Diversifying the cycling community with e-bikes

Cycling in the UK suffers from a diversity problem. The stereotype of the MAMIL – middle-aged man in lycra – is alive and well, and official figures suggest it’s not unfair typecasting either: the UK cycling scene is still dominated by adult males.

Men aged 30-49 outstrip all other age groups in number of trips and distance they cover on bikes, the National Travel Survey 2017 revealed. And, on average, men cycle 24 trips per year, and clock up 95 miles, while women cycle nine trips per year and travel just 25 miles.

We know those who cycle for longer than two hours per trip are far more likely to be doing so for pleasure, rather than transport. And that’s the thing. For MAMILs, cycling tends to be a weekend sport. They cover huge distances and spend big money on bikes and kit.

 But cycling as a mode of transport is nowhere near as popular as it should be. Last year, only two per cent of all trips were undertaken by bike. While one in seven people cycled at least once a week, two thirds cycled less than once a year or never.

In the UK, cycling is so rarely viewed as a viable mode of transport, even though the health and environmental benefits are obvious, and cyclists don’t incur road tax, parking charges, fuel costs, or prohibitively expensive repairs.

It’s a different story across the continent. Dutch, German, and Danish women cycle just as often as men, according to this report, and the popularity of cycling is distributed evenly across all income groups.

It helps, of course, that in certain cities, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, road infrastructure and urban planning is set up for bicycles. Wide, pothole-free bike lanes mean cyclists don’t have to go head to head with traffic, there’s ample bike parking on every street, and bikes are heavy, inexpensive, reliable steeds with racks for carrying shopping and luggage.

Here in the UK, the infrastructure is lacking, and campaigns to educate drivers of the correct width to leave a cyclist while overtaking, although necessary, also strikes fear in those already lacking confidence. 

But there are other reasons - and a lack of fitness is often cited as something that stops more people from getting on their bikes. For those who live in hilly areas, or who don’t feel able to keep up with traffic, and don’t want to be victims of road rage, getting around on two wheels just isn’t feasible.

But there is one smart travel innovation that is changing all that.

What’s an electric bike?

Also called pedal-assisted bikes, e-bikes are very similar to normal bicycles in that they have the same mechanical make up, with pedals and brakes. The only difference is the addition of an electric motor and a battery which take the effort out of pedalling.

The rider chooses how much work their legs put in and how much the motor assists by altering the pedal assistance setting on the display.

An e-bike requires less effort to keep up with the pace of traffic and lets the rider tackle inclines and strong headwinds far more easily. Rides you’d normally finish in a sweaty breathless heap can be done without so much as a glisten but, most importantly, e-bikes make cycling accessible.

For the commuter who doesn’t cycle because the office is “just a bit too far”, or who lives at the top of a massive hill, for the person who has never really exercised but wants to start with something low impact and fun, or the over 60 who still wants to keep up with group rides, e-bikes are the answer.

A recent study by Velofollies revealed that e-bikes are now the largest bicycle category in Belgium, taking a market share of 45 per cent. Within the e-bike category, ladies e-bikes constitute three quarters of units sold.

At Cycle Solutions, our second best-selling bicycle last year was an e-bike. Usually, around 18 per cent of our buyers are women. For this bike, that figure was 40 per cent.

A recent survey conducted by YouGov for Ovo Energy found distance to the workplace is the biggest barrier to cycling work, with 44 per cent of respondents saying this was the primary reason they chose not to commute by bike.

But with an e-bike suddenly, lengthy journeys become achievable, hilly commutes manageable, and age and fitness – and some disabilities – are barriers to entry no more.

Yet only three per cent of UK adults currently own an e-bike, despite the fact that 69 per cent have heard of them, according to Ovo’s survey. The question remains - why, despite positive signs, are e-bikes not yet taking the UK by storm? In short: price.

What needs to be done

The issue is electric bikes suitable for reliable daily commuting are not yet available for under £1,000. The starting point for a good e-bike is around £1,200 - prohibitively expensive for many people.

While schemes are available in the UK to make buying a bike more affordable, the limits are often set too low to help people buy e-bikes. At Cycle Solutions, we’d love to see the limit increased to help more people buy e-bikes and help make the cycling community truly diverse.

In reality, cycling to work is the most affordable way to commute aside from walking. The average spent on commuting in the UK is £146 per month, rising to £305 per month for those commuting into London, according to totaljobs.

There are myriad reasons why cycling to work is game changing for both employers and employees. The company minimises its impact on the environment and eases parking issues, staff arrive more alert and awake, take fewer sick days and are more productive.  

In an age where businesses are trying hard to show responsibility towards their people and the world around them, cycling and the cycle to work scheme are more relevant than ever. E-bikes are the innovation cycling has been waiting for and the key to greater confidence in the saddle.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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