Globe Drive columnist Peter Cheney explored a mode of transportation free from insurance, fuel charges and parking fees. Here's what he found
My odyssey begins at Green Choice Moto, an e-bike store near Kensington Market in Toronto with a sign that reads "No license, no insurance … no problem." The most expensive e-bike in the store costs $2,000 – less than you'd spend for floor mats and an audio upgrade on a new car.
There are two types of e-bikes in the showroom – lightweight, bicycle-style machines and large "e-scooters" that look like Vespas made in a Chinese knock-off factory. I go with a Xinri, a $1,200 e-scooter that seats two.
My fellow e-bike customers are a motley crew: there's a young U of T student with a backpack, a vastly overweight woman in a Cowichan sweater and a guy who looks like he was just released from a detox facility. Already, I can see three key e-bike demographics: seekers of low-cost transportation, would-be cyclists who don't have the required lung capacity and car drivers who have lost their licences to the breathalyzer.
Ten minutes later, I'm gliding south on Spadina Avenue. The Xinri is dead silent, yet I'm doing almost 40 kilometres an hour. A cyclist gives me the finger as I pass her on the left. A few blocks later, I get the finger again, this time from a pickup truck driver I've passed on the right in heavy traffic. He leans out his window to tell me to get a driver's licence. There's no point in telling him that I've had one for 43 years.
I have entered a parallel driving universe, where anyone with a few hundred dollars and an extension cord can operate their own motor vehicle.
The e-bike is a useful transportation tool. I glide over to Loblaws, park near the door, shop and stuff my groceries into the Xinri's three storage compartments. Unlike a bicycle, the Xinri doesn't need to be locked – I simply remove the key. Heading home, there's traffic. No problem – I squeeze between the cars and the curb and keep moving. Then a parked truck stops my progress. Another e-bike passes me on the sidewalk, runs a red light and disappears into the distance.
Heading down College Street, I ride in the bike lane, which seems safer than the main traffic lanes. The e-bike occupies a vehicular no-man's land: it can't keep up with cars, but it's faster than most bicycles. Until last year, e-bikes were allowed to ride on city bike paths under power, but they're now banned unless you kill the motor and use the pedals.
I give the Xinri's pedals a brief try and give up. The Xinri weighs 10 times as much as a bicycle, and its girth means the pedals are more than half a metre apart – I feel like a cowboy trying to saddle up a morbidly obese horse.
When I lean around corners, the pedals hit the ground, producing heart-stopping wobbles. It's like riding a motorcycle with the side stand down. The pedals may be a legal requirement, but they're a safety hazard. And the Xinri's sheer mass (about 80 kilograms) makes the pedals useless as a backup propulsion system – it's like giving a canoe paddle to the captain of a cruise ship in case he runs out of gas.
I head north up a long hill. I blow by three wheezing cyclists – the e-bike may be slower than a car, but uphill it makes you feel like Lance Armstrong after a megadose of performance-enhancing drugs.
As I park the e-bike, I notice a former office acquaintance I haven't seen for years. She gives me the kind of shocked, pitying look you reserve for a friend you find sleeping on a sidewalk grate with a bottle of cheap wine.
Like it or not, vehicles are status symbols. In our old family Honda, I am perceived one way, in my 345-horsepower sports car, another. Now, I am a road leper: the e-bike signifies my membership in a class that seems to be indelibly associated with licence loss, dubious hygiene and financial woe.
Social downfall aside, the e-bike has some undeniable advantages. It slices through traffic like a Ginsu knife and it's easy to park. Unlike a cyclist, I don't sweat. I arrive at a downtown meeting cool and refreshed, my skin glowing after 10 minutes in the breeze. And this is the cheapest powered transportation I've ever experienced. There's no insurance, no registration fee and no gas. I plug in the Xinri each night, and have 40 kilometres of nearly free travel available the next day.
The low-hanging pedals are driving me insane. I've nearly crashed several times when they hit the ground in corners. I contemplate removing them, but they're a legal requirement.
I stop at Mountain Equipment Co-op to buy a metre of bungee cord. I wrap the bungee through the pedals and across the e-bike's foot platform. This holds the pedals in a vertical position, maximizing ground clearance. I have solved the e-bike's biggest engineering problem. I congratulate myself on my brilliance.
As I back out of the parking spot, a groaning sound emanates from the Xinri's nether regions. The pedals are rotating backward, stretching the bungee cord to its limits. I have two choices – untie the bungee, or lift the rear wheel off the ground. As I head north, I marvel at the difference my bungee modification has made. I can now lean the Xinri around corners without grinding the pedals. But when I try to park, the backing-up problem rears its ugly head again. I untie the pedals.
That night, my wife and I decide to ride the e-bike to a dinner party at a friend's downtown condominium. We leave at 1 a.m. after dinner and a couple of drinks. I'm confident that I'm under the legal limit, but it still feels better to be driving an e-bike instead of my attention-magnet sports car. The temperature has fallen. My wife huddles behind me, using me as a wind-block. As we cross Bloor Street, I spot another e-bike weaving across both lanes. A salesman at one of the e-bike stores confided to me that some customers buy e-bikes so they can drink and drive, but warned that the courts are now cracking down.
I'm amazed at how many e-bikes there are on the road. My friend, Craig Offman, has done some research on the rise of e-bikes and has learned that e-bikes are most popular with people in the 50-64 age bracket. This corresponds with my observations. Many of the riders look like they belong to an older, less-than-affluent demographic. The e-bike seems to be a vehicle of necessity. Unlike motorcyclists, who see their rides as a lifestyle, and give each other waves as they pass, there is no camaraderie among the e-bike crowd. We pass each other with the grim resignation of workers dragging stones to the Great Pyramid. We're on these things because we can't afford anything else.
As I glide along College Street at 35 km/h, another e-bike zooms past. The rider is smoking and wearing a tiny, beanie-style helmet like the ones that bike-gang members wear to meet the letter of the law while also flipping it the bird. Legally, an e-bike isn't supposed to be capable of doing more than 32 km/h, but the smoking guy in the little helmet has to be doing 60. It isn't hard to hop up an e-bike. You can buy bigger batteries and cheater electronics that bypass the speed governor. I admit to myself that if I bought an e-bike of my own, I might be tempted.
I am back at Green Choice to return the Xinri. The front fender has somehow snapped in half. A car may have backed into it, but who knows? Since I bought insurance ($7 per day), I am covered. As I reverse the Xinri into a parking spot, I forget to move my foot, and the left pedal smacks me in the shin like a little mallet. The Xinri has left its mark on me.