You may have seen a change in your town or city recently as roads, share paths, bike lanes and pavements host a relatively new and soaringly popular type of vehicle: the electric bike.
By now, you’ve probably had your takeaway food delivered on one, or seen the vibrant red or purple bikes popping up on city streets, available to rent in new dockless share-bike schemes.
An increasing number of Australians are buying e-bikes for themselves too.
“Globally speaking, this craze isn’t unique – Australia has a lot of catching up to do,” Matt Turner, the founder of retailer 99 Bikes tells Guardian Australia, citing higher uptake in Europe and New Zealand. “There’s still a car culture here. But e-bikes are changing that as people who swore off cycling are realising that longer journeys can be done quickly and easily on one.”
Even with that global context, Australia’s e-bike sales stats are impressive. 99 Bikes – which has shops in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra – has reported a year-on-year double in sales between 2019 and 2020.
“Since 2018, sales of e-bikes have jumped by a whopping 131% nationally. Between April and December last year, sales almost doubled nationally by as much as 220% in some regions,” Turner says.
These sales are expected to double again in 2021. In some smaller independent stores, supply cannot meet demand, with up to a year’s waiting list for some models.
The most obvious explanation for the explosion of popularity of e-bikes is Covid-19 and its associated consequences: the desire for people to get outside, travel shorter distances, and avoid public transport.
But that alone doesn’t tell the full story. Although e-bike sales have gone through the roof in the past eight to 12 months, the Bicycle Network’s Alexander Miller says that continues an upward sales trend of the last five to seven years, as the once clunky and prohibitively expensive product became lighter and cheaper.
An accessible ride
One new e-bike customer is Jacqueline Baril, 31, from Perth.
The first impetus to buy one was to save money – cycling the $1,500 e-bike daily for a year will, she says, pay for itself in bus commute savings.
“It’s awesome. I can make a 24km return trip with zero bike fitness. I can feasibly ride into the city three to five times a week. I’d never have done that on a pedal bike.”
Baril is one of a projected influx of women fresh onto Australia’s bike lanes as cycling shakes its slightly aggressive ‘MAMIL’ (middle aged man in lycra) image.
In annual counts, the Bicycle Network estimates that only a quarter of cyclists are women.
For Baril, the e-bike has a unique appeal for women commuters, especially in Australia’s warmer climate: “It’s not wanting to arrive sweaty, gross and completely knackered. With longer hair and makeup, showering at work requires leaving a full hour earlier. Don’t need to worry about that on an e-bike – I just swap my shoes for sneakers!”
They’re also a boon for those with injuries or lower levels of fitness, those with longer or hilly work commutes and those with loads to carry such as shopping or children, and even regular cyclists on stinking hot days.
Add to this the recent installation of new bike lanes from pro-cycling councils and the infrastructure to coax people onto two wheels is improving, too.
Try before you buy: the share bike dockless rental schemes
E-bike rentals are hoping to shake the ill-fated trajectory of Australia’s past dockless shared bike rental schemes.
Miller specifically names the “oBike disaster”. On the one hand, he says, it was “good to see private companies giving the public cycling options”. But problems came because “they came in too quickly without much public communication before arriving”. Some were thrown into the river or up into trees – but that’s harder to do with a 30kg e-bike.
Australia’s largest fleet of dockless rental share bikes is operated by Lime. Confusingly they’re red, not green – that’s because Lime acquired Uber’s red ‘Jump’ fleet in June 2020.
Lime operates in 27 cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Christchurch and Auckland. It launched in Sydney, where almost a million trips have been made, in June 2020, and in Melbourne and the Gold Coast in December 2020.
It plans to introduce e-bikes to Brisbane halfway through 2021. Brisbane council is also introducing its own e-bike rental scheme.
Hiring a “premium quality” Lime e-bike will cost $1 to unlock and 45 cents a minute to cycle.
That’s considerably more than its cheaper competitor, brand new on the market: Beam. In February it launched 250 purple e-bikes onto Sydney’s streets with a zero unlock fee. They cost 10 cents a minute to ride. There’s no charge if you leave the dockless bikes in a designated spot, or a $1 convenience fee for parking outside one of those. If this market test succeeds, they’re hoping to expand across Australia and New Zealand in the coming months.
Beam bikes are slightly less seamless than Lime bikes; they’re gearless, whereas Lime bikes have three speed gears. For the safety-conscious – perhaps first-time riders – it’s worth noting Beam says it’s the first in APAC to provide personal accident insurance cover for the micro-mobility sharing services sector.
The most common purchase is the road e-bike, because it’s ideal for commuting. You can also get off-road versions for mountain biking or even sand biking, and if you need your e-bike to carry loads like shopping or passengers such as kids, a cargo bike is for you.
Prices range from approximately $1,200 to $10,000. Matt Turner from 99 Bikes says the $3,000 vehicles are probably the best value for road bike users – the batteries on these last longer, usually covering 65–100km before needing a recharge.
But some customers are satisfied at cheaper rates – Baril knew she wanted a step-through bike with a chain guard so she could cycle in work clothes. She also purchased extras: a basket, a back rack, a detachable battery, gears in case the battery died en route, a bell and a lock – all for $1,500.
Choosing the right bike
There are a bewildering number of brands to choose from – even Dyson has entered the market. Reputable e-bike brands are similar to conventional cycling brands such as Trek, Giant, Specialized and Reid.
99 Bikes’ Turner recommends the Pedal Comet ST Electric Cruiser Bike ($1,299) for an entry level e-bike, Cube ($3,399) for their commuter range and the Norco Scene VLT ($3,999) for “something different with a bit of ‘cool factor’, built for comfort and zipping around town”.
Tom Reynolds, a cycling expert and former communications manager at Cycling Australia, prefers the Lekker range (from $2,198): “I love the aesthetic, as well as the capabilities – they’re very cool and a very commuter/city-based e-bike range.”
Meanwhile, Bastien Wallace from Bicycle NSW, likes the “feel, configuration and performance” of Specialized e-bikes (from $4,800)– but not the price. “I could never afford one and can’t store it because … it’s too heavy.”
Going to the cheapest retailer will, she says, sacrifice performance, range, components and battery life but, provided they meet the Australian standard and are well maintained, they shouldn’t be more dangerous.
The maximum legally permitted motor is 250w and only pedal assist motors are allowed in Australia: you pedal to activate the motor.
There are three types of motor placement: back wheel, front wheel and mid drive. Turner says the mid drive is preferable: “The motor is where the pedals are so this gives you the most seamless feeling of the motor helping you pedal.” The charger comes with your bike and includes a book-sized block with a cord you plug in to the wall, which is detachable in some models.
Wallace says considerations such as how you’ll store, manoeuvre and charge your bike may limit the models you chose.
All experts agree that heading to a specialist bike shop for some good old-fashioned customer service and test rides is preferable to buying online.
In terms of affordability, some shops offer part buy, part rent schemes.
But is it worth waiting to buy one if range and availability will likely increase in the coming year? Demand currently outstrips supply, but it may be worth ordering now and waiting for two reasons, Wallace says: first, most bikes or component parts come from China, so supply may remain delayed for a while. Second, she says: “It’s unlikely there’ll be big drops in price as a large share of the unavoidable cost is the lithium battery.”
If you get insurance, check it covers for theft and personal injury. Your home contents insurance may also cover you. And if you do take the plunge, invest in a decent lock: these are attractive theft items.
The legal limit a motor can power an e-bike to in Australia is 25km/hour which, experts say, isn’t risky.
Wallace says Bicycle NSW is hugely encouraging of e-bikes, but warns consumers against being tricked into buying modification kits to make bikes go faster.
“These exceed the capacity motors should operate at within warm climates,” she says. “Overloading lithium batteries can overheat them – this happened in Adelaide and the user caused a bushfire.”
As with all bikes, the route you pick matters too. “Those separated bike lanes make me feel so safe,” says Baril. “They make a huge difference.”
Gary Nunn is a regular Guardian contributor. Twitter: @garynunn1