes - The rule is that a driver must stop for pedestrians on a zebra if they don't see a traffic light. Similarly, a pedestrian must stop at the side of the road next to a zebra and expect drivers to stop for them if they cannot see a traffic light. There is a potential for confusion.

I find it a far better rule to install the zebra markings only where we wish to make it obvious that pedestrians have priority.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Events and high temperatures. Keep cycling through it all.

July has been warmer and drier than usual for the Netherlands, starting off warm and slowly heating up until the last couple of days in which we've seen 37 C locally and slightly higher temperatures further south. Cycling of course continues through all weather, hot and cold. Here's a round-up of what's been going on in Assen over the last month.

The TT
More than anything else, Assen is famous for the TT racing circuit. This brings a huge number of visitors to the city - visitors outnumbering the locals 2:1 for a few days at the end of June (not July, but under a month ago at the time of writing). Luckily, motoring events no more create a motorcycle culture resulting in everyone travelling by motorbike than cycling events can create a cycling culture so Assen's cycling is safe from the influx of motorcycling enthusiasts.

People pick their mode of transport based on what is convenient and safe. Assen, like most Dutch cities, has high quality cycling infrastructure which makes cycling convenient and safe. Choosing to cycle is easy for everyone. That is why cycles are used for more journeys than any other mode of transport in Assen.

This year, a pop-up museum displayed historic motorcycles ridden in previous TTs.

The older the motorbikes were, the more they looked like bicycles with engines strapped on. That, of course, is exactly what motorbikes were in the beginning. There is a very long history of people who think that bicycles can be improved by making an engine or motor do most of the work. It happened with the very first motorbikes, with mopeds and it's happening again now with electrically assisted bikes. Most people, for most purposes, simply don't need a motor.

Outside the museum: most visitors had arrived by bicycle, which is just what you'd expect in Assen.

Supermarkets in Assen also go motorbike mad during the TT week. This supermarket had no less than six motorbikes dotted around displays of produce. I'm not sure what the connection is between tomatoes and motorbikes, but someone decided it was marketing genius.

Motorbikes and beer seem a more normal combination as it's clear that plenty of beer is consumed at the campsites around the TT track.

Outside the supermarket, but within the shopping centre. As usual, the majority of shoppers have arrived by bicycle.
But of course you don't read this blog to see pictures of motorized bicycles. I'll stick to human power from now onward.

Haren-Haren tocht
The last night of the TT festival was on the 30th of June and the music stopped at 5 am on the 1st of July. My alarm went off at 6 am so that I could make a good start in July by taking part in the Haren-Haren ride ("De Ultieme Wielerklassieker"). It's a very well organised sociable ride from Haren in the Netherlands to Haren in Germany and back again and this was the third time I took part. The route and distance both vary. This year there were different route options: a 30 km route for hand-bikers, a 105 km route which turns at one of the refreshment points within the Netherlands and the full route of 165 km length.

7:56 am: 25 km from home, I join the queue for "Velo Koffie" in Haren

Almost everyone rides a racing bike for this event. Recumbents and velomobiles are also permitted.

The route is very well signposted, with arrows like this showing which way to go at every junction and often in-between, which is a great help on long stretches.

The route mostly uses the extensive network of excellent cycle-paths in this area, which cope perfectly well with a thousand fast cyclists following the same route together.

Cycle racers gain a huge aerodynamic advantage by riding in a group. I have my own personal aerodynamic advantage when riding singly in a velomobile, but the difference in bicycle shape means I can't profit from riding in the middle of a group.

Germany. See flag and the different style of buildings which appear immediately after we cross the border. Naturally there's nothing else to note. A seamless border within the EU.
The furthest point was a stop at a small airfield just short of Haren (DE). Cake and sport drink were served. Then we rode back to the Netherlands.



A section of country lane in Groningen on the way back to Haren (NL). Roads like these do not function as useful through routes for drivers so there are very few cars to contend with. Cyclists so far as the eye can see.
As ever with rides like this some preparation is required. In particular it's a good idea to make sure your bike is in good condition. Because punctures are not amusing at all when you're a long way from home I don't use "fast" tyres but instead go for reliability. Schwalbe Marathon tyres pumped up to their maximum rated pressure are perfect.

Preparation also means sun block and a hat, and it's also important to take care of what you eat and drink. Hummus and salad sandwiches are my usual staple for lunch, augmented with nuts and crisps, snacks and a banana. In additional to a couple of bidons of water I also took a bidon of energy drink and had cartons of soy milk and fruit juice stashed away. I find that what seems appealing before or at the start of the ride isn't necessarily what you want to eat by the end of it so variety is important so you can find something that you like. Short distance cycling doesn't require eating anything more than usual, but on longer distances you do need to eat: This ride consumed about 4000 calories.

In total I rode 215 km in slightly over six and a half hours which is good enough for me. I was home, had a shower and was sitting in the garden with a book by mid afternoon. A very enjoyable day.

Regular weekend / midweek rides
Quite apart from our daily cycling for utility purposes, Judy and I try to get out for rides on the weekend and sometimes also mid-week

Wide cycle-paths mean sociable cycling.

There's a butterfly garden a few kilometres away which we visited on one of our recent rides. No butterflies stood still long enough to get a decent photo, but this dragonfly posed nicely for a photo.

An oddity on the cycle-path network of Drenthe: This kink in the cycle-path seems ideally designed to allow display of a classic car.

Watched by a horse while stopped for a snack.

Tractors are sometimes quite horrible to follow because of their exhaust fumes. They're usually limited in speed, in this case the tractor was limited to 30 km/h making it not difficult to race. We were rewarded with fresh air to breath.

One of the joys of living in a rural location is being able to buy fresh vegetables while cycling. These courgettes for sale at 40 cents each were actually quite large marrows. I bought one of them and it fed us for three nights.

Plenty of space for cyclists on the cycle-path along the canal

Unfortunately, there's not always fresh air to breath. Boats like this burn twice as much fuel per passenger kilometre as Concorde. Because no-one ever checks their emissions they get away with producing horrible clouds of smoke, yet local governments invite them into city centres just when they should be trying to reduce such pollution, especially near where people live.
Dutch lessons
I've mentioned in the past about how children not only cycle to and from school in the Netherlands, but schools also take children on trips by bicycle. That's something that doesn't happen so much elsewhere because of worries about liability but it's very normal in the Netherlands.

School trips by bike are not only for children. I signed up for a new course of Dutch lessons at the start of this year and our end of year activity was, of course, a cycle-trip. A few weeks ago we rode about 30 km one evening to a nice location in the countryside where we shared a picnic.

My fellow students and our teacher somewhere near the front .
Making deliveries
"Free delivery by velomobile" is a service which you won't find offered by many companies.

We offer local customers the option of free delivery by bicycle, which we normally say is within the city. However sometimes the sun is shining and I could do with a bike ride and I'll go further. One customer 25 km away who ordered a tyre and inner tubes this month received his parts by velomobile. A 50 km round trip through Drenthe is always tempting.

We don't only write about cycling and about bicycles, we use them every day and we sell parts which work for everyday cycling.

Parts for the customer - a tyre and two inner tubes.
Stopped for lunch on the return journey
Colour change in cycle-paths
When it's not rained for a while the cycle-paths of Assen change colour due to tyre wear. Particulate pollution isn't something to celebrate, but at least there is far less as a result of bicycles in comparison with cars.
Particulate rubber as a result of thousands of bicycles on dry asphalt. It's washed away by even quite light rain.
The much larger problem resulting from a few cars demonstrating performance during an event during the TT festival a whole month ago. There are orders of magnitude more rubber dust here: at the time of the photograph, this evening, this had survived several downfalls of rain.
Bicycles as Pollution
Assen's new railway station, built to replace the old station which dated from 1989, has now opened. With it, the temporary station's cycle-park has been closed. Owners of bicycles which had been parked there were warned weeks in advance that they had to remove their bikes. Most of the bicycles were removed, but these are the bicycles which were left at the station and which have been collected for scrapping. The blue shed is full and there are more bikes on the other side of it:

A small part of the temporary cycle-park a few days before closure. Most bikes had been removed.
But a month later these bicycles, extending into the blue shed and beyond, could be found near the town dump waiting to be scrapped. They're not all wrecks. Bicycles as pollution.
Self-destructing cycle-paths
The heat has taken its toll on some of the cycle-paths locally. I came across this a few days ago: A concrete cycle-path which had cracked spectacularly. This happens occasionally when the expansion gaps become full of solid objects such as small rocks. Luckily, there was a work crew already fixing the problem.
Heat damage to a concrete cycle-path

By the time I found this damage it was already being fixed
In order to avoid damage to asphalt cycle-paths which could melt, salt is applied in exactly the same way as it is in winter.
Fietsvierdaagse
For the last 53 years, Assen has hosted a Fietsvierdaagse. It's a four day cycling event in which 11000 people took part this year. I rode on just one day, Thursday, and entered to ride the 100 km route rather than the more popular (and slower) 40 km route.

I've enjoyed the fietsvierdaagse routes, short and long over different years since we've lived here but I think it's a mistake that they've stopped putting up arrows for the longer routes as that makes them much less fun to follow. GPS on a bike isn't really my thing: I don't want to have to stare at a screen when cycling.

People arrive at 8:00

The fietsvierdaagse is about gezelligheid, not speed.

While the shorter routes are way-marked, the longer routes are not. Following a not very well printed map without GPS and often finding myself riding on the same paths as people taking part over much shorter distances was impractical so after going along half the distance on approximately the route as I was supposed to I made the rest of the journey along familiar routes back home on which I could keep up a sensible speed.

Another delivery
All the parcels we send out to mail order customers begin their journey on one of our bikes, most on our cargo bike. Customers within Assen either collect from us or we deliver and use it as an excuse to ride a bit further. This morning, delivery to a customer 2 km away turned into an 18 km ride. Not a long distance, but a nice way to start the morning.
I made another delivery this morning, taking an oversized chainwheel to a customer just 2 km away from home in a new suburb of Assen.

In total, this delivery to a customer 2 km away resulted in an 18 km cycle-ride. Part of the journey back to Assen was along this dead-end (to cars) country lane which serves half a dozen farms. It is being improved with safer edging.
Assen
Assen now has a rainbow zebra crossing. I'm all for recognizing diversity in all its forms. Something notable about this particular crossing is how it has been created. Some rainbow coloured crossings are not legal zebras because of their design but in this case the white stripes comply to the regulations for a standard zebra contrasting to the surface underneath, which can be any colour. Unfortunately, they've dropped the advisory cycle-lane broken white line through the rainbow section, and this is right in a location where drivers enter the cycle-lane regularly because its on the inside of a corner. The paint looks nice, but this change doesn't fix several other problems of this junction either.

This evening in Assen. My town bike among the others parked near a cafe.

Continuing a theme from above, the spearmint in our garden attracted dozens of bees today.

Perspective
Thus far, all the cycling I've done this month on all the bikes I've ridden adds up to about 750 km.

The Tour-de-France ends tomorrow. Competing cyclists will have ridden 3351 km in the last three weeks, somewhat exceeding my efforts.

The finishing line
However, even more impressive and happening as I write this, Nici Walde is attempting to break the human powered 24 hour cycling record which currently stands at 1219 km as well as the women's record which stands at 1012 km. She started at 10 this morning and will continue to ride until 10 tomorrow morning and she'll have to maintain an average speed of better than 50 km/h for 24 hours. At the time of writing Nici has covered 602 km in the first 12 hours. Already awesome. Good luck Nici.

Update: Nici Walde rode 1088 km in 24 hours, easily breaking the previous women's record. That is the absolute limit of human power as of the 29th of July 2018.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Pushing e-bikes will not result in mass cycling

15-20 years ago the most common objections heard to the idea that better infrastructure was required to enable mass cycling came from people who promoted training of cyclists and vehicular cycling. It was claimed that if enough people could be trained to cycle amongst motor vehicles then no cycling infrastructure was required. Decades have passed and of course no such result was ever seen because the problems which faced people cycling had not been resolved. Meanwhile, those places which built better cycling infrastructure have seen improvements in cycling modal share. The calls for training and vehicular cycling have become much quieter in recent years, but similar calls are now being made for another related idea: That take-up of e-bikes will result in mass cycling despite conditions on the roads not having been improved. This idea has no more validity than the claims made 20 years ago.

If you take someone who is scared to cycle because of the danger of traffic and give them a bicycle they are unlikely to take up cycling just because they now have a bicycle. I pointed out years ago that "a shortage of bicycles was never the reason for the low cycling rate of London" but this applies worldwide. Millions of bicycles gather dust in sheds around the world because their owners don't find riding them on the local streets to be appealing at all.

If you take someone who is scared to cycle because of the danger of traffic and give them a bicycle with a motor, the reaction is very likely to be the same. The source of the fear has not been addressed by adding a motor to the bicycle so they'll still be unlikely to take up cycling.

Dutch parents let their children cycle right into city centres
because it is safe to do so on cycle-paths, not because they
have motorised bicycles.
Parents who are not happy to see their young children ride bicycles on roads filled with motor traffic will be no more enthusiastic about them doing the same thing with a motor on their bike.

Pensioners who are currently scared to cycle on busy roads won't suddenly gain enthusiasm because someone has given them a motorised bicycle.

People with disabilities who use hand cycles or other mobility devices but can't travel far with them because they do not feel safe on the streets are not suddenly going to feel safe to put themselves in front of motor vehicles because they have been given a motor.

Proponents of e-bikes often point to studies which often don't say what they think they say.

A Danish study:
There's a Danish study which is sometimes claimed to show an "11% increase" in cycling due to e-bikes but of course the reality isn't quite like that headline. The study involved 120 people from a city of 61000 who volunteered to be part of a study about the potential of e-bikes. 80 took part in the after study analysis. Of those, 45% claimed they cycled more after they were provided with an e-bike (55% said they cycled the same or less). The 11% increase in cycling which was observed was within the 80 people who chose to take part because they were already interested in e-bikes. That some people who thought they wanted an e-bike turned out really to want an e-bike should surprise no-one. What's more, it's important to note that because these people lived in Denmark they were already in a country which has relatively developed cycling infrastructure and a relatively high cycling modal share because of that infrastructure. They have somewhere safe to ride their e-bikes. This is not a result which has any relevance to a country which does not have cycling infrastructure.

An American study:
There is also an American survey which is popular amongst e-bike enthusiasts, the National Institute for Transportation and Communities North American Survey of Electric Bicycle Owners NITC-RR-1041. A popular website article claims that this survey proves that "e-bikes are getting more people out of their cars". This initially seemed more interesting than the Danish study because it's a study from a place which has little to no cycling infrastructure and great increases in cycling were claimed. If those findings could be translatable to other countries which lack infrastructure that would be very interesting indeed. But I've now read the report and unfortunately there are many problems which arise from it. I will go into these problems below:

Note that while some website headlines are dramatic they're quite loosely connected with the report itself which uses more reasonable language. I suggest that it's important to read the report itself to understand what the survey was and what the results mean. Methodology affects results. The authors are candid and honest about the scope of their survey. They do not claim that it is impartial and nor do they claim that the results can be extrapolated to the population at large. This survey was supported by e-bike manufacturers financially as well as with "input, feedback and efforts on the project to make sure it was successful." The people surveyed were all people who already own e-bikes and over 80% of respondents had owned their e-bike for less than two years when they responded to the survey. We can therefore expect new owners' delight with their new purchase to be reflected in the results.

This survey of 1800 people targeted a self-selected group of people who were found "through e-bike blogs and forums, multiple social media platforms, manufacturer and retailers’ e-mailing lists, and cards left on e-bikes throughout the Portland, OR, area" and as such we can expect many enthusiasts amongst the respondents. The authors don't try to deceive but acknowledge the limitations of their survey. They admit that respondents were not selected randomly and that findings might not be representative even of the whole population of e-bike owners, let alone the population at large.

None of this is a criticism. The report authors are quite clear about what they've done and by presenting their data as they have, they have given an insight into North American e-bike owners. I do, however, criticise some of the websites which have published dramatic headlines based on the survey and some of the people who have taken those headlines and made yet more dramatic claims because the results of this survey have been taken out of context.

It should be noted that most of the e-bikes used by respondents to this survey are too powerful to be recognised as e-bikes in most countries. Only 6% of respondents have e-bikes on which assistance is available only up to the 25 km/h which applies for an assisted bicycle in the EU. 94% of respondents have e-bikes which are more powerful than that. i.e. most of these e-bikes would be classified as "speed pedelecs" in Europe - number plates are required and riders must wear helmets. While only 6% of respondents have the slower EU legal e-bikes, a greater number (7%) have bikes on which the motors are so powerful and can push their riders at such speeds that in Europe they couldn't even be speed pedelecs, but would have to be registered as motorbikes. As such, this study's application to many countries is already limited as it mostly concerns itself mostly with a completely different class of vehicle to that which we would recognise as a legal assisted e-bike in Europe.

The limitations of self-reporting are also exposed. While more than half of respondents claim to be of "very good or excellent health", only a quarter of respondents say that they do even 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, as recommended widely as a minimum required for good health. 3/4 of e-bike owners do not take 30 minutes of even moderate exercise a day and therefore also cannot be cycling for 30 minutes a day. The most common maximum speed of assistance is 20 mph, suggesting that the distance covered even by most of the respondents who actually do take 30 minutes of exercise per day will be somewhat less than 10 miles (16 km) while most respondents will cover somewhat less distance than this. This puts the report's claim of an "impressive decrease in vehicle miles traveled" in some doubt.

Leading question: Why didn't you cycle before you
had an e-bike ? Choose from one of these answers.
Though the most common reason why people do not cycle is the fear of motor traffic, the multiple choice question which asked about why people didn't cycle before they got an e-bike did not include that as a response. Instead, people were led to give other responses such as that distances were too long for cycling, that hills made cycling difficult or that it was difficult to carry things on a bike. Some respondents specified "other" and then wrote this themselves but it is very likely that this most important reason for not cycling was under-reported due to the design of this question.

The study goes some way to address this by including the following passage, but because it's not an answer to a question it doesn't appear in the hastily written summaries which have appeared on websites elsewhere: "Throughout open-ended responses, e-bike users often expressed insufficient bicycle infrastructure as a significant barrier to riding more (for both standard bicycles and e-bikes), as one participant states, “I don't always have safe infrastructure to get where I need to go. [If that is the case] Then I drive” (anonymous respondent). Some of these barriers to riding a standard bicycle cannot be solved by switching to an e-bike;"

Odd uses for e-bikes
The survey results include many surprising statements from e-bike riders about ways in which they benefit from their bikes which are in fact ways of compensating for poor social policy, poor town planning and poor road/cycle-path infrastructure. Here are some examples:

At least one respondent uses their e-bike to address a social safety issue: “I ride through several homeless camps on my eighteen mile trip. My e-bike gives me a sense of security knowing that I will have the energy/power to get out of the area if I feel threatened or fear for my safety.” This should have been addressed through a combination of a more humane social policy which addressed the issue of homelessness combined with better town planning.

Another says that an e-bike allows overcoming a different problem due to poor town planning: “I live in the suburbs now, so the same errands are much longer distances. An e-bike makes it possible for me to continue to use a bike instead of a car.” Local errands ought to be over local distances. Dutch suburbs are designed to include facilities and encourage cycling.

Some report using their e-bikes to take longer routes than they would otherwise because by doing so the rider can experience less vehicular traffic. i.e. they're compensating for the lack of good cycling infrastructure where they live. Cycling infrastructure should always enable taking the shortest possible route in safety.

Some respondents claim that being able to ride at high speed enhances safety alongside faster vehicles, again compensating for poor infrastructure. Being able to ride as part of the motor traffic is aligned closely with the failed vehicular cycling ideas (it's a strategy for surviving a hostile environment but not a way to create mass cycling). This claim is similar to a popular claim made by drivers of cars that being able to break the speed limit results in better safety, but there is little evidence to support that. Higher speeds are almost always linked to more danger, regardless of the vehicle so I am skeptical that this would work differently for e-bikes. Note that the Dutch experience is the reverse. Pensioners have taken up 25 km/h assisted cycles in quite large numbers to allow them to continue a lifetime of everyday cycling using the extensive country-wide grid of safe cycling infrastructure which they already used on a normal bike. Despite the safety of the infrastructure design and their relatively small increase in speed to a maximum of 25 km/h, the extra speed, weight and slight unpredictability of assisted bicycles has resulted in a surprisingly large increase of injuries and fatalities to older people due to a rise in single rider collisions.

Mopeds and motorbikes
Unsurprisingly, most of the respondents report conflict with motor vehicles. This is a problem for anyone riding a two wheeler in traffic, powered or not). Motorcyclists were using the term SMIDSY (Sorry Mate I Didn't See You) to refer to the incidents in which drivers claimed not to have seen a motorcycle some years before cyclists picked it up. Let's remember that the e-bikes in this US survey are much faster than those which are legal elsewhere.

There's nothing new about making ever faster powered bicycles. People have found ways to put engines and motors onto bicycles thereby transforming them into mopeds and motorcycles for more than a century. People who required something like a bicycle but with a motor attached have been able to legally buy and use those vehicles for more than a century.

Modern e-bikes which assist up to 25 km/h are a new and special case in that their speed has purposefully been made compatible with normal cyclists going about their everyday business and in that the assistance is always relative to force on the pedals. In the Netherlands, slightly faster mopeds are much less popular than bicycles (powered or not) and are commonly considered to be a nuisance to cyclists.

What has been seen in Europe is that people who in the past might have bought a moped are now likely to consider buying speed-pedelecs with speeds up to 45 km/h (comparable with the majority of the US e-bikes) which are classified in a similar way to mopeds, requiring a number plate and a helmet on the rider. A combination of these types of bikes and straight electrically powered mopeds without are replacing mopeds with petrol engines. Because they don't have the same noxious emissions, most people see this as an improvement.

The faster "e-bikes" in the USA are not e-bikes here. That's not pejorative and it's not just an opinion. The law in the EU and this country places limits on assisted bicycles and such high powered machines can't be e-bikes. As a result most of the bikes in the US study would need to be registered and have a number place in Europe, the rider would have to wear a helmet and they cannot be ridden everywhere that a normal bicycle (or 25 km/h e-bike) can be ridden.

In the Netherlands, mopeds are used to make about 1% of journeys and their riders suffer from much the same prejudice as do riders of bicycles in countries where cyclists are the 1%. However I have nothing against speed pedelecs, mopeds or motorbikes. To me they're just other alternative means of transport, all of which leap with remarkable ease over the very low bar of being "better than a car", so while I don't choose to ride any of these things myself, I'm not opposed to them. What's more, I live in a city whose main claim to fame is hosting motorcycle races. This would not have been an attractive location to move to if I particularly disliked motorized bicycles of any type.

E-bikes, 3D printers, metal detectors, smart watches ?
The US survey was carried out in 2017. Over 80% of the respondents reporting buying their e-bike in 2015 or later. i.e. most were recent converts to e-biking. Over 95% report being very satisfied or satisfied with what is for many a new purchase.

Any survey which asks people who recently bought any gadget whether or not they like that gadget and whether or not they use it is likely to report that the people who recently bought a gadget do like it and do use it. It really doesn't matter what the gadget is.

You could run the same survey with accessories for normal bikes, parts thought to enhance performance of normal bikes (e.g. lighter wheels), or even totally different products such as 3D printers or smart watches. This does not invalidate any of those devices, which some people make good use of, and it also does not make the e-bike less valid either.

We should recognise that new owners of pretty much any product tend to be enthusiastic about their new purchase. Regardless of what kind of bike they have bought, people will always report using a new bicycle more than their old bicycle.

Because most of the respondents are new purchasers we have to expect that to some extent respondents self-reported opinions will express this aspect of human nature.

What is the effect on modal share ?
Any claim of a huge shift in how people get around based on this survey has to be grounded in the actual mode share figures. The survey was carried out in the USA and Canada. Unfortunately, both of those countries have staggeringly low cycling modal shares, amongst the lowest in the world.

Before modern e-bikes became popular, fewer than 1% of trips were made by bike in the USA and Canada. After e-bikes became popular this remained under 1%.

Despite their very high population densities resulting in short average trip lengths in comparison with Dutch cities, American cities such as Los Angeles and New York have almost unbelievably low rates of cycling. If you're interested in cycling, there is nothing that the rest of the world really can learn from those places except what not to do.

E-bikes are not a magic bullet which can transform a low cycling nation
In the USA, 40% of all trips are under 2 miles in length but 90% of those short trips are made by car. There's a huge potential win there taking only the shortest distance into account.

The USA used to lead the world in cycling. This bicycle,
produced by an American manufacturer in 1904, is the
sort of practical bicycle used by most people before cars
took over the roads. Modern Dutch town bikes are the same.
E-bikes are simply not required to enable the short journeys which make up the majority in any nation to be made by bicycle. No kind of special bike is required over these distances Even the most basic type of everyday bicycle can cover the majority of most peoples' short trips. The distances are so short that they can be covered by almost anyone at all in almost no time at all, riding any bicycle and without breaking a sweat.

But that is not what happens in North America. Why ? There's no safe space for cycling so cycling even over short distances is neither pleasant nor safe, on any bicycle.

If you can't convince the population to use a bicycle to ride a significant proportion of low single digit distances then it's not going to be possible to convince them to do so over longer distance either.

What can we make of the survey overall ?
The US / Canadian survey has little to no relevance to the rest of the world for several reasons:

  • The USA is a particularly hostile country in which to cycle and peoples' motivations for using an e-bike included social and planning issues which hopefully do not apply elsewhere.
  • The survey was not designed to be representative of either the population as a whole or even of e-bike owners. Survey respondents were largely e-bike enthusiasts who selected themselves.
  • Leading questions in the survey resulted in answers which may not accurately reflect the views even of those who took the survey.
  • Any survey of people who have just bought any new product will tend to be positive (see 90% of online reviews of anything).
  • The definition of an e-bike is so broad that most respondents are using types of motorized vehicles which are legally in a different class in other countries.
  • The claims of large shifts are confined to the self-reported actions of the self-selected few who took the survey. They are not represented in the modal share figures of the countries in which the survey was based.
In short: Surveys of this form can mislead the reader into thinking there has been a transformation in cycling which in reality does not exist. I will note again that the authors of the report are quite open about their methodology so I can't criticise them for this. But because of the points above, this report says very little, if anything at all, which can be translated to any other place and certainly nothing which will assist with increasing cycling modal shares in other nations.

So how can we encourage vastly more cycling ?

The logical way to increase cycling is to look to where there has been real success and copy what led to that success. It makes little sense to try to emulate even the boldest claims made in a country where less than 1% of journeys are made by bike when there is a far better example to look at. In cycling, one country leads the rest of the world by a large margin and the Netherlands is that country.

Forty years ago, city scale experiments were performed in Dutch cities to find out what was required to create a genuine and long lasting increase in attractiveness of cycling and therefore a genuine and long lasting increase in cycling.

After a small upwards bump due to the 70s fuel crisis, cycling
continue to grow slowly in the Netherlands due to new cycling
infrastructure being built. In the UK and other countries, a
decline which had begun with the growth of cars merely
paused and then continued again after the oil crisis
The result was really not surprising - the successful experiment consisted of building a comprehensive grid of infrastructure which connected every home to every destination in the city. This enabled everyone to cycle and resulted in an increase in cycling across all demographics. The same thing was copied across the entire country of the Netherlands and while the efforts are not uniform and nor is the result, the entire country now has a high cycling modal share compared with any other country.

All that other countries need to do is copy the successful experiment, choosing from the most successful Dutch schemes. Once people are enabled to cycle, they will be able to choose a bicycle which suits them. Some will opt for assisted bicycles, some will opt for speed pedelecs, some will choose a normal human powered bicycle. That's all good. But no-one should be forced to believe they need to choose what is effectively a motorbike in order to keep up with other motor vehicles.

Update:
A few minutes after publishing this blog post, the video below came to my attention. It shows an older person with a mobility scooter accidentally riding through the door of a bakery in the centre of Assen yesterday. Many older people who can no longer cycle use mobility scooters to get around in this city. They make use of the many cycle-paths which provide direct and safe routes to the city centre from suburban areas. This incident occurred in a nearly car free street at the edge of an area where no cars are allowed. If this person had made the same mistake in a different place with a lot of motor traffic, or in this exact location 40 years ago, then accidentally riding out into the middle of a busy junction could have been catastrophic.

I've added this video because it illustrates part of what I wrote above about vulnerable people. Once we reach an age where controls on something as simple as a mobility scooter become confusing enough that accidents like this can happen, the last thing that is required is more speed so that decisions have to be made more quickly and more frequently. While it is a mobility scooter and not a bicycle in this video, mobility scooters are amongst the many types of vehicle commonly used on Dutch cycle-paths alongside bicycles and there is a relationship between this incident and how pensioners in the Netherlands have more frequent crashes when riding electrically assisted bicycles. A safer built environment cannot prevent mistakes, but it always helps everyone to be safe even if they make a mistake.