How can Cambridge's worsening congestion problem be solved? A decade ago, two friends who met at university in the city reckoned they knew the answer, and set about making it happen. Ten years on, it seems that more and more local residents are agreeing with them.
I spoke to Eddie Kehoe about the business he started with co-founder Jamie McAlley out of a garden shed in Cambridge. Today located on Newmarket Road next to the Elizabeth Way roundabout, the Electric Transport Shop is doing a roaring trade selling ‘electric bicycles’, with newer branches thriving in four other British cities. What is the secret of this company's pioneering success?
'More and more people are catching on to the many benefits of electric bikes', says Eddie. 'If I told you about a motorised vehicle that requires no insurance, beats the traffic, does 1000 miles for £4.50 – or even further if you pedal too – and makes you fitter and happier, you'd want one, wouldn't you?'
I could hardly disagree; I've been a huge fan of e-bikes ever since I bought mine a few years ago. Basically, e-bikes are conventional bikes supplemented by a battery-powered motor. Depending on the model, the motor can be engaged by pedalling, or by a throttle (as on a motorbike); either way, the extra oomph comes in handy when climbing hills or accelerating.
The great thing about e-bikes', Eddie continues, 'is that, when you find the right e-bike for you, you get all the benefits of conventional cycling but you’re more in control of the downsides, such as getting sweaty or tired'. So does this mean that you get less exercise on an e-bike? Not exactly, Eddie explains. 'Studies show that people tend to use their e-bikes more than conventional bike owners use theirs – so, overall, e-bike owners tend to get more exercise'.
It also seems that e-bikes are increasing the popularity of cycling. Perhaps people feel more confident because the motor helps them nip more quickly away from traffic, or avoid what Eddie calls 'low-speed wobble'. Whatever the reason, studies show that e-bikes tend to widen the appeal of cycling. For people of limited mobility – including disabled people or ME sufferers – owning an electric bicycle (or tricycle) can be particularly life-changing. Eddie recalls one customer, a gentlemen who weighed 30 stone, who managed to shed 5 stone in a year after buying an e-bike. Remarkably, he now rides his e-bike around velodromes as a pace-setter in races!
'People realise how amazing these machines are within moments of trying them out', says Eddie. I can vouch for that, I tell him. My first go on an e-bike was almost as exhilarating as my first ever cycle ride as a kid; both times I dismounted with a smile a mile wide. 'Ah', says Eddie, now smiling too. 'We call it the “electric grin” in the industry'. He invites people to come to the Electric Transport Shop in Cambridge to complete the '100 metre challenge': 'If you don't smile within the first 100 metres of your test-ride on an e-bike, you get a prize!'
What does the future hold for the Electric Transport Shop? ‘New stores are planned in more British cities’, explains Eddie, adding that the industry in general is growing rapidly, with manufacturing giants such as Bosch, Yamaha, Panasonic and Shimano now competing for a share of this exciting market. But Eddie is particularly passionate about the e-bike's potential for transforming Cambridge, where he lives with his family. ‘Everyone is fed up of the noise, pollution and stress caused by the city’s congestion. It’s encouraging to see that public transport infrastructure improvements are being discussed. But e-bikes are a simple, affordable and increasingly popular solution – they are a continuation of Cambridge’s long and proud tradition of cycling, after all’.
The figures certainly stack up. Most e-bike batteries last between 20 and 40 miles on a full charge. So, pretty much any journey within the city could be undertaken on an e-bike. Likewise, residents of surrounding villages could easily get in and out of town on e-bikes. Slightly further afield, commuters could recharge their batteries while at work – a full charge usually takes three or four hours, and the batteries are easily detachable.
The e-bikes themselves vary in price – from £699 to several times more, with various monthly payment options available, including an interest free option over 24 months. Current prices are attractive, but, in any case, for many people, the cost is redeemed by money saved. The average Briton spends around £90 on petrol each month. So, some e-bikes pay for themselves within a year – and then bring many more years of savings. The savings are even more impressive for the various businesses that Eddie has supplied with a ‘pool’ of e-bikes for the use of employees who need to travel around Cambridge in the course of their jobs.
As for the cost of the various possible new transport initiatives proposed for Cambridge, including several new train stations, a new Park and Ride scheme to the east of the city, and a guided busway route south of Madingley Road, figures of hundreds of millions of pounds are being talked about, not to mention the possible environmental costs that can be associated with large-scale developments. Let’s put this in perspective: the local authority could buy every Cambridge resident an e-bike for much less than the probable total cost of all the new schemes.
But why wait? Perhaps the best thing about e-bikes is that they are a great way for individuals to solve their own transport problems, to gain greater freedom and convenience, and save money, while also making a positive contribution to the local area. We don’t have to wait for the authorities to take steps to reduce congestion; we can make a difference too. That’s a fitting ethos, I think, for a company founded ten years ago by two entrepreneurs who are changing Cambridge for the better, one grin at a time.
Find out more about electric bicycles and tricycles at www.electricbikesales.co.uk, or pop into the Electric Transport Shop located at 118-120 Newmarket Road, Cambridge. See the website for details of other UK stores.