Maurice Wells was convinced the time was right to start a business when a DIY electric-bike project helped his mother take up cycling again.
A solar energy engineer and community bike club organiser, Wells had spent years trying to get more people to ride. When he gave a prototype electric bike to his mother, he says, she began riding to work again immediately, having not ridden for more than 10 years.
“It was just so obvious that the electric bike was going to help a lot more people overcome the barriers they were facing to riding,” Wells says.
Ten years later, electric bike sales in Australia are experiencing “phenomenal growth”, according to Nathan Reizer, who set up his shop Melbourne Electric Bicycles three years after Wells established Glow Worm Bikes in Sydney.
The number of electric bikes imported to Australia has tripled over the past three years and sales are growing faster than any other segment of the Australian bike market, with more than 50 brands offering a range of models, according to Peter Bourke, general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia.
Proponents say e-bikes can help more people get exercise, ease traffic congestion and reduce vehicle emissions.
But the Australian market is still a long way behind Europe, and experts say a severe lack of adequate bicycle infrastructure and outdated regulations are stifling the growth of the e-bike industry and putting lives at risk. .
Wells’s mother is indicative of a growing number of cyclists who previously would not have had the confidence to get on a bike but now make it a regular part of their week thanks to the electric boost.
But a lack of safe cycleways is holding many others back, and leaving those on the roads – especially inexperienced cyclists – in dangerous situations, Bourke says.
“We need better bike infrastructure – there are no ifs, buts or maybes on that,” he says. “We need to complete the [cycling] networks and we need to fill the gaps.”
He points to a bike lane on busy Queensbridge Road, a primary cycle route into Melbourne’s CBD from the south, as an example of the many gaps in Australia’s urban network. The green-painted lane veers abruptly into a kerb on a busy stretch of road and disappears, only to reappear again 500m later.
The City of Melbourne has committed $28m to active transport improvements in its 2019-20 budget, but statistics suggest it has a long way to go.
“Women tend to be less risk averse,” Bourke says. “The ratio here is four men to one woman riding a bike. In the countries with good bike infrastructure, it’s 50:50.”
A 2019 review of Melbourne’s cycling corridors found that between one and four crashes a year had been recorded on 16 of the city’s strategic cycle routes.
‘E-bikes are like regular bikes, just with an added electric motor’
The e-bike is defined by Australian Vehicle Standards. In 2012 the law was updated to bring Australia into line with European standards, which means it is legal to ride e-bikes (called pedelecs) with an electric motor of 250 watts of maximum continuous power that are activated by pedalling, at a maximum speed of 25km/h.
Jimmy Couling, o Melbourne’s Velo Cycles, says: “E-bikes are just like regular bikes, just with an added electric motor, which is powered by a large-capacity lithium ion battery. So you have to have the pedals moving in order for the motor to engage, and then, depending on which mode you have it in, it will provide a little bit of assistance or it will provide a lot of assistance.”
But regulation in Australia has trailed behind the technology. It wasn’t until three-and-a-half years after imports of pedelec e-bikes were legalised in May 2012 that they were legal to ride in all states and territories.
A loophole in current laws allows the sale of e-bikes that don’t meet Australian standards. These bikes can legally be ridden on private property only, and some are powerful enough to reach speeds of 60km/h.
Import statistics collected by Bicycle Industries Australia don’t include non-road legal bikes, so it is unclear how many are on the market. But Bourke acknowledges that “private property only” models could be entering the country disguised as legal models.
“Let’s be honest, if you told customs that they were legal on paperwork, customs wouldn’t know the difference,” he said.
Australian Border Force said in a statement it used “data analysis technology and intelligence sharing” to detect regulated goods, but declined to comment specifically on e-bikes.
Once e-bikes are on the road, police are ill-equipped to test whether the bikes are legal.
In 2015, 86-year-old Albert May died after he stepped out onto a footpath and was hit by an e-bike in Rye, Victoria. The coroner’s report found that the e-bike that struck him was imported legally with paperwork claiming it had a 250-watt motor, but in fact it was twice as powerful.
Bourke says there are very few labs capable of accurately testing the legality of e-bikes in Australia.
“There’s only one lab that I know of in Australia that Australia Post trust to test their bikes and that’s in South Australia,” he says. Because the testing cannot be done by police on the road, bikes are unlikely to be tested until after an accident or infringement has occurred, he says.
A Sydney-based high-powered electric bike rider who asked to remain anonymous believes that between 5% and 10% of e-bike users in his area are riding illegal or modified e-bikes.
“There are some shocking excuses for [bicycle] infrastructure where I live, and if I have to ride in traffic it is safer if I can travel at 30 or 40km/h,” he says. “If the rider is knowledgeable and safe, they should be able to ride on shared paths as well. I’d like it to be legal like it is in Europe.”
Glow Worm’s Wells says high powered e-bikes are uncommon, but mechanics at one Sydney bike shop reported similarly high numbers, telling the Guardian up to 10% of e-bikes coming through their workshop had been illegally modified, allowing them to travel at speeds greater than 25km/h.
‘In Australia we have such poor bicycle infrastructure’
The regulation of higher powered bikes is a divisive issue among experts and industry groups. Bicycle Industries Australia and many retailers support introducing a second category of e-bike allowing speeds of up to 45km/h. This would bring Australia into line with 2016 European legislation.
A reasonably fit rider can ride at 40km/h unassisted on a flat surface, so a 25km/h limit deters some fit riders, Wells says. He now runs an e-bike shop in Auckland and says that when a 32km/h assisted speed limit was introduced in New Zealand he experienced a jump in sales from new customers.
“In Australia we have such poor bicycle infrastructure that most people that are commuting spend some, if not most, of their time interacting with cars on roads,” Bourke says. A 45km/h limit would mean “a smaller speed differential between cars and [riders], and that would be beneficial”. But he agrees higher speed bikes would need to ride on the road, not shared paths.
But Bicycle Network, the pedestrian lobby group Victoria Walks and e-bike safety expert Marilyn Johnson oppose moves to legalise higher powered bikes.
The executive officer of Victoria Walks, Ben Rossiter, says “e-bikes offer a fantastic opportunity for potential new riders” but any changes to regulation must ensure high-speed e-bikes don’t travel on shared paths for the safety of pedestrians.
Johnson is “quite uncomfortable” with the idea that older people – one of the biggest demographics taking up e-bikes – could “suddenly be doing 45 km/h in traffic”. From a safety perspective, even the current 25km/h limit presents some challenges for this group, she says.
In the meantime, riders who want some extra speed risk being pulled up by police “in the same way someone who drives a modified car is taking a personal risk”, Bourke says.
“But it is a calculated risk.”
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