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Electric bikes and overcoming barriers to cycling in rural Wales

Presentation to a conference on Hydrogen and Electric Vehicles, Canolfan Hermon

25th October 2017
by Tom Wells

I want to say a few words under three broad topics: first to provide a little historical and social background concerning bicycles and their usage. Next to look at the barriers to cycling as transport in rural areas such as ours, and the  role that electrically assisted bicycles may play in helping to remove them. Finally I’ll say a few words about the technology and regulations surrounding the electric bicycle. (Although it’s slightly sloppy, I’ll be using the terms “electric bicycle” and electrically assisted bicycle” interchangeably. The latter is the correct terminology, but in tonight’s context, there’s little chance of confusion).

The crucial, essential, characteristic of the contraption that became the bicycle, was invented, or perhaps discovered,  in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais a forester from Mannheim, in Germany. This characteristic was what we would now call the “headset”, an articulation that allows one wheel of a two-wheeled in line vehicle to move semi-independently of the other. This is the feature that makes balancing on a bike possible. Baron von Drais named his contraption a LAUFMASCHINE or  “running machine”. It enabled speeds of up to 8mph and more over extended distances by scooting with one’s feet along the ground and then keeping them raised when one came to a descent. This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary.

Pedals were not added until the 1860s, at first directly on to the front wheel.  The  gearing depended on the size of the wheel and at first the only way to get higher gearing was to increase the size of the wheel, hence the development of the “ordinary” or penny farthing bicycle.

The 1880s saw the introduction of the “Safety” bicycle, based on a Diamond frame: wheel sizes became equal, or nearly equal, with the rear wheel driven by a chain. This led in due course to developments in which gearing could be varied by altering the ratio of the number of  teeth on chainwheel to the number on the rear sprocket, and eventually to multi-geared cycles. The diamond frame formed the basis of the vast majority of bicycle manufacture from then until the 1980s when welding techniques allowed frames to be built first with larger variations between the tube angles, and then in all sorts of previously undreamt of configurations .

Although there is apparently evidence of steam power applied to bicycles in the 1860s, the first proper motorcycle as we know it essentially used the skeleton of the safety bicycle allied with the emerging technology of the internal combustion engine and was developed in various locations from the 1880s and 1890s.

Bicycle usage

Bicycles have always been used recreationally as well as for utilitarian purposes: as toys as well as tools.

Von Drais’s running machine seems to have some of its immediate origins as a horse substitute: 1815 saw the eruption of Mt Tambora in Indonesia, and caused a period of global climate change which led to crop failure and famine  throughout the world in the following years: A corollary of this was that horses became very expensive. A gap in the market appeared.

Later the bicycle became a plaything of the rich, and there were various crazes where popularity soared rapidly and then declined just as suddenly. Racing and endurance cycling on the road has been part of cycling culture since the early days, at first largely the province of the well-heeled amateur, until professionalism/ commercialism arrived.  Indeed competitive cycling on the road has experienced something of a revival in the past few years, especially with British winners of the Tour de France. Off road cycling became much easier and very popular with the arrival of the mountain bike in the 80s, but is almost entirely carried out as a recreational or sporting activity. Interestingly, much mountain-biking takes place at way-marked trail centres that are frequently based on areas of forestry.  There are plenty of them in Wales as a whole but none in our immediate area.

Cycling as transportation expanded in the early years of the 20th century when mass production and rising wages made bicycle purchase possible to larger portions of the population. There are evocative images from the 30s of masses of bicycles pouring out of factory gates at going home time.

But equally swift was its decline in the 50s and 60s, as growing economies enabled the purchase of the motor car to come within the means of a wider section of the population. The 70s and 80s saw car ownership and usage accelerate even more.  The success of the internal combustion engine, the car economy, the oil economy, has undoubtedly  brought us undreamed of wealth, but it has also contributed to the existential threat we now recognise as climate change. Particular aspects of this that we might lay at the door of the motor industry include congested roads and polluted air.

So the 70s and 80s also gave rise to increasing  environmental awareness ,  to political activism highlighting the  ludicrous illogic that in the limit,  increasing car ownership would lead to everyone owning a car which would belch out poisonous fumes and be unable to move. To give a couple of examples: the first London to Brighton Bike ride in modern times,  highlighting the possibilities for cycle travel, took place in 1976. And 1991 saw the publication of Heathcote Williams’ polemic poem “Autogeddon”.

As is the way with these issues, however, although these cycling and environmental activists were shouting as loud as they could, for many years the volume was not really been above squeak level – their warnings were unheeded and solutions ignored.  It is perhaps only in the last 10 years that the squeaking has become audible, and momentum has now grown to re-establish the bicycle as a serious mode of transport. Now, cycling in the city is growing and growing, and there isn’t a major city without a bike hire scheme. The latest such schemes, so called Dockless Sharing schemes, marry the established technology of the bike with internet enabled charging and location systems.( By “charging” here, I mean money extraction rather than refilling batteries with energy) .Modal share for bicycles is high in continental Europe and is rising in Britain, in major urban areas at least.

But where are the utilitarian cyclists in rural areas. (For now I’m talking about any bicycles, electrically assisted or not).  In particular, where are they in West Wales? For sure there are plenty of recreational cyclists who go out once , twice or more times per week for fun, fitness  or sporting purposes, and plenty of touring cyclists who visit the area to explore, especially in the summer months.  But there are very few utilitarian cyclists. What is a utilitarian cycIist?  Well I suppose a utilitarian cyclist could be defined as  a local cycle user who needn’t finish their bike journey without being any more out of breath that they would be if they’d walked. They’ve had some exercise but they’re not knackered. They don’t need to wear special clothes, although they can if they want. They are using their bike to get from place to place in the course of their normal daily activity, whether it be to go to work, to the shops, visit friends, go out for the evening,  whatever. Their bike is a tool rather than a toy . It’s a means, not an end. ( I should emphasise I’ve got nothing against toys!).

Two thirds of car journeys are less than five miles and one in ten trips is less than a mile. Now that’s a UK wide figure, but even if we allow for rural skew, if we concede that, say , half or even one third of all rural car trips are under five miles rather than two thirds, that’s still a lot of short car trips. So why aren’t people cycling? Well the geography round here isn’t all that conducive, lots of steep hills. Also, many journeys might involve carrying passengers or stuff that’s too heavy or bulky to be easily loaded on a bike. And there’s the demographics: the UK population as a whole  is ageing, and I suspect that the number of elderly and retired people in this region is even higher than the national average. The population density is smaller, meaning there are larger distances  to bridge to maintain a social life. And again there’s the fact that relative disposable income could mean that if only one means of transport is affordable, it’s going to be a car.

What else?

My saddle’s uncomfortable! The weather! It rains a lot. There’s no facilities or infrastructure!

Bikes are too slow!:  in the city, a bike can be as fast as a car over a five mile distance. In the countryside, it’s probably more like one or two miles at best, so if we’re at all pressed for time, we’d take the car.

It’s dangerous! There are certainly road safety issues connected with vehicles travelling with large differences between their speeds.

And finally there’s the critical mass problem. I don’t cycle because nobody else does.

A bit of a gloomy diagnosis. Can anything be done?  After all, there are also many advantages to cycling: exercise,  the health -giving wind in your hair and your lungs, no parking charges, low running and maintenance costs, real door to door transport, speed and convenience in some circumstances. Realistically there’s no way that bicycles are going to take over from four wheel transport in the rural environment, but I think there is a chink of light where they could play a significant role and that chink is the electric bicycle. Where I work, in Cardigan, there are several villages within five or six miles: St Dogmaels, Cilgerran, Llechryd, Penparc, Aberporth  to name a few.  Doing a journey to town from one of these villages on an electrically assisted bike, while providing healthy exercise, would not be exhausting, and could be achieved in the same sort of timescale as in a car. Electric bikes mean the geographical obstacles are no longer daunting, hills are manageable. Age and lack of fitness  likewise are no longer barriers. True, you’ll still have to get used to a saddle, but discomfort diminishes over time. What about cycling in the rain? You can stay warm and dry if you’re suitably wrapped up. Infrastructure? Not great, but there’s Sustrans routes, the shared path along the Aberystwyth road, the old railway from Cilgerran, a large network of traffic-light roads, and possibilities for other improvements if there’s the political will. For instance we’re campaigning for a multi-use path from St Dogmaels to Poppit to remove the dangers faced by pedestrians and cyclists on narrow single lane sections of the route .

So if the electric bicycle can help to minimise or eliminate the barriers to cycling, what exactly is it?

An electrically assisted bicycle will have all of the following characteristics. It has:

1) The “bicycle” parts, ie those parts of the machine that you’d be likely to find on any bicycle, eg frame, gears, brakes, tyres etc.

2) The motor

3) The battery

4) The control systems.

In order to conform to standards that will allow it to be ridden in the same situations as an ordinary  bicycle, ie in “non-road” situations like bridle paths and cycle ways, as well as on the public highway,  there are various constraints that need to be applied ( These have come about through a Europe wide process of consultation and development, so heaven knows what the future will bring in this respect).

Three of these are key, for an electric bike to be road legal:

1) The motor must not exceed 250 watts output

2) The motor must cut out when the speed of the vehicle reaches approx 15 mph (25kph). One can travel as fast as one wants, but at over 15mph ,the motor is not contributing.

3) The motor should only be actuated through movement of the pedals. Until recently models were available with throttle activation. As I understand it, existing models of this type are still legal, but new ones must have the so called pedelec system if they are to conform to “type approval” regulations. Most bikes nowadays come with various levels of support, called for example Eco, Normal, Sport, which allow the motor to add varying amounts of power to the pedalling effort being put in.

As the product design parameters have matured, two distinguishable designs of electric bike have emerged: those with a “centre motor”, also known as the  bottom bracket or crank motor, on the one hand, and those with a hub motor on the other.

Hub motors can be built into either a front or rear wheel, with cabling returning to a control unit that will provide power to the motor  from the battery, and regulate the constraints. All will have some sort of speed sensor, some may have torque sensors as well.

Centre motors require that the frame is modified such that  the motor can be bolted on (and removed if necessary, eg for maintenance) . The pedal cranks form part of the motor unit, and the electronic control system hardware is usually contained in the  same unit. The motor then drives the chain to the back wheel, and so can utilise the gearing of the bike to optimise efficiency. Torque as well as speed can be registered and output varied in response.Control Systems

Centre motor type machines are generally more expensive because more sophisticated electronically, more effective, and because the frame has to be made specifically. By virtue of the fact that their wheels are conventional, they are also easier to work on for common maintenance tasks such as  puncture repair or tyre replacement. Having to negotiate cabling when trying to remove a hub motor wheel can be relatively easy, but on the other hand, it can turn a quick job into a tortuous nightmare.

With regard to batteries, the commonest chemistry used nowadays is based on Lithium, Various manifestations based on Lithium have been termed Lithium Manganese, Lithium ion, Lithium polymer.  Batteries are mounted on the down tube, or in a specially designed rear rack, or increasingly incorporated into the design of the frame, generally as an adapted down tube. Battery capacity is measured in AmpHours, or more correctly in WattHours. Typically capacity can vary from 200 Wh to 600+Wh, giving a distance range per charge of 20 miles to 100+ miles. Manufacturers routinely exaggerate when they are talking about range per charge, usually citing a distance that would be achieved under perfect conditions. To be fair, they often add caveats acknowledging that terrain, rider fitness, and the level of support from the  motor will affect the stated figure. Many manufacturers now provide 3 year warranties on their batteries, and some will state that the battery will be good for up to 1000 recharges. The wording  of these warranties will usually be couched in terms such that a given battery will retain up to a such and such percentage of its original capacity at the end of the warranty period. Battery technology, or rather its perceived inadequacy, is reckoned to be one of the major stumbling blocks to the wider take up of electric vehicles. For bicycles, replacement batteries cost hundreds, and charging times of hours rather than minutes tend to highlight the problem of Range anxiety, ie the worry that you could be left stranded for hours while the battery is recharged, that is if you can find a recharging facility at all.

Control Systems

Control systems may be subdivided on the one hand into motion, speed and torque sensors, and on the other to battery management The motion control electronics are generally hidden away in the motor unit or battery casing, and regulate the power output in response to data from sensors. The battery management system monitors the battery condition, preventing over charge or over discharge. The design of the motion control system is what gives each bike its particular characteristics. Within the broad legal and regulatory constraints there is room for a lot of subtlety in the design of the system, with the aim of making the bike handle as intuitively as possible, and the sophistication of these arrangements will be a factor in the cost of the bike. To enable the rider to interact with the system, at the very least there will be some sort of switch on the handlebar, usually with a battery level indicator. More sophisticated systems will have an HMI  ( a Human Machine Interface) which as well as battery level, might show the level of support from the motor, speed and mileage. Some may incorporate GPS. Some may be gathering all sorts of data about how the bicycle is used, for example the number of recharges that the battery has had.

So there we have it. Electrically propelled vehicles have been all over the news recently and are certain to replace carbon powered ones in the medium to long term. That will happen in the rural environment  as much as the urban. The electric car will solve many of the emissions and pollution problems associated with internal combustion technology, but it won’t do anything about congestion. About fitness. And it won’t need a smaller parking space. The electric bicycle, in a rural situation, can’t provide the answer to all conceivable transport problems but it certainly has a place, for some journeys, as a car alternative. And these are journeys which might not be feasible on an unassisted bike. There are many foreseeable situations where it can  provide a worthwhile contribution to the overall mix of solutions.