Britain still hesitant about innovation especially in transport

I have seen the future. Or have I? in 2012, I came across a wide variety of transport innovations and was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised. Normally, I am fairly cynical about wondrous new ideas and how they will reshape the world, and have been quick to dismiss them. However, given the pace of technological change and the number of ideas that appear workable, I am beginning to change my mind and conclude that we all ought to be better at examining and embracing innovation, including me.

Take the latest new concept I saw. In December I dropped in on a new electric bike shop in London’s famous Portobello Road (though sensibly it is at the far northern cheaper end) called justebikes (http://www.justebikes.co.uk/). The introduction had come through a fellow QPR fan and it was more out of politeness than any great interest that I managed to fit the meeting into my busy post Siberian pre-Christmas schedule. I am a keen cyclist. Actually keen is the wrong word. Cycling is simply fundamental to my lifestyle, able to get me round London quicker and more efficiently than any other method, and as a by product keeping me fit and reducing my carbon footprint. I am keen in the same way that I am keen about having legs.

So my instinct was that e-bikes are for wusses who are too lazy to push down on the pedals, and therefore have at best only a marginal role in the transport mix. I was wrong. Completely wrong. James Fitzgerald, the owner of the shop, convinced me that electric bikes could be part of making our cities more liveable. He cited both Holland and Germany, countries with much higher mode shares for cyclists, as having millions of e-bikes.

The e-bikes look like a normal bike except they have a battery pack on the back. The key point is that they enable the range to be extended or, indeed, the number of potential cyclists to increase. I had a quick ride on one and it was not only amazingly fast, but fantastic fun. It’s like having your dad push you along when you first get rid of the trainer wheels. You pedal a bit and before you know it, you are doing 16 mph, the top speed allowed under EU rules for electric assistance – pedal a bit harder and you can easily reach 20 mph.

Therefore, for a moderate amount of effort, an e-bike allows people to make a journey much greater than the, say, 5-7 miles maximum that an urban cyclist normally would consider. Moreover, it is somewhat safer as you can easily keep up with the urban traffic. Hills are no longer an obstacle and, that British obsession, a shower at the end of the journey, is completely unnecessary.

They are not cheap, mostly the wrong side of £2,000, although there are cheap but less reliable Chinese versions at under £1000, but they don’t get stolen. Not only is there a clever immobilisation system, but even if they are whisked away in a van, there is a tracking device. Mr FitzGerald says only one of his customers’ bikes has been stolen, and that was soon found.

He reckons that most of his customers were not previously cyclists: ‘Of course some have transferred from conventional bikes, especially those who feel they are getting too old for them, but on the whole this is a new market’.

Daisy Goodwin, the Sunday Times columnist, is one of the former, having cycled all her life but wrote a piece (November 18 2012) saying how she enjoyed the extra acceleration her e-bike gave her, allowing her to outpace the lycra louts louts or ‘velociraptor cyclists’ as she calls them. Her finest moment, she says, was when she overtook a pair of mountain bikers sweating up a hill when she was using her e-bike ‘in the Swiss Alps wearing a polkadot dress and flip flops’. She recommends any middle aged women to take up an e-bike to get around town.

There is a more serious point, however. These e-bikes do offer a genuine opportunity to extend the numbers using environmentally sound forms of transport.  However, inevitably, the British government has failed to encourage this trend. In a rational world, e-bike purchasers would be able to use money from the government fund for e-cars that gives buyers a 20 per cent discount. However, despite lobbying from Mr Fitzgerald, including a meeting with ministers, that is limited to four wheel vehicles. Meanwhile, tens of millions of taxpayers money is going on creating a network of charging points when e-bikes present a cheaper option that should be supported.

But encouraging e-bikes needs more than that. It requires a bit of out of the box thinking and an assessment of what is happening on the Continent. Yet again, Britain looks as if it will miss out on an opportunity offered by technology and innovation.

As for the other innovations I came across in 2012, ranging from cable cars to pods and even driverless cars, I will write about those in the next column. But a warning: I suspect there is a revolution coming in transport just as disruptive as the internet has been to everything from newspaper publishing to Blockbusters, and we should at least understand the nature of innovation or, best, embrace it.

  • Stephen

    A quick provocative question. If helmets aren’t necessarily a good thing as they encourage risk taking and speed, how does this square with the e-bike concept

  • christianwolmar

    It’s a good question. Even in my short tour round Notting Hill, I was surprised by the fast acceleration and the difference between a normal cycle. Certainly if I bought one of the things, I would be much more likely to wear a helmet than on my current bike.

  • John Davies

    A more radical idea to extend the numbers using environmentally sound forms of transport is Shweeb bike-on-monorail http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shweeb Pity we didn’t put in a demo around the Olympic park
    Infrastructure cost is significant but peanuts by comparison with Tube or bus, and rolling resistance so low that your poor old grandad can use it. Try it if you are ever in New Zealand!

  • W. J. Hall

    Basically they are electric motor bikes, or at least mopeds, and the only disadvantage of those that they do not bring is the smell of two stroke exhaust. The fitness benefits must be non-existent, they are far more likely to injure someone than a pedal cycle, including the rider, due to the greater speed, and the thought of significant numbers weaving around in traffic, which is the only way two wheelers can get there faster than cars, is horrifying. Worse they are likely to be using a lot of the road space used by actual pedal cyclists.

    W. J. Hall

  • James FitzGerald

    W.J, I too miss the wonderful smell of two-strokes in the morning but I fear they’ve had their day; These e-bikes are much cleaner @ circa 0.003KGCO2e per mile, require zero infrastructure, and because they enable folk to save those rare things time and money, stand a better than even chance of revolutionizing the way Brits travel. This revolution is in its 5th year in Holland and Germany, where most policy-makers and millions of individuals have taken to e-bikes. Global sales topped 32m units last year (I think the figure for cars was 64m?).

    Their assisted speed is restricted to 27.5kmh – slower than most cyclist’s cycle. They are safer than manual bikes because they bridge the speed differential gap: electrocyclists can accelerate from lights at the same rate as cars; electrocyclists of all fitness levels can travel in towns and cities at the
    same speed as cars. The result is far from horrifying: e-bikers ride in the under utilized free space ahead of the traffic so there are fewer ‘interactions’ with frustrated car/van/bus drivers; there are more space-efficient low-carbon two-wheelers on our roads, and their owners are quicker, fitter (you have to pedal), and richer.

  • James FitzGerald

    Stephen,

    Its a popular pastime to criticize our Dear Leaders (I enjoy it immensely) but their allowing e-bikes to be regulated along similar line to that of manual bikes – broadly unregulated – is very welcome. As with manual bikes there is no requirement for e-bike riders to use a helmet.

    E-bikes are not for cyclists, they are for the other 97% of the population, many of whom have not ridden a bike for yonks. The transition from four back to two wheels is bound to be a bit wobbly to start with but that wobbly period is shorter on an e-bike because e-bikers can accelerate to a ‘balanced’ speed easily. (lots of manual bike wobbling occurs ‘cos the rider is going beetroot trying to accelerate away from traffic lights).

  • stimarco

    I’m looking forward to your follow-up article.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the UK (and London in particular) needs to start looking seriously at innovations in the transport field. There are only so many buses you can ram down Oxford Street; only so many trains you can fit onto Thameslink. And traditional trams are a non-starter in city cores like London, where the lack of the parallel routes offered by gridded street layouts aren’t available.

    PRT, such as the ULTra system at Heathrow, shows a lot of promise. However, my money is on a scalable “FlexRT”, where the same infrastructure supports PRT-style operation at the edges of the network, blending seamlessly – it’s only software, after all – with a more conventional mass transit style of operation through high-capacity core routes. I.e. You get in a PRT ‘pod’ near your home, and get out of it at your destination without changing. Your pod simply joins other pods in a virtual ‘train’ where necessary to maintain an efficient flow.

    Disclaimer: I’m not aware of any specific R&D going on for the above concept, which is hardly surprising given the current state of PRT development, but I can see no technical reason why it couldn’t be done. We know we can build guideways and vehicles that could handle both modes, so it’s really just a matter of writing and testing suitable software to handle the transitions. The trick will be coming up with something that can be installed and operated without much disruption to existing modes, which will make the capital investment much lower. It will likely require some form of overhead guideway rather than the system used by ULTra.

    Some of you may recall the “Monometro” concept bandied about a few years ago for London. (They’re still going, but they’ve had more success abroad, it seems.) I think their lightweight guideway technology would work perfectly, and there’s no reason why the vehicles couldn’t run at street level wherever possible either. (That last point was a huge missed opportunity in the original proposal, which went for full segregation even when it wasn’t needed. At-grade stops in pedestrianised areas would have slashed the construction costs dramatically.)

    The UK pioneered heavy rail and urban metros to solve its transport problems. London didn’t invent the omnibus, but it did pioneer the first bus route with fixed stops. We’ve been applying science and technology to our transport problems for generations, so looking at new solutions from that direction makes very good sense.

    As for electric and electrically-assisted bikes, it’s clear Sir Clive Sinclair was way ahead of his time: http://www.nvg.ntnu.no/sinclair/vehicles/vehicles.htm – he should probably have waited for the Li-Ion battery technology to mature first, but that list makes it clear he didn’t stop trying. His most recent attempt is the “X-1”, officially launched in 2010, but has yet to actually appear. (I suspect the small wheels may be a problem on the UK’s distressingly ill-maintained roads. They’d be flat-out dangerous here in Italy, where the regulations appear to require potholes to become big enough to swallow a “Smart” car whole before they get filled in.)

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