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Can electric bikes empower the future mobility solutions?

This study was carried out as part of the EPSRC-funded LC TRANSFORMS project and aimed for exploring the potential of electric bike (e-bike) to empower future mobility solutions in the UK through a better understanding of 1) how e-bikes were used in China and the UK; 2) how users evaluate their experience; 3) what went wrong in China; 4) can shared e-bike schemes remove some barriers to encourage more cycling in the UK. A large population of e-bike/e-scooter users and a newly launched e-bike sharing scheme in Nanjing enabled the street-intercept survey method to be adopted. Responses were received from 319 e-bike and scooter users with an average age of 35. However, in the UK, the number of e-bike users is still low which led to only 30 completed responses to the online questionnaire survey, 10 e-bike users and 20 c-bike users with an average age of 55. Four focus groups were therefore introduced to the investigation of 1) why people cycle; 2) what are the key barriers; 3) what need to be done to encourage more people cycle; 4) will e-bike be the answer? In total, 24 people (21 were members of Voice North) aged over 50 participated in the focus group discussions. 

Results from the survey in China revealed that 44% of respondents shifted away from driving and 32% from public transport to e-bike/scooter as their main transport mode. The main reasons were “allow door-to-door journeys”, “avoid stuck in traffic jam” and “easy to park”. When in comparison with conventional bike (c-bike), “quicker” and “less effort to ride” were highlighted. “Safe parking at destinations” was the major concern regarding whether to cycle or not. Journey durations ranged from 1 minute to 4 hours with an average of 23 minutes per trip. In terms of commuting, the average journey duration was about the same as driving and 60% if using public transport. Statistic tests revealed no difference between e-bike users and e-scooter users among the above factors. However, Chinese government has decided to cap the number of shared bikes and to rule out shared e-bike schemes due to the following reasons:

  • Lack of legislations and enforcement: many existing e-bikes exceeding the allowed top speed (20km/h);
  • Safety concern:
    • Rider – lack of education and road safety training for riding heavier and faster e-bikes has led to the increase       in road accidents and costs to economy;
    • Infrastructure – lack of fire protection built into public charging facilities for shared e-bikes could lead to hazardous events;
    • Bicycle – Lack of proper bike maintenance;
  • Environmental concern: lead-acid battery disposal.    

Results from the UK indicated that the main reasons for cycling were “healthier”, “more enjoyable” and “allowing door-to-door journey” and “easy to park”. E-bike users also highlighted “less effort to ride” in comparison with riding a c-bike. Decisions on whether or not to cycle could be influenced by traffic, weather or air quality, depended on what bike was used.  Moreover, UK respondents tended to cycle for longer duration than their Chinese counterpart, with an average of 74 minutes (e-bike users) and 135 minutes (c-bike users) for their longest trip, and 26 minutes (e-bike users) and 55 minutes (c-bike users) for their typical trip. The focus group discussions demonstrated that, although participants were fully aware of the health benefits and evaluated their experience as “wonderful”, “playful”, “feeling young again” and with “great pleasure”, they were extremely concerned about their safety if riding in traffic. Many of them reported that they would only ride their bike on cycle lanes and never went/would go on the road. The key barriers to more cycling were identified as below:

  • Poor status of road surface: e.g. potholes, drains, debris, subsidence;
  • Cycling in traffic: feeling very unsafe from traffic, emission and noise;
  • Cycle lanes come and go: lack of consistence and clear signage;
  • Lack of widely available and affordable bike sharing schemes;
  • Unaware of cycle routes, rules and legislations;
  • Expensive e-bikes with limited choices, e.g. power-assisted braking for arthritic hands.
  • Lack of social events that provide education and opportunities to practice in safe and secure places by local authorities;
  •  Concerns about the availability of good facilities at destinations: e.g. showers, changing room
  • Lack of full understanding of ways to improve health through cycling: should I use an e-bike or a c-bike?

Summary and Implications

We are aware that the UK sample size is rather small. However, the focus group discussions have yielded in-depth understanding that could not be achieved through a questionnaire survey. A larger sample size cover a wider demographic may be used to confirm our following recommendations: 

  • Create a safe cycling environment
    • Build more continuous cycle lanes for an integrated cycling network
    • Reduce road traffic and promote clean vehicles to reduce pollution and increase the perception of safety
    • Repair roads and improve the quality of road surface and road signage
    • Implement advanced technology to enhance the visibility of cyclists
    • Prioritise cycling over driving
  • Strengthen bicycle industry
    • Create more choice by providing a wider range of projects
    • Reduce the cost of e-bikes
    • Produce more efficient clothing for safety and comfort in bad weather
    • Promote bike sharing schemes (e-bike and c-bike)
  • Increase the awareness of health benefits associated with cycling
    • Organise social cycling events
    • Provide education and training

During the survey, observations were also taking place in Nanjing. Whilst e-bike/e-scooters are delivering convenience to everyday travel, the chaotic behaviour on the road needs to be tackled urgently. Policy interventions in China have played a critical role in promoting public bike sharing schemes and encouraged more cycling. Relevant legislations should be introduced to regulate cycling behaviour to improve the safety and traffic efficiency. For the UK, lessons should be learnt from such a practice if more e-bikes are to be introduced and promoted.

Dr Amy Guo
Lecturer in Intelligent Transport Systems
Newcastle University

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