E-Bikes, the way of the future

By Phil Jones

In this article we sing the praises of the e-bike, the organisations helping their people onto them, and how you can join them.

Electric or (e-) bikes are now a common sight on our roads and cycleways.  For an increasing range of people, they are proving to be a healthier, quicker, cheaper, and lower carbon transport option.

The first ride on an e-bike is often a game-changer. The response for many is a wide grin – cycling has not been so much fun since your childhood! Having the equivalent power of an Olympic cyclist available ‘in the saddle’, at the push of a pedal, or flick of a switch, gives a real kick and flattens the steepest of hills.

In hilly cities, like Auckland and Wellington, this opens up cycling as a commuting option for many more. No need to worry about getting hot and sweaty on the ride to work. Safer too – the extra power helps to pull away at junctions. Moreover, as the network of cycleways grows, there are more ways to avoid busy roads.

With these advantages, it is no surprise that e-bike sales are seeing exponential growth. It’s estimated there are now over 40,000 e-bikes in New Zealand, with annual imports now approaching 20,000. Go into a bike shop these days and e-bikes often outnumber conventional ones.

So, with this great alternative to car travel we are seeing less congestion, right? Wrong! Our car fleet continues to grow, with a net increase of about 150,000 a year – most of those cars don’t stay idle on the driveway. Our public transport system is improving – highlighted by the recent milestone of 100 million annual trips in Auckland – but for many it is not a workable commute option.

This is where the e-bike comes in. Often more convenient and certainly healthier and cheaper than alternatives. Great, too, you want to do your bit to tackle the climate emergency. Replacing a 10km each way commute by car with an e-bike saves about $700 in fuel and reduces your carbon footprint by nearly one tonne of CO2. No parking costs, either.

There is a ‘But’, though – price. Good quality e-bikes start at about $2,500. This can be a barrier for some.

Several forward-thinking organisations are stepping in. They recognise the potential of e-bikes for their staff’s health and wellbeing, but also the price barrier. Tauranga City Council (TCC) is a good example. Its pioneering initiative to support their people to buy e-bikes started at the end of 2017.

At a time when the Council was consulting the public over the city’s transport strategy, and how to make it easier for people to move around the city without using cars, it wanted to show leadership.

With the Council also moving into new premises, with restricted parking availability, e-bikes presented an opportunity for Council to lead the way with staff travel planning. Working in partnership with an e-bike supplier (ElectrifyNZ), the Council devised a scheme providing staff with a salary advance to buy discounted e-bikes. This helped overcome the barrier of high purchase price.

The project team worked through the implementation challenges to great effect – 52 council staff purchased e-bikes through the scheme. A survey revealed the impact of the change.

58% of the 39 survey respondents reported riding to work 4-5 days a week, with an additional 24% riding 2-3 days a week. Nearly three-quarters (72%) were using the e-bike to commute instead of the car. Every survey participant would recommend others try riding an e-bike to work! While almost all (92%) of participants now use their bikes to commute, significant percentages are also using them for leisure and social activity (51%) and exercise (38%).

The TCC scheme inspired several other organisations to follow, including the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA).  After introducing its own scheme, and keen to spread the word, NZTA asked Sustainable Business Network (SBN) to develop a ‘How to’ guide.  It provides tips and tools on establishing an ‘employer e-bike purchase support scheme’ – the title just rolls off the tongue!

The guide will soon be available on the NZTA’s existing Workplace Cycle Guide and will be officially ‘launched’ at an event on Thursday 22 August, from 10am to 11am, on the Wellington waterfront (Wharewaka Function Centre).

Come along to find out more on e-bikes, the organisations leading the way, and how you can help your people onto them. Hear from Hon Julie-Anne Genter, Associate Minister of Transport, as well as experts from SBN, NZTA and e-bike retailers. There will also be the opportunity to try out some e-bikes.

If you would like to attend please contact phil@sustainable.org.nz.