Mercury Energy's discount e-bike policy gave the local industry a kick-start. (Image: Mercruy)

Bikes are the new cars

Four months ago Caroline Shaw bought an e-bike. She explains why they’re the answer to our lethal car culture.

Four months ago we took what felt like a huge leap of faith and bought an e-cargo bike. The combination of three things tipped us over the edge: feeling the need to do something to reduce our carbon footprint, a fortuitous contract payment, and the excellent incentive of having no functioning car for the foreseeable future after someone drove into the back of it while it was parked. 

It changed our lives. We were initially unsure how much we would use it; we use it all the time. In the four months we’ve owned it we’ve ridden it 1000km around town, averaging around 50km a week. Like most people in New Zealand, the majority of our trips are actually pretty short, within a 5-7km radius of our house: things like school runs, weekend shopping (yes, it fits groceries for a family of five), and taking our three kids to the pool, library, sports – you name it. 

I also ride it to work, meetings, and social events. It’s the default vehicle of our household now.

Despite being a researcher in the area of active travel, my interest in cycling had previously been more, well, academic. Like most women I was more of a walker and user of public transport, not a cyclist. A few years back I had tried cycling to work but hated it. I hated getting changed at work, I hated being passed by idiots who then pull up at a red light 50 metres ahead, and I hated the multiple Wellington bus drivers who took it as a personal affront that I was on the road and would use their buses to try and remove me from it. I gave up after eight months with a sigh of relief. 

Not so with the e-bike. I can use back routes that include hills, I wear normal clothes, and I have discovered the great joy that is cycling down quiet Wellington streets on a still night.

It’s the kids’ preferred mode of travel. They have learned they can fight with each other on the back of the bike just as easily as they can everywhere else. The threat that they’ll have to get off and walk if they don’t stop fighting is about as ineffective as any other.

One thing I’ve learned is that cycling with kids is usually a more pleasant experience than cycling without them. People see you riding with two or three kids on the back and are either entranced by the sight of you all or think you must be utterly crazy. This can result in some strange behaviour from drivers, but they do tend to give you more space when they pass and show more consideration.

Some people are still idiots, though. The kids and I have been told to get off the fucking road by someone who has been delayed for 30 seconds. This kind of abuse is unpleasant at the best of times, but much worse with children in tow.

Buying this bike was a leap of faith because there was no way to try one before buying. We knew no one we could talk to about it, and we couldn’t borrow or rent one for a few weeks to try it out. It was also eye-wateringly expensive. However, there’s plenty that could be done to make getting a bike like this a normal option instead of the leap into the unknown it currently is.

Firstly, we need to subsidise them. The price of these bikes is totally off-putting, especially in our transport system which is still hostile to cycling. If we can subsidise electric cars then we can certainly subsidise electric bikes, which have less embodied carbon, better health benefits (i.e. physical activity benefits not just reductions in air pollution), and are generally more fun. We’ve proved these bikes are a genuine option for replacing a second car; possibly even a first car in some households. Why is the “clean car discount” not accompanied by an e-bike discount?

Our transport carbon emissions have gone down. Our petrol spend has halved for trips around town when compared to the past three winters, and we now fill up the car every five or six weeks. We are also using public transport less (which, in Wellington, is a good thing).

Secondly, it would help to have places to borrow/rent these bikes for a couple of weeks to allow people to experience how these bikes would work in their lives before the commitment of buying them. Community e-bike libraries are an option: swap your car keys for e-bike keys for two weeks.

Finally, infrastructure. People who use e-bikes still want and need to use cycling infrastructure. While we have seen some improvements in our cities, it’s too slow. In Wellington, our local council seems to treat infrastructure for bikes (and now e-scooters) as something they can endlessly defer because of parking policies, the basin flyover proposal, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, etc.. 

It’s like someone coming into the emergency department with pneumonia and being told it won’t be treated until they’ve dealt with their headache and high blood pressure and maybe their gout. Sure, these other things are important, but really you just need to get on and give them some antibiotics. 

We don’t have the luxury anymore of a Netherlands-style generational change towards cycling. We frittered those decades away in New Zealand doing dairy intensification and buying cars. To meet the emission reductions that we, and the planet need, speed is now of the essence. Cycling infrastructure is an important component in our response to the climate emergency and the public health epidemics of physical inactivity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. 

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We need to treat putting cycling infrastructure in all towns and cities as a matter of urgent priority; and we shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail for every 50 meters of road space allocated to something other than cars.

Our car culture is a problem. They clog up our cities, they kill people through injury and air pollution, and they make us miserable and stressed. If we want to reduce our emissions and make our cities safe, healthy and fun places to live, then we have to change.

Supporting the uptake of e-bikes and cycleways is a way to start addressing this culture. And it’s hard to think of a more fun way to do it.

Read more: A novice’s guide to buying your first e-bike


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