• Why ebikes are making food faster

    Being a writer is great. It means I get to work long shifts as a delivery boy, in a precarious effort to stave off the ever-present threat of financial ruin and starvation. But I’m not kidding; I really do enjoy doing deliveries – curries, in my case. Before you jump to any smutty conclusions, I don’t do the job for the alleged romantic perks (my name’s Ben, not Sven). I love doing deliveries because it means I get to ride my ebike – and get paid for it!

    Earlier this year I purchased a second hand ‘Smarta’ ebike from the Electric Transport Shop in Cambridge. Since then I’ve been using it to do local deliveries five evenings a week. The ebike has been an absolute revelation, especially to my car-driving colleagues. I can get around town much quicker than they can, partly because I can weave through the traffic, which is notoriously heavy during the evening rush hour in Cambridge, and partly because I can utilise short-cuts and more direct routes that are only accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. Being on an ebike also enables me to scan house numbers a little bit more easily than a car driver can, and I can park on the pavement directly outside the customer’s front door. So in the time that it would take a driver to locate the house then find a suitable parking space then park in it, I’ve already dropped off the food and left.

    And, more often than not, I leave with a tip in my pocket; the customers seem to really appreciate my ebike. Obviously, compared to a car it is more ecologically friendly, less polluting and more community-spirited, all of which helps capture people’s interest, but they’re also just keen to find out more about the ebike itself. I’m always happy to show off its specifications. Smarta ebikes have five power settings, corresponding to increasing levels of assistance when the rider pedals; on number 5, it’s like getting a push from Usain Bolt. In addition, there’s a throttle on the handlebars (like on a motorbike), which provides even more oomph, so I can zip safely away from traffic at the lights. I keep a spare battery back at the kitchen, so when the first one runs out, I swap them over, and charge the original. They last for 25 miles or so, and are easily detachable.

    Costing £1110 as new, Smarta ebikes are sturdy, which is important when you’re navigating bumpy streets (that’s a hint, Cambridge County Council), yet stylish, too – mine came in a bright shade of cyan, which really offsets the elegantly curving frame. I frequently notice pedestrians doing a double-take when they see me cruising nonchalantly past; I know they’re thinking, *wow, what is that cool vehicle?*. Naturally, I bask in the reflected glory.

    Of course, my boss, too, loves the ebike. He is enthused by its potential to save money as well as time. At the moment, he spends over £1000 a month on transport fuel costs. With a fleet of ebikes instead of cars, using electricity rather than petrol, that figure would drop to about a fiftieth of its current size; yes, you read that right. Our company already employs a handful of cyclists on conventional bikes, for round trips of a few miles or less, but ebikes could extend that cyclable range across the whole of Cambridge. In moving over entirely to bikes or ebikes, we would also extend our pool of potential employees; not everyone has a driving license, especially among the students and artistic ne’er-do-wells like myself for whom causal evening work is attractive.

    A further general benefit of using bicycles is that their storage boxes (fixed to the rear racks) can easily be emblazoned with free advertising, which obviously creates a positive impression – apart from when, very rarely, members of the public ring up to complain about the conduct of our cyclists on the road. One guy rang this week to say that when he was in his car one of our company bikes, whose rider was wearing earphones, had “cut him up”. Don’t get me wrong, I never, ever wear earphones when riding, and I don’t think anybody should, but I couldn’t help chuckling when the furious driver said of our cyclist: “he couldn’t even hear me swearing at him”. So I guess earphones do have occasional advantages. 

    I spoke to the Electric Transport Shop’s co-founder Eddie Kehoe about the appeal of ebikes to delivery companies. ‘There are so many financial pressures on businesses these days’, he explains, ‘everyone is looking for a way to control their outgoings. Ebikes are a simple but powerful way to drive transport costs down’. Or, indeed, to ride them down. Now with stores in five British cities, the Electric Transport Shop has supplied ebikes not just to numerous delivery companies but to other businesses with employees who need to be out and about during office hours. ‘The ebikes industry is taking off’, declares Eddie, pointing to the range of prices, features and models (and also etricycles) now available from the Electric Transport Shop; ‘some of the world’s biggest companies, including Panasonic, Bosch, Yamaha and Shimano are now competing for a share of the market’. It seems strange – indeed, fantastic – to think that they now have a growing role to play in the takeaway food industry too.

    Moreover, ebikes seem to be generating not just efficiency but innovation within that industry. One company that Eddie has worked with is rewriting the rules of takeaway food, as recently reported by the BBC (look out for the Smarta ebike in the video!). Founded by Will Shu, ‘Deliveroo’ uses mobile internet technology to connect customers, deliverers and kitchens, thus enabling restaurants – both large and small – to offer a delivery service when they wouldn’t otherwise have done so. ‘In our platform’, Shu explains, ‘all they have to do is cook the food and we take it and bring it to people, which means that a) we can work with a higher class of restaurant, and b) the delivery times are much faster’. Key to the operation is the company’s use of ebikes, with their speed and flexibility. When Deliveroo hired a fleet of Smarta ebikes from the Electric Transport Shop, South East Regional Manager Jeremy Rawlinson was impressed: ‘The Smarta ebikes were very reliable, as was the support we received from the Electric Transport Shop, fitting into what we're doing as a company and helping us provide our top class service’. Deliveroo riders are rapidly become a familiar sight in cities including London, Brighton, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Cambridge.

    More and more people, it seems, love ebikes, but none more so than me. It’s not just about the practicalities, although I do particularly enjoy not having the hassle or expense of buying insurance or road tax; ebikes are exempt from both. Above all, what I love most about my Smarta ebike is how exhilaratingly fun it is to ride, and how enjoyable it makes my (proper) job. If you’ve never ridden an ebike, try it. You’ll wonder why you spent so many years stuck in your nose-picking cage of a car, waiting for the traffic to shunt a few metres forwards. And you’ll wonder why you ever waited so long for your takeaway on a Friday night.

    The Electric Transport Shop has stores in London, York, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge. For more details see www.electricbikesales.co.uk.

  • Bike to the future: an electrifying solution to Cambridge's congestion problem

    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.

  • A cycle network for wheelchair users?

    Sitting here on a lazy Sunday morning watching the London Marathon, I find myself marvelling - amid many things - at the athletes who are swooping through the capital's streets in the wheelchair event. The speed and efficiency of those machines (let alone the athletes) is really impressive - did you know that the world record for the wheelchair marathon is under 1 hour 20 minutes? 

    With all the difficulties that must exist for wheelchair users when travelling across the capital on a normal day - busy buses, trains and streets are, alas, not the most hospitable environments for a wheelchair - I can't help wondering if people ever use their wheelchairs as a mode of transport comparable to a bicycle - i.e. as a vehicle for commuting, getting to the shops, visiting friends. 

    Perhaps there are legality (or safety) issues involved in using a wheelchair on the road - can anyone englighten me? - but I don't see why in London we can't build a network of quiter routes that are suitable for cyclists, wheelchair users, mobility scooters, and more. Regardless of the ideological ravings of many cycle campaigners, it would be better, on the whole, to build such a network away from the capital's main roads, with their large volumes of buses, trucks and pedestrians. A network of quieter streets, parkways and canals would be a sanctuary where the most vulnerable road users wouldn't feel - or be - vulnerable. That microcosm of routes could extend like a system of capillaries throughout the whole capital, creating a safe connection from anywhere to anywhere. 

    You may think I'm a dreamer, but to some extent my dream is already a reality. There are already thousands of kilometres of quieter cycle routes in the capital; a London Cycle Network which, up until the turn of the millenium, was being developed by enlightened planners. Sadly, in the cacophony of moral and political grandstanding that surrounds today's calls for 'cycle superhighways' and 'space for cycling' on main roads, the London Cycle Network has been almost forgotten. It waits forlornly in the margins, undervalued and underused. 

    One of the biggest reasons for this marginalisation is that the planners who created the London Cycle Network didn't get round to creating a decent map and system of signage for its routes. While in theory you can get more or less from anywhere to anywhere in the capital on those routes, in practice you get lost. Ludicrously, there is no single map showing how the network connects together, and on the network there are hardly any signs. 

    The London Cycle Map Campaign is calling for a Tube-style map and network of safe, quiet cycle routes in the capital; much of this network should include the current London Cycle Network. We want cylists to be able to consult a single map of routes and then follow those routes by following regularly-spaced, highly visible coloured signs and surface markings. This map and network would provide a direly needed alternative to the status quo. Instead of remembering hundreds of turn rights and turn lefts to get to a destination, or venturing onto the capital's major transport arteries, London's cyclists could get wherever they want to go, simply and easily, in a stress-free, specially dedicated cycling environment. 

    And, sitting here watching those wheelchair athletes streaming through the capital, I don't see why a London Cycle Map and network shouldn't be for them too, and many more like them. Let's enable all Londoners to access the convenience and joys of a Tube-style map and network of colour-coded cycle routes.


  • Die-ins on the Tube?

    Following today's tragic events on the Tube, I was surprised to read that around 25 people die on the London Underground each year, exluding those who die of natural causes. 

    This is considerably more people than cycling kills each year on London's streets.

    So - should we host die-ins on the Tube? Presumably not. Presumably the best that can be done is to help keep people out of harms way by providing education about the dangers of Tube trains and Tube lines. 

    The same goes for cycling - safety education being paramount - with one difference.

    To keep people out of harms way on a bike we need to tell them not just how to avoid dangers on the road, such as 'left hooks' from vehicles - especially trucks - turning left; we need to do more. We can help cyclists avoid the busiest roads and junctions altogether. We can provide a useful Tube-style map and system of signage to indicate the thousands of kilometres of quieter cycle routes that already exist in the capital: a London Cycle Map with corresponding signs on the streets.

    Generally speaking, the cycle campaigners who stage die-ins are the same campaigners who insist on crowbarring cycle routes onto main roads. Both stratagies are unhelpful. Cycling isn't uniquely dangerous. And bikes and main roads don't have to go together.

  • Wheels for Wellbeing open letter to TfL

    Here's an interesting open letter from Wheels for Wellbeing to TfL.

    In my opinion, the London Cycle Map is the only proposal that promises to make cycling easily accessible to ALL Londoners, regardless of age, gender or disability.

  • Two talks in Cambridge this weekend...

    This weekend (8-9 November), Ben Irvine will be giving a couple of talks in Cambridge on two of his favourite topics.

    The first talk, from 2pm to 3.30pm on November 8, is called ‘Cambridge and the Philosophy of the Commons: A Walking History of the Ivory Tower’. Tickets are priced at £5. Further details and tickets available here.

    The second talk, from 2pm to 4pm on November 9, is called ‘Cambridge and the Art of Mindful Cycling: Philosophy on Two Wheels’ and requires participants to bring their own bicycle. Tickets are priced at £5. Further details and tickets available here.

  • London Cycle Map back on BBC Radio London

    The BBC is really sitting up and taking notice. Ben Irvine was back on BBC Radio London on 25 Aug at 7.30am discussing the London Cycle Map. Listen up and spread the word. 

    Here's the link. The interview is at 1:21.40: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p024n0ss

  • Ben Irvine BBC Radio London Cycle Map interview

    Ben Irvine was interviewed on BBC Radio London this evening, talking about the London Cycle Map (48mins 39secs): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p024hn9t

  • Cyclingballs #4: The enemies within

    If you thought emotionlessness means rationality, and irrationality means emotionality, then think again.

    I received an email today from the Greater London Authority’s ‘Public Liaison Unit’, replying (better late than never) to an email I sent earlier this year. My email made a number of suggestions in regard to the ‘Central London Grid’ proposed by TfL. The key point I made is that the best way to organise and map a network of cycle routes in London – or any metropolis – is to use the Compass Colour System devised by Simon Parker.

    Unfortunately, this point seems to have fallen on deaf ears: perhaps that’s because someone from a ‘Public Liaison Unit’ isn’t necessarily the most suitable person to address my detailed enquiry. (And why does there have to be a Public Liaison Unit, anyway? Why can’t the people whose wages we pay to serve our interests ‘liaise’ with us?)

    The email I received not only managed to miss the point entirely, it also managed to show no human acknowledgement of the fact that I enthusiastically volunteered my time to get involved in creating the proposed Grid. Welcome to the world of modern centralised planning, where ineptitude and indifference are practised in the name of the common good, spurred on and inspired by the legions of armchair humanitarians who are currently operating from the nation’s living rooms and council offices.

    The email I received contained a reminder ‘of the TfL cycling maps that are available off [sic] the TfL website’ - advice which was not very helpful, since these are part of the problem, not the solution. It also contained assurances that my call for a ‘cycling equivalent of the LU map’ is being met ‘through the Central London Grid, which will be a mixture of Quietways and Superhighways in the City, West End and surrounding boroughs’. Well, no, that misses the point too, since most of the proposed network already exists, and the whole point of the London Cycle Map Campaign is to map and sign the existing network properly. Indeed, when I visited the link provided by the email, I saw a 'proposed routes' map of the Central London Grid that looks nothing like a Tube map, and I found a promise that two (wow, two!) Quietways will be completed by 2015: to repeat, both the map of proposed routes and the new routes are irrelevant to the idea of creating a Tube-style map and signage for a cycle network that (mostly) already exists.

    As for the email’s incantation that ‘Superhighways are mostly segregated and on main roads’ – well, this is just absolute, unmitigated rubbish. The Cycle Superhighways should, in my opinion, go down as one of the great political scandals of our time – hundreds of millions of pounds spent doing little more than daubing blue paint on some of the most dangerous main roads in the capital, in the name of cycling safety. Indeed, even if the Cycle Superhighways were all fully 'segregated', they'd still be a waste of money: if lots of people used those routes, they wouldn't be fast anymore, and there are more sensible ways and places to invest money in cycling than trying to seize back the busy main roads that were made busy precisely through the backstreet traffic-calming measures previously (and sensibly) implemented in the name of cycling. 

    Finally, and most worryingly, the aforementioned website declares that Quietways will be ‘a network of radial and orbital routes throughout London’ (my italics). So there will be no Compass Colour System. There will be no guarantee that a cyclist can travel from A to B, from anywhere to anywhere in London, by following no more than a few coloured routes, on safer, quieter streets. There will, most likely, be a few concentric circular routes created on quiet streets – probably cobbled together out of routes that already exist – marked with some confusing new signage, as well as a confusing new system of signage for the almighty tangle of (mostly existing) routes proposed for (and for leading into) Central London. I can predict this confusion with confidence, because there is simply no sensible way to sign so many routes without using the Compass Colour System.

    I can also predict that this ‘new’ Grid (which be will be rolled out ridiculously slowly, over ten years) will repeatedly be announced with great fanfare, proclaiming the ‘cycling revolution’ that is currently seeing cycling numbers in London stagnate, with all likelihood that the stagnation will continue.

    Rest assured though: 'TfL will continue to develop route proposals with our delivery partners'. This is what counts as public services these days.

    The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization, as the poet and historian Robert Conquest pointed out, is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its own enemies.

  • Cyclingballs #3: The London Cycling Campaign of Fear?

    Every cloud has a silver lining: the current Tube strikes, although irritating, are at least inspiring many more Londoners to cycle to work.

    This is true despite a recent press release I received from the London Cycling Campaign. The message came with a headline that included a peculiar phrase:

    ‘Londoners should have genuine choice to cycle on Tube strike days (and every other day)’

    This surprised me. I thought that one of the major objectives of the London Cycling Campaign is to inspire more people to discover the many benefits of cycling – health, happiness, fitness, free travel, and so on. But the headline suggests that cycling is not a ‘genuine choice’ for Londoners. So what’s stopping them?

    The press release begins by ‘calling on local councils to redesign our streets so all Londoners have a genuine choice to cycle on Tube strike days’. The theme continues: we need to ‘redesign our streets so they're safe and inviting for everyone to cycle’.

    So the implication is that until the streets are redesigned people do not have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle: as things stand the streets are not ‘safe and inviting’.

    The LCC blunders home the point by quoting from ‘Human Resources Manager Lisa Wyett, 31, who lives in Kingsbury NW London’, and says, "I would cycle to work during the Tube strike if I could, but I’m scared of cycling on busy roads. I'd definitely consider it if the streets were safer for cycling".

    What a thoroughly depressing and misleading press release!

    It certainly makes you wonder: are the streets safe for cycling? Well, it depends on the streets, and on how safe you want to be.

    The LCC’s Space for Cycling Campaign is calling for the capital’s major motor arteries to be ripped up and redesigned with special ‘segregated’ lanes for cyclists. At the moment, those main roads, where buses and trucks hurtle past in high numbers, are naturally pretty inhospitable places for cyclists.

    The statistics suggest that it is a bit of an exaggeration to call those roads ‘unsafe’ for cyclists (by that logic, they’re unsafe for pedestrians, motorcyclists and drivers too), but certainly it is safer and more pleasant to cycle somewhere other than on the main roads.

    But there’s the rub. Even if, when it comes to cycling on main roads, would-be cyclists are put off by safety issues and fears about safety (and even if you unhelpfully blur that distinction as the LCC does), Londoners still have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle: they can cycle on alternative streets. It doesn’t take very long to plan a quieter bike route, taking in London’s lovely backstreets, parks and canals.

    By obsessing about main roads, the LCC achieves only two things, the second often (but remarkably not always) following from the first: insinuating that there is no choice for new cyclists but to take the main roads, and scaring off new cyclists. Both outcomes are unhelpful – to put it mildly – to the cycling cause in the capital (as well as beyond).

    There will never be a network of segregated cycle routes on London’s main roads: and there doesn’t need to be. As well as countless unprovisioned quiet roads which are perfectly suitable for cycling on, the capital already has a designated network of thousands of kilometers of reasonably well-developed cycle routes encompassing backstreets, parks and canals.

    The most effective thing the authorities could do is sign and map this network properly with long, straight coloured routes, so that people can plan and follow a cycle route with the same ease as catching the Tube. People already have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle in London, but a Tube-style London Cycle Map and network would make cycling a simpler choice.

    Will this proposal make the headlines? Unlikely. Most people are terrified of cycling, and therefore not interested in sensible commentary. That's why the LCC achieves mainstream publicity through pandering to the climate of fear that is reflected, and stoked, by the media. And that’s why the LCC’s blurs the distinction between safety and the perception of safety: to recognize that there is a difference would be to challenge the media’s fearmongering agenda, and risk being ignored. 

    No wonder cycling levels have not increased in the last year, as new statistics show. (Note that Sustrans, in reporting these statistics, couldn’t resist the customary lament about safety, and also blurred the distinction between safety and perceptions of safety: ‘Some areas aren’t as safe as others, preventing many people from cycling regularly for everyday journeys to work, school or the shops… We need safer streets and more dedicated cycling routes so that everyone can feel safe on a bike’.)

    Of course, new dedicated cycling routes are always welcome. But fearmongering will get cyclists nowhere.



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