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Green Wheels

Reluctant driver? Ebike is an option

Electric bicycle a good option for those reluctant to get behind wheel.

Published September 14, 2012

A warm summer has seen more bikes on the streets of Toronto.

With them, electric bikes (ebikes) are taking to the streets in greater numbers, but most often they’re regarded as unwelcome. Marginalized for what is mostly rhetoric, using an ebike is a viable transportation alternative that deserves a home on Toronto’s streets and paths.

Ebikes come in a variety of formats but can loosely be grouped into the power-assisted bicycle and scooter varieties. Functionally, there are big differences between the two varieties.

A power-assisted style will only provide the extra boost when the rider is already pedalling. They look like conventional bikes, aside from the battery pack. A rider cannot travel by battery power alone.

By comparison, the scooter style allows a rider to travel exclusively on battery power. They are larger, heavier and bear almost no resemblance to a bike, aside from being fitted with pedals, that can be used to get the bike around without using the electric drive.

“I first became interested in ebikes six years ago,” said Jerry George, who now uses a scooter-style ebike. “I’ve never had a driver’s licence, and this is a good option.”

George grew up riding conventional bicycles in Toronto, but an injury forced him out of the saddle.

“I didn’t like the stress of the TTC, the connections, all the passengers. For me, getting into a car wasn’t the solution,” said George.

Five years ago, George bought his first ebike. Because they were uncommon at the time, he travelled to Stratford to get a power- assisted model.

“It had a 60v system, and was a good climber,” said George. “I gave that one up a few years later and bought a scooter style ebike.”

Aside from appearance, scooter-style ebikes share other characteristics with their gas-burning doppelgangers, including bright headlights, tail lights and signals, and enough cargo capacity to carry a bag of groceries. The larger size also makes the scooters more visible.

However, scooter-style e-bikes still must fall within regulations for speed, braking power and weight. Speed regulation means George’s bike will not go faster than 32 km/h on flat ground. By comparison, fit cyclists on a regular bike can match or exceed that speed.

Still, while slow compared to a regular bike, George views his e-bike as a viable option for getting around the city.

“I use it to commute to work,” said George, who travels from the east end of the Danforth to Bay and Gerard Sts. for his job as a security guard. By TTC, the trip could more than an hour, while on the ebike, George can get to work in 30 minutes. To run the bike for an average day costs less than a dime.

“It’s great for visiting friends and doing things around the city,” who is unencumbered by transit schedules except in the winter months, when the bike is left at home.

Part of his choice to upgrade to the scooter-style bike was also a move to a more efficient, lighter battery system. The lithium battery weighs far less than the lead acid battery on his previous model, is quicker to charge and has a longer lifespan.

Even with all of these benefits, an ebike can be had for under a $1,000 for an entry model, and a fully loaded scooter-style bike cost approximately $2,000.

However, despite all of the positives offered by e-bikes, and their increasing popularity — Toronto Electric Riders Association (TERA) has doubled their membership in the last year — they have been pushed to the fringes as road users, cut off by nearly every other mode of transport.

Mostly, any animosity or argument against ebikes is aimed at the scooter variety. Concerns exist over speed, size, and how silent they are to operate. Such opposition exists despite regulations that define performance and ignoring that regular bikes, when well cared for, are equally silent.

Less rational arguments rest on accusations of laziness or sloth.

In nearly all cases, concerns do not reflect reality and have more to do with the people involved than the vehicles themselves.

The Highway Traffic Act regards ebikes in the same category as bicycles, but the City of Toronto has passed bylaws to keep ebikes from using paths in parks. For now, ebikes can make use of bike lanes.

“As a group are acting as goodwill ambassadors for the ebike community and trying to inform the public about ebikes and quash any misinformation that they may have,” said George, an active member of TERA. The group is starting to formalize to better represent ebike owners.

But with opposition mounting, this viable transportation option could soon vanish from Toronto streets. The goal instead is to help ebikes fit into the way people get around the city. With their small size, cheap operating costs and accessibility, ebikes are the perfect option for those who won’t ride a bicycle and would prefer not to drive a car.

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