10 things you should know about e-bikes

E-bikes in Culver City, Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

So, e-bikes. Electric bikes. Wondering what all the fuss is about? E-curious?

I took the plunge in January. Here’s 10 things I’ve learnt, and why you should pay attention to something that’s turning out to be subtly revolutionary.

1. First surprise: quite how much FUN e-bikes are

You know those days when the wind is at your back, you feel strong, and eating up the miles? The sheer uplifting joy of that feeling? Riding an e-bike is like that all the time.
Ride an e-bike and try not to say, “Wheeee!”

2. E-bikes are simple & natural

There’s no throttle to think about, it senses how hard you pedal, your speed, your gear, while electronic controls make everything else work. The motor just amplifies what you’re doing.
If you can ride a bike, you can ride an e-bike.

No need for special bike-charging points, just unlock the battery, bring it inside to charge.

3. E-bikes aren’t fast, but are quick

The motor cuts out at 15.5mph, by law. You won’t go any faster than usual. But you’ll go slow much less often.

That long slog of a hill? 15mph.

That fierce headwind? 15mph.

Tired after a long day? Still 15mph.

It’s really cut my journey times.

4. E-bikes are still safe

Beforehand, I worried extra speed would be risky. But mostly you’re not going above 15mph, and that extra push gets you ahead of the turning traffic when the lights go green.

Or if the safest route is too long, hilly or stop-start, then a motor makes it an easier choice.

5. E-bikes aren’t cheating

Commuting and utility cycling is not sport, it’s transport. Get over yourself.

It’s not a motorbike, this is e-assist. You still won’t get anywhere without pedalling. 

And you will still get fit on an e-bike. Maybe even more than on a normal bike, because:

6. E-bikes get you cycling further and more often

E-biking is so easy, it takes away that “Can I be bothered to cycle today?” feeling.

Tired? Weather not great? Late meeting? Hungover? Trip’s a bit far? Doesn’t matter, e-bikes takes the effort out.

They will change our perception of what is just an “easy cycle” away. The Dutch are already responding with a network of cycle lanes designed for longer-distance commutes.


7. E-bikes are convenient

In the UK we ride sports bikes, not designed as transport. You know it would be so handy to have mudguards, built-in lights, luggage rack, fat tyres for potholes. But the weight!

Got a motor? No problem. You can ride a tank as if it was air. And e-bikes make it effortless to carry stuff.

8. On an e-bike you don’t have to be “A Cyclist”

Cycle commuting can be a rigmarole. Changing, showers, gear. The British treat it as the equivalent of driving to work in a Formula 1 car dressed like Lewis Hamilton.

E-bikes literally take the sweat out. Drop the Lycra and do it Dutch-style. I now cycle seven miles, in my suit, and just stroll into the office like a normal person. Dress for your destination, not your journey.

9. E-bikes are inclusive 
Most people just want to get around, not chase their Strava times. E-bikes will attract people who don’t identify themselves as cyclists.

Also older or less fit people. Asthma stopped me cycling in cold winter air for years: the e-bike changed that overnight.

10. Now the bad news: e-bikes are expensive

Recharging only costs pennies. But e-bikes are expensive to buy, repair, and insure.

This will change, quite quickly I think, as we reach mass-market adoption. It’s already cheaper than driving or public transport.

11. Finally, why now?

E-bikes aren’t new, but these things are:

  • Lithium batteries light, cheap & powerful enough. 
  • Neodymium magnets for powerful, compact & light motors.

So advances in chemistry, packaged with new electronic controls, add up to something completely new, with really broad appeal.

E-bikes are the future.

Sales are exponential, close to overtaking conventional bikes in some countries, and way ahead of electric car sales. They have the potential to change lots of what we take for granted about cycling.

Just try one, you’ll be hooked. It was hiring an electric Lime bike that convinced me.

It’s time you found out what the fuss is about.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.