Royston Smith: I was lent an e-bike to trial – and see now why they could help power a green revolution

23 Nov

Royston Smith is MP for Southampton Itchen

With more homes being needed in already congested cities, policy makers have a huge challenge in how more people are going to be able to move around efficiently. The coronavirus pandemic is making us rethink a lot about our lives, but will it really bring an end to our reliance on cars for many of us?

Probably not – but if we are to see the green transport revolution that the Prime Minister has announced, the case must be made for more accessible sustainable transport options, such as e-bikes.

Last month, my local Halfords store in Southampton lent me an e-bike to trial for a few weeks. When Simon, the branch manager, set me up on the impressive Carrera Vengeance, I had my doubts. His advice was straightforward – ‘just ride’. I expected I would need to do something with the throttle to boost the motor. Instead, it really was that easy, the constant feeling of riding in the lowest gear, unless I chose to add some resistance.

The effect of this was to make even the mightiest hills feel flat; very welcome in a hilly city like Southampton. It really couldn’t have been easier, and made cycling a viable option for me in a way it probably wouldn’t be for most slightly overweight men in their mid-fifties who have fallen out of the habit of cycling regularly.

I was also impressed that e-bikes maintain their charge for so long. Halfords showed me that on average charging is required every 30-50 miles, making e-bikes a practical alternative to using the car and public transport for many. E-bikes are included in the Cycle to Work scheme, which allows employees to spread the cost of a new purchase through tax free salary installments over 12 or 18 months making getting one a more affordable prospect than ever.

As with most urban areas, Southampton has a relatively well-mobilised cycle lobby. They frequently present it as a binary choice: you are either with them, or against them. Many of them have decided I am anti-cyclist because I maintain cycling isn’t a realistic choice for everyone, and have concerns about the delivery of cycle infrastructure in the city.

The Government is frequently happy to grant generous sums of public money to help deliver more sustainable cities, with green transport at the heart of this. The job of local authorities should be to be realistic about how this is spent, they know their locality and should deliver infrastructure which is sensitive to differing needs.

In Southampton, the Labour-led council has spent £11.5 million on the first phase of its cycling strategy, with many of these new cycle lanes having been left largely abandoned. Why? Because creating cycle lanes does not make cycling more accessible to all. The gridlock that resulted from halving road capacity to make space upset motorists and made air pollution even worse.

My experience of an e-bike showed me how they make cycling accessible to many more people than regular cycles. Halfords reported a tripling of sales of electric bikes this year. With the technology being cheaper and better than before, a quiet e-bike revolution is already taking place. E-bikes are perhaps not the entire solution – but they have great potential and should continue to be supported by policy makers.