Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Road Sage

The rise and gall of e-bikers Add to ...

In the old days, there were cars, motorcycles and bicycles but commuting has become a more varied experience and there are new hybrid forms of transportation.

One of the more prevalent is the e-bike. It’s a mysterious entity and, in an effort to spread understanding, Road Sage answers a few of the more pressing questions.

What exactly is an e-bike?

E-bikes are alternative forms of transportation that provide all the benefits of bicycling – zero emissions and freedom from gridlock – without the troubling exercise. The “e” in e-bike stands for “electric.” Instead of pedalling, riders are carried along by a small electric motor that’s been slapped on the body of a real bicycle. Imagine biking around your town and city without the actual biking. Thanks to e-bikes this dream is now a reality.

Note: the experience is totally different than riding a moped or scooter. Those are powered by gasoline. E-bikes are powered by electricity.

Are e-bikes legal?

Amazingly, yes, all you have to be is 16 years old and wearing a helmet. No licence or training required. Despite the fact that most e-bikes can reach speeds of 30 to 40 km/h (the legal limit on many streets), you can ride them on bike paths. You can act just like a bicycle – blow through stop signs, ride the wrong way on one-way streets, ignore red lights, ride on the sidewalk – all at motorized speeds.

Wait a minute. I can ride my e-bike on a bicycle path? Seriously?


Won’t the cyclists hate it?

Oh, yes, they will really hate it.

The only thing that car nuts and cyclists can agree on is how much they hate e-bikes.

Can you blame them? Imagine that you are out there busting your ass biking uphill to work, burning calories and saving the planet, and then some lump on an e-bike shoots past you on the right-hand side of a narrow bike path, almost knocking you into traffic. You’d be angry, too.

But why do motorists hate e-bikes?

They hate our freedom. When you’re on an e-bike, you have the freedom to choose. You aren’t confined by society’s rules and regulations. You can ride along a bicycle path (“Look I’m a bike!”) and then when fancy strikes, you can pull into traffic and act like an automobile (“Look, I’m a car!”).

Can I use the pedals if I want to?

Sure, if you want to, but no one has ever been seen using the pedals on an e-bike.

You can check the Internet; you won’t find a single image or report of an incident involving a guy on an e-bike using the pedals. Think of pedals on an e-bike like the appendix in the human body. A long time ago, it had a purpose but now it’s just there.

I heard that it’s possible to recharge my e-bike by pedalling. Is that true?

Technically, yes. However, that would require a) pedalling and b) pedalling faster than the e-bike’s motor can go. If you can pedal faster than 400 watts for 10 minutes you might recharge your e-bike a bit but let’s be realistic, for a habitual e-bike rider, this is a highly unlikely scenario. Looking at you, I’d say 400 watts for three seconds – max.

What’s the story behind the e-bike?

Back in the 1970s, e-bikes were the exclusive domain of what folks used to politely call “the town eccentric.” As a kid, you’d be out having a normal day with your dad when some guy with long hair and reflecting aviator sunglasses would scoot by on a banana seat bicycle with a lawnmower attached to it.

“Who’s that, daddy?” you’d ask. Your father would grimace a little and then reply, “The town eccentric.”

Flash forward 40 years. How times have changed! Today this behaviour is no longer considered deviant. In many circles it’s celebrated. In a lot of ways it is a return to the North American dream – going somewhere fast cheaply and with no exercise.

But isn’t using an e-bike bad for the environment? When compared to using a regular bicycle?

You’d think so, but look at it this way. When you bicycle, you use energy. You need to eat more food. When you eat more food, farmers have to produce more food. Food takes energy (fossil fuels) to produce. So, strictly speaking, when you exercise by cycling, you’re causing the use of fossil fuels and destroying the planet.

In contrast, when you use an e-bike, all you are expending is electricity and electricity, as we all know, exists naturally in the environment, like water.

So I should stop eating?

No, keep eating, we want you to have enough energy to buy an e-bike, just don’t eat too much.

Will e-bikes one day take over the world?

They already have! In China, the bicycle was once the dominant form of travel. Now thanks to cars and e-bikes it is fading.

Back in 2009, Chinese citizens were on track to buy 12 million cars and 20 million e-bikes. A recent study by the Freedonia Group, found that the market for e-bikes in China is expected to grow 11 per cent per annum through 2014 to 31.6 million units.

According to the Chinese Health Ministry, 22 per cent of Chinese are overweight and 7 per cent obese. It’s a significant increase.

“People are lazier than they were before,” Jin Shan, director of the sports culture research centre at the Beijing Academy of Social Science, told the Washington Post. “Before no matter how far it was, the bike was your only choice. Changing from bikes to cars and e-vehicles is one reason Chinese people are getting fatter.”

I’m in! Sign me up for an e-bike!

Terrific! And by the way, unlike Shan, we don’t call what happens when you ride an e-bike getting “fatter,” we call it going “fatster.”

Congratulations my e-bike friend. Canada’s bike paths and sidewalks are yours!

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy


In the know

Most popular video »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories