‘Rideables’ could be the future of urban mobility – if only they were legal

Electric bikes at a factory in France. Image: Getty.

If you live in a big city, the chances are that you share Transport for London’s dream of quiet, clean, and open streets.

Cars are noisy, polluting, congesting and, for the most part, simply unnecessary. They’re a leading cause of air pollution in the capital, contributing to 9,500 premature deaths in 2015 alone and, embarrassingly, have made Marylebone Road Europe’s worst nitrogen dioxide hotspot

The Congestion Charge (£11.50 per day), T-charge (£10 per day), and incoming Ultra Low Emission Zone (£12.50 per day) have succeeded in turning London’s roads into the domain of white vans and the super-rich; but congestion has remained stagnant since 2013.

The supposed trade-off for the rest of us is London’s network of Cycle Superhighways, on which Boris Johnson spent £79m a year and Sadiq Khan will spend a whopping £154m per year during his term. He aims to get us making 1.5m journeys by bicycle everyday. But given that the percentage of Londoners who commuted by bike only increased by 1.35 per cent between 2001 and 2011 despite over £1bn pounds of investment, the mayor is a long way from getting Londoners peddling.

Brave the cycle lanes around Blackfriars Bridge on a weekday morning and you’ll find yourself overrun by a grunting, sweaty peloton of middle-aged men in lycra (MAMILs) – hardly an attractive proposition to the families and casual cyclists for whom the superhighways were developed in imitation of the cycling cultures of Denmark and The Netherlands.

This massive investment in London’s cycling infrastructure is underpinned by TfL’s contention that 6.5m journeys are potentially cyclable everyday. But to my mind, this claim is clearly flawed.

That’s because, for the majority of Londoners, the health benefits, savings on the cost of public transport (both financial and to our sanity), and convenience of travelling from door-to-door are mitigated by the fact that cycling to work often leaves you sweaty and dishevelled. It might be an advantageous look for Boris Johnson, but it certainly isn’t for most of us.

There is hope, though, for those who want to escape the hell of commuting by Underground, but who’d rather not peel off sweaty lycra on arrival at work: personal electric vehicles. The prospect of a clean, quick, and comfortable commute from door-to-door, without the requirement for parking space or a work-place shower, isn’t a distant dream, but a contemporary reality.

“Rideables”, as they are known, are not intended to supersede bicycles, but to democratise access to the cycle lanes that we are all, ultimately, paying for. They come in many forms, from electrified versions of traditional systems – the Emicro push scooter and Evolve skateboard, for example – to less conventional personal transportation solutions like the URB-E.

All three will hit 15mph, charge fully from a household plug in about an hour, take you over 10 miles on a single charge, and are small enough to be carried on public transport or stored under a desk. Many will also hold your shopping, your children, or your deliveries.

The problem? They are illegal on all British roads, cycle lanes, and pavements.

London’s population rose by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2011 and is projected to reach 10.5m by 2041. The pressure that 2m additional commuters will put on London’s already strained transport infrastructure could be eased by getting more people into cycle lanes, however they choose to use them. Giving people access to their streets by removing legal red-tape would help delay the staggering £1bn cost of new underground stations, not to mention increasing the catchment areas of existing stations.

Rideables are not a panacea for democratising metropolitan transport – but then, there is no single solution. At about £1,000 each, none of the vehicles proposed above are accessible, like bicycles. Part of the reason for their high cost is the law’s stranglehold on a potentially enormous market. Faced with the daily possibility of the confiscation of their expensive new commuting vehicle, few but the very rich will invest in a rideable as a daily tool; that restricts the size of the market, and so disincentivises the investment and economies of scale that would lower the price of rideables for all.

Since the legal status of electric bicycles was clarified in 2015, prices have fallen within reach of the average commuter; rideables would no doubt experience similar price reductions while competing with electric bicycles, lowering prices across the board.

Brompton, the ubiquitous small-wheeled folding bicycle company, has been manufacturing in London since their inventor identified the enfranchising potential of a personal transport solution compatible with public transport. The company has since grown 1,500 per cent, created 115 jobs, and been awarded the Queen’s Medal for Enterprise.

Brompton were the future once; it’s now time to allow rideables to compete – starting with legalisation.

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


22 reasons the hyperloop and driverless cars don't mean we don't need HS2

Yeah, this is not real. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

I’m on holiday. Bloody hell, lads I’m literally on holiday. As I write I am on a high-speed train hurtling south through France to the Mediterranean. The last thing I should be doing right now is reading the dumb-ass tweets sent by an essentially irrelevant Tory MEP, let alone obsessing about them, let alone writing about the bloody things.

But it turns out 6.5 hours is quite long as train journeys go, and the fact I can take this journey at all is making me feel quite well disposed towards high-speed rail in general, and for heaven’s sake just look at it.

That Tweet links to Hannan’s Telegraph column, of which this is an excerpt:

Hyperloop may or may not turn out to be viable. Driverless cars almost certainly will: some of them are already in commercial use in the United States. So why is the Government still firehosing money at the rather Seventies idea of high-speed trains?

The short answer is that firehosing money is what governments do.

Well, no, that’s not the only reason is it? I can think of some others. For example:

1. Trains are faster than cars, driverless or otherwise.

2. High speed trains are faster still. Hence the name.

3. The biggest problem with cars as a form of mass transportation isn’t either pollution or the fact you have to do the driving yourself and so can’t do anything else at the same time (problems though those are). The biggest problem is that they’re an inefficient use of limited space. Trains not only move people faster, they take up less room while they do it. So driverless cars, marvellous though they may be, will not render the train redundant.

4. The hyperloop is still unproven, as Hannan himself admits, so the phrase “become a reality” seems just a teensy bit of a fib.

5. Honestly, nobody has ever travelled a single inch by hyperloop.

6. At the moment, like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, it’s basically one big fever dream backed by an eccentric billionaire.

7. Frankly, I am pretty stunned to see one of Britain’s leading Brexiteers buying into a piece of fantastical utopian nonsense that would require detailed and complex planning to become a reality, but which is actually nothing more than a sketch on the back of a napkin.

8. (That last point was me doing a satire.)

9. Even if it happens one day, a hyperloop pod will carry a tiny fraction of the number of people a train can. So once again Hannan is defeated by his arch nemesis, the laws of space and time.

10. In other words, Hannan’s tweet translates roughly as, “Why is the government spending billions on this transport technology that actually exists, rather than alternatives which don’t, yet, and which won’t solve remotely the same problem anyway?”

11. High speed trains definitely exist. I’m on one now.

12. I really shouldn’t be thinking about either the hyperloop OR Daniel Hannan if I’m honest.

13. I wonder why the French are so much better at high speed trains than the British, and whether their comparative lack of whiny MEPs is a factor?

14. It feels somehow typical that even in a genuinely contentious argument (“Is HS2 really a good use of public money?”) when he has a genuinely good point to make (“The way the cost of major projects spirals during the planning stage is a significant public concern”), he still manages to come up with an argument so fantastically dim that bored transport nerds can spend long train journeys ripping it to shreds.

15. He could have gone with “let’s cancel HS2 and use a fraction of the saving to sort out the northern railway network”, but no.

16. Somehow I suspect he’s not really bothered about transport, he just wants to fight strawman about debt.

17. Also, of course we’re using debt to fund the first new national railway in a hundred years: what else are we going to do?

18. “Unbelievable that at a time when I need new shoes we are borrowing money to buy a house.”

19. Can I go back to my book now?

20. I said I was going to stop this, didn’t I.

21. This is a cry for help.

22. Please, somebody, stage an intervention.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.