Power to the people! Travelling by electric bike

One of the West Lothian Bike Library’s goals is to reduce barriers to cycling, regardless of ability or circumstance. We’re taking part in the SEStran Go e-bike scheme, where we make electric bikes (e-bikes) available for a small rental fee to West Lothian residents, as well as some workplaces. The project is aiming to raise awareness of e-bikes and let people try them out.

So what’s it really like to ride an electric bike? One of our volunteers and a local resident, Deborah, tried one out over the summer.

“I tried out one of the West Lothian Bike Library’s electric bikes during a community event where the Bike Library were showcasing them, and I was keen to learn more about them. I cycle a bit where I live to the shops and rail station, and I’ve cycled around 13 miles in the past on an occasional cycle commute over the Bathgate “Alps”, where an electric bike would definitely have come in handy. I’m generally comfortable with new technology, and our household car is electric. I’ll confess I’ve been a bit skeptical about both electric vehicles and electric bikes in the past for lots of reasons (‘cool’ technology shouldn’t take priority over walking, cycling and taking public transport more) but I increasingly see a role for them in the everyday transport mix.

So I arranged with David to pick up one of the Giant electric bikes at the Bike Library’s base in Crofthead Community Centre, Livingston for a four day period.

The pick-up process was easy. David showed me how to switch it on (never underestimate the power of stating the obvious), gave me the kit for charging the battery and a good quality bike lock. The bike costs £50 for a week’s hire as part of the Go e-bike scheme for residents, or £25 for four days. Two forms of ID have to be presented, one of which must be a photo, along with £100 deposit on a card (which will be returned to you when you return the bike). All understandable as e-bikes cost a fair bit more than normal bikes, though prices are starting to come down.

The basics? Just like a conventional bike, you use the pedals to go. The big difference with an electric bike is the on-board battery that gives you an assist when you pedal. I’ve read about the electric bike smile, and I think that’s very accurate – the boost you get from that bit of assisted power is exhilarating.  The bike I used had gears and three different levels of power – eco, normal and sport. Eco restrains it a little and saves power whilst sport mode feels pretty quick. I mostly rode it on normal mode.

The bike was very easy to ride, and I felt like I didn’t have to pedal as much compared to a conventional bike – it felt almost effortless coasting along on some stretches. The biggest boost was on hills – I had a sensation of the bike pushing me up a few hills I tried (including the infamous Kingscavil!). 

In terms of how long the battery lasts, it really depends on what mode you are in and how hilly the terrain is. I cycled the bike for nearly 16 miles and over 2 hours, albeit on a relatively flat route, and the five bars on the bike’s energy gauge had only reduced by one – meaning there was plenty of juice left for further adventures. Conversely, I cycled up some hill routes using sport mode a fair bit, and the battery bars depleted much quicker.

How do you charge the bike? A charging kit comes with the bike, and it’s a piece of cake to use. Just unlock the battery on the bike with the key provided, attach the charging cable and plug it into a household socket. It takes a couple of hours to fully charge from flat. 

A slight downside of an e-bike is that it feels heavier than a normal bike (though even everyday bikes can vary substantially in their weight). This can make it awkward to manoeuvre if you have to wheel it up some steps or lift it, or potentially if you run out of battery on a hilly section (remember, you can pedal it like a normal bike even if the battery runs out).  I also felt I probably could have gone a little faster on my conventional bike on some straight, flat road sections – but I don’t think that’s a bad thing as e-bikes are heavier and it’s probably a good idea to have a limit on speed in case of a collision.

Speaking personally, I have a reasonable level of fitness already so if I wanted to get my heart-rate going for health reasons during a bike ride, I probably wouldn’t choose an e-bike. It’s not 100% effortless going up hills on an e-bike but it is significantly easier, and cycling along flat routes barely registers. That said, for people who do need to improve their fitness gradually, an e-bike might be a good way to ease into exercise.

The e-bike really comes into it’s own on everyday trips and the longer, harder cycle trips, like a cycle commute you have to make regularly. I cycled from Linlithgow to Livingston on it, using quieter roads in the Bathgate Hills, and the journey was a good 20 minutes quicker than I’ve previously done it using a pedal bike. That time (and personal energy!) saving maybe makes cycle commuting feasible for more people than conventional bikes.

I think it’s also a game-changer for people out there who want to cycle more but can’t for fitness or health reasons, or even lack of confidence. On an e-bike, you don’t need to worry so much about cycling slowly on a road and what vehicle drivers behind you might do (that shouldn’t be a worry for people on bikes but realistically, it is) – an e-bike helps you maintain a steady pace and ensures you don’t get stuck going up hills. That’s an important confidence booster for people who are less confident on bikes.

I’ve heard some people say e-bikers are cheaters – fair do’s. The real potential for cycling to make the world a healthier, safer and happier place though is when everyday people leave the car at home for everyday trips and choose to ride a bike instead. E-bikes might just help with that.”

Get in touch

As well as the Go e-bike scheme for residents in West Lothian, a separate Go e-bike scheme is also in operation for workplaces, and a number of employers have already taken loan of e-bikes in West Lothian for trial by staff. If you’d like to try out an e-bike, contact us to book out a bike. We can also give you advice on a bike to buy if you feel ready for an electric bike.  

For cycle route planning in West Lothian,  try Open Cycle Map and consider the Spokes 2018 West Lothian & Livingston Cycle Map, particularly useful to help navigate Livingston’s extensive shared use path network. You can buy a copy at the West Lothian Bike Library, from Spokes directly or in some local bike shops.

Remember to bide by codes of conduct on shared use paths like the canal towpath and other paths where both people on foot and on bikes share the space.  Sustrans and Scottish Canals offer advice on how to use shared paths with respect for each other.