We caught up with one of our Architects Matt Oxley, who was an early adopter of the Electric Bicycle to glean some inside knowledge on what it’s like to use an electric bike, how it changed his lifestyle, and some important things to consider when embarking on your first trip.
What made you choose an electric bike?
I have always cycled, I was used to negotiating Birmingham, so when I arrived in Plymouth, I carried on that mentality of cycling everywhere. The big difference between Birmingham and Plymouth is the terrain, hills everywhere! So, for the first few years, I persevered.
Electric bikes were not really in the mainstream media till about 5-6 years ago. I had not been aware of them, but when I heard about this concept, I thought it could be incredibly useful. I went to the bike shop to try one and ended up purchasing one on the spot, I knew it was going to be a complete game-changer. It meant I no longer had to battle headwinds and hills on my way to the office. I could say goodbye to turning up sweaty and dishevelled! I no longer had to bring a change of clothing with me every day and find somewhere suitable to change. It’s wonderful to be able to arrive at work smart, calm and composed. It’s a huge benefit, it saves you so much time, but if you want to reduce the assistance, you can ramp things up on your way home!
The other key benefit was that while there was a big financial investment at the start – there is no getting away from it, Electric bikes are expensive; my partner and I were able to become a one-car household. I think I easily earned that money back within a year. I have checked the energy usage when I’m charging and it’s minimal. It works out at under a pound for a week of travel!
There are things to be aware of when purchasing an electric bike, like you do go through brake pads quicker than a normal bike as it is heavier, I also now choose to get it serviced yearly to ensure it is safe and will last me for as long as possible, so it’s important to factor this in.
How do you feel about the introduction of an electric bike network in Plymouth?
I think it’s an exciting time, hopefully, the electric bikes will take off and people start to use them as a regular service, or it will encourage them to get their own bike. I do think it’s just one of those things that people need to try, and this gives you the ability to do so. It’s a big investment, so getting the insight offered by trying it over an extended period is tremendous.
The other advantage of using e-bikes is they allow you to travel a much more direct route, a bus journey in rush hour could take you 30 mins and only 10 minutes on a bike without the traffic jams and multiple stops to contend with. It’s another reason I choose this mode of transport, I was so fed up with sitting static in traffic from one end of Plymouth to the other. This way I can take alternative routes, cycling through beautiful local parks and various interesting back streets.
What do you need to watch out for?
In terms of negatives, Plymouth has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure. I am part of a group called Plymouth Cycling Campaign which aims to highlight some of these issues. This is one of the biggest challenges for the city, there are times when it feels unsafe. It’s worth considering your routes, not only from a safety perspective but also to avoid congestion It’s never pleasant to be cycling through densely packed cars with a nose full of fumes!
That’s the joy of electric bikes, you can take the longer more scenic route and not worry. I have explored so many interesting hidden areas and backstreets. I probably know every street in Plymouth!
It’s also important to make sure you think about where you can secure your bike. You will need to get insurance and a good lock; it should not be a barrier. Just always make sure you put the lock through the frame! Some insurance will stipulate the standard of lock you need to be covered, so this is another thing to consider.
We need to raise awareness; Plymouth would benefit from increased cycle lanes and more roads to be made one way; to allow shared surface cycle and pedestrian space. I am a careful cyclist, but I get shouted at every couple of weeks, even though I’m not doing anything unsafe. There is a tension that lives in a city between cars and cyclists and to a lesser extent between pedestrians and cyclists.
There needs to be a cultural shift and a better way to live together. When you go over to Holland and Denmark there is a priority hierarchy, which starts with pedestrians, then bicycles, followed by cars. So, you yield to the most vulnerable road users. It seems to work and there is respect there, we’re not there yet. I wonder whether these schemes will help. As more bikes are introduced, and more people will use them, perhaps attitudes will change. One thing is certain we are going to have to move away from our over-reliance on cars.
The other obvious barrier to cycling is the weather but with a decent coat and some waterproof trousers, you can negotiate most things. It is also important to make sure you are as visible as possible, so it’s important to wear some reflective clothing. The great thing about the e-bikes opportunity through Connect Plymouth is you can choose to just use them on pleasant days, without the expense of investing in a bicycle you only use for a few months a year.
Something not many people are aware of is some newer models of electric bike offer varying levels of assistance. You can ride with it off entirely, however depending on the models there can be a certain amount of drag from the motor. My bike offers 3 different levels of assistance eco – which covers the additional weight of the motor, so it’s still like riding a normal bike. Next, there is sport mode, which is 40% help and Turbo mode which is 80-100% assistance. I generally ride around in eco, but if I come to a hill I will often increase the assistance. In the very latest models, they are connected to an app which offers even more nuanced levels of assistance.
You can get a good quality, reliable electric bicycle for around 1.5 to 2k. The second-hand market has not quite hit electric bikes, yet another reason why the Connect Plymouth scheme provides such a good opportunity.
What difference has it made to your lifestyle?
It can open whole new ways of being, during the summer I will choose to cycle the long way home or detour to the local beach, it allows me to be more spontaneous and connected with my surroundings in a more meaningful way.
I use my e-bike for everything, visiting friends, going to work, to the gym, it is my main mode of transport. I genuinely prefer it to a car, but I do find the winter months quite tough. The launch of Connect Plymouth comes at the cusp of spring, so is a great time to start exploring.
Mentally I love it, the days I cycle to work I notice a big difference in contrast to when I get a bus in or a lift. It gives you that 10-20 minutes of mindfulness in the morning, it’s also just really fun, taking in the views, it’s a precious window of time during an otherwise hectic week when you can connect to the present.
Physically it’s very easy to ride an electric bike whatever your level of fitness. I have an old back injury and riding a conventional bike can be uncomfortable, with the electric bike I have no trouble, so I encourage everyone to find out if it could work for them.
For someone who would never typically consider themselves to be a cyclist, it can completely transform that and open up new opportunities. If I was to go up the steepest hill in Plymouth my heart rate would on be at the equivalent of a brisk walk, so you still get small wins for your physical health, even when using it on the maximum setting.
The other interesting thing is how we encourage people to adopt this there is still this idea that it is cheating, I used to get a lot of ribbing from family and friends and at times other cyclists. I guess they don’t like you sailing past them with minimum effort on a steep hill, but surely that’s better than a car?! I think attitudes are changing and given time I think the cycling community will begin to embrace the newcomer!
To find out more about Connect Plymouth and the location of the facilities that are closest to your home or where you work or play, visit www.connectplymouth.org