Spring is in the air
and many of us will be thinking of taking up bicycling as a method of commuting or a vehicle for exercise. By all measures, cycling is gaining in popularity in Toronto and GTA. The new bike lanes in Toronto make commuting a breeze.
Although not new, electronic bicycles are being seen more and more on streets of most metropolitan areas. With prices starting as low as $800 in some big box stores, they are seen as an attainable addition to the bicycling community.
One of the reasons electric bicycles are emerging as a favourite electric transportation vehicle is that their form factor is very familiar.
“It is basically a bicycle with a battery and motor,” says Julian Brown, corporate sales manager of Ebike Universe, an e-bike retailer with eight outlets in Canada and one in the United States. “It is really more than that though. They have sophisticated computers in them and sensors that detect when you are pedalling and then send power to the wheel – they are quite sophisticated in their simplistic look.”
Electric bikes can fill many needs
These bicycles come in all shapes and colours. There are folding bikes and even sophisticated cones made from carbon fiber. What they do have in common is a display screen that monitors the battery level and allows the rider to choose the modes of the riding experience. When choosing an e-bike, there are two types of drive systems to consider.
“When the motor is in the crank the weight will be in the middle and you have a lower centre of gravity,” says Jurij Zurba, the president of epRider, an electric bicycle store located in Etobicoke, Ont. The bike will be more efficient because the motor will have the benefit of the bikes gearing. The downside is in the complexity of the system and it is more expensive to buy and maintain. The other power system sees the motor being part of the rear wheel hub.
“Hub motors are a lot easier to work on a lot easier to exchange,” adds Brown. “You just replace the back tire.”
Although capable of being run at full power without pedaling, similar to a motorcycle or a scooter, electric bicycles are not designed, in fact, to be used in such a fashion.
“The whole object is to use a combination of your legs, the throttle and the pedal assist. When you pedal you obviously extend your range you get some exercise benefit out of it,” says Brown. “The amount of effort you put into pedaling is so much less than if you did not have that power. You find going up hills is a breeze. There is no more standing on the pedals to force yourself up the hills.”
He adds that most people will become proficient with the modes and using the combination of pedals, pedal assist and throttle in two to three weeks.
“Most people who buy an e-bike want to use it as a secondary car to do errands,” says Zurba. “We also have many customers who commute and they don’t want to sweat in the morning so they let the electric motor do all the work and in the afternoon they will do the pedaling. There are also customers who are older and want to get back into shape by cycling and they find that the extra assist helps them with the hills so it actually encourages them to ride more.”
While you do not need a licence to ride an electric bicycle – nor do not need insurance – what you will need is a helmet, be at least 16 years old and the bicycle has to meet certain criteria. Some of those criteria include having a top speed of 32 km/h and having a maximum weight of 120 kilograms, amongst others.
Electronic bicycles that look like motor scooters or motorcycles are also quite prevalent on the roads. They have pedals, but because they are not situated as they would be on a traditional motorcycle. Recently, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that electric bikes which look and function like motorcycles or scooters do not meet the province's definition of a motor-assisted cycle and require registration, insurance and a driver's licence.
“Municipalities do have the right to say that we do not want electric bicycles ridden in certain lanes,” says Michael Pasquali, the president of the Canadian Electric Bike Association (CEBA) and the owner of Hamilton’s Electric Avenue E-Bikes. This means that some municipalities do not allow e-bikes to travel in bike lanes or through parks while using electric power.
CEBA’s main function is to provide technical training to the industry and advocate on behalf of the industry. “The average Canadian travels less than 20km to work and an e-bike will fill that void. There is no more cost effective method of transportation than the electric bike,” Pasquali continues.
Battery anxiety and range
A common concern of all electrical vehicles is the battery range. With electric bicycles the range varies widely as they are, for the most part, to be pedaled when being used.
“Range can go from 20 to 120 kilometers – depending on the type of bike you buy and the type of battery it has and how you use it,” says Brown. If you use full power the battery will drain quickly but if you set it at minimal assist than you can extend the range of the battery greatly. “All the new bikes have lithium batteries. They have a shorter recharge time and a relatively flat discharge curve. The performance is uniform through the recharge cycle. All bikes have battery meters on their display. You can see on this meter when you are getting to the end but the performance will be just as good as when it was fully charged.”
The lithium batteries are supposed to last at least 1,000 cycles, “three to four years, if they are properly maintained and properly recharged,” adds Zurba. “We find that people do not know how to maintain their batteries. That’s the biggest problem and the biggest replacement cost. It is like buying fuel ahead of time. It will only cost them nine to 10 cents for a full charge at peak energy rates.”
Oh, and one last thing to keep in mind if you are planning to take on an electric bike. If you are concerned about someone making off with your new bike, Zurba says, “you basically have to put double locks on these guys. You are spending $3,000 on an e-bike, you should spend at least 10 per cent on security systems.”
An added bonus is the batteries can be unlocked and are light enough to be carried around when you are running errands or to taken into your workplace, where they can also be safely and securely be recharged.