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Quieter than a scooter, greener than a car and more comfortable than a bicycle, the electric bike is a popular means of transport. Like 40,000 other Swiss, Gus Brandys was seduced last year. This geography professor and passionate environmentalist lives in Satigny in the countryside outside Geneva. He bought himself an electric bike for his commute to work and has given up driving.
Gus Brandys, chief editor of Ec(h)o Mag: The real advantage of an electric bike over, say, a car, is that you know exactly how long your ride will take. You can actually time it down to the minutes. Even if you know you’re tired, you know it’s going to take a few more minutes, but with an electric bike, you’re being assisted, whereas with you car, you never know if there is an accident on the road , or a traffic jam—you’re just a sitting duck.
It’s really enjoyable. Your effort is mitigated by the electric engine, in the city it’s easy, and it’s an lovely ride for you outside. There is no circulation as you are riding on small roads or bike lanes and so most of the time you are protected. The electric bike is a real plus.
According to the University of Geneva’s Mobility Observatory, two out of three users are commuters who pedal on average seven kilometers a day from the suburbs to the city center.
Businesses are joining in as well. The Tribune de Genève makes scooters available to its journalists and over the past three years the newspaper has added 4 electric bikes to its fleet for use by its editors.
Pierre Ruetschi, editor-in-chief of the Tribune de Genève: We had few service vehicles before so we extended our fleet with electric bikes. And today, electric bikes are more often used than our traditional scooters. They don’t require such heavy helmets, and from a performance point of view, in a radius of about two to three miles, I think you are as fast with en electric bike as with a scooter.
Every day, Dejan Nikolic has meetings all over Geneva, a city saturated with traffic and roadwork. Thanks to his electric bicycle, getting around town is no longer such a chore.
Dejan Nikolic: On a trip like the one from our dowtown newsroom to Palexpo, by the airport, yes I use an electric bike.
But you’re young and in good shape, why not just a plain bike?
Dejan Nikolic: Well, the advantage is that you don’t get to the press conference all sweaty and out of breath. And on top of it, you can actually enjoy the landscape.
Three years ago, journalists had to manage the battery themselves.
The newspaper has since innovated. It has set up charging stations to allow the bike to recharge its battery all by itself—a first in French-speaking Switzerland.
Pierre Ruetschi: You don’t have to remove the battery and bring it upstairs with you. Before, you needed to go through so many steps and yet you might find yourself in a situation where the bike battery had not been properly charged. No more, all the bikes are now always fully charged.
The battery is like the petrol tank in a car. There are small and large batteries. The more you use the motor, the more you climb, the faster you drain the battery.
The average autonomy is between 40 and 60 kilometers.
Gus Brandys: The battery is good for about five to 700 charge cycles. It means that if you take care of it and charge it say, every other day, it will last between three or four years. A battery costs about 800 (francs) to replace and that’s what you are looking at in terms of replacements costs every three or four years.
Electric bicycles are cheaper than taxis and faster than public transport. Parking is not a problem. So businesses thereby optimize their logistics. While it took the journalist eight minutes to get to the press conference, it took us twice as long by car.
Not only private companies, but also highway departments, hospitals and administrations opt for electric bikes. Fribourg goes even further. One year ago, it began offering its residents 32 free-use bikes, including 12 electric bicycles.
Thierry Steiert, head of Fribourg police: It’s really simple, you only need to purchase this card at the public transport office, swipe it on the top of the dock and when the bip is continuous, liberate the bike.
The users are students, commuters and tourists. They’re not all expert riders and it’s certainly disconcerting to enter traffic when you’re not used to biking.
Helmets aren’t obligatory and the bikes are fast—25 kilometers per hour, even 45 kilometers per hour for the most powerful models.
Fribourg is a pioneer with regard to electric free-use bikes. Velopass, the Swiss company marketing the concept, is going to expand its offer in French-speaking Switzerland.
Well, you know Fribourg’s georaphy, obviously with the hills, it’s more difficult to encourage people to rent a simple bike than an electric bike. But in the end, by renting electric bikes, and giving people an easy way to circulate between the old town and the city above…
Lucas Girardet, general manager, Velopass: One of the major problems with an e-bike is actually the speed when you are on a public road. Why, because the car drivers do not realize how fast you are coming and for instance, in a typical situation, when they turn right, they see you in their rear view mirror but not realizing you are approaching fast, so you often have to hit the brakes. Same thing in parallel parking, where a driver sees a spot and backs into it as you are coming on the same side. So yes, I’d say speed is a significant problem when riding an e-bike.
Next development is between Nyon and Gland on Lake Geneva, where we will install 100 bikes, some electric and some traditional. We’ll also increase the Fribourg network, with extensions in Bulle and in Morat, with the same mix of electric and traditional bikes.
For the time being, the big cities aren’t interested.
And yet Lausanne is a cyclist’s nightmare. Over 500 meters of elevation gain from Ouchy to Chalet-à-Gobet. An ideal topography for electric bikes. Olivier Français, an inveterate biker, has 80 million Swiss francs at his disposal for developing the greater urban area’s sustainable transport. But no project for motorized bikes.
Oliver Français, public works director, Lausanne: Most of the people who live and work within the city confines move over distances that average between two and three kilometers. When we were kids, that’s the kind of distances we would walk over. But as our society is now always in a hurry, on such a distance people want to be able to use some form of transportation.
Cities today in Switzerland are fairly well equiped in public transportation. So to encourage people to move to electric bikes is fairly difficult. The other I’d say is that this is fundamentally a whole new form of energy consumption because you need to produce this electricity. Should everyone ride a bike, it would mean the same amount of energy produced by a nuclear plant.
Olivier Français and the electric bike don’t get on. This member of the Radical Democratic Party has a knack for the pithy turn of phrase:
To consume the electricity produced each year by a nuclear power plant, Switzerland would need over 45 million electric bicycles.
PUTTING ELECTRIC BICYCLES TO THE TEST
Over the past five years, the electric bicycle market has exploded. While today dozens of brands exist, they more or less offer the same features.
Jean-François Urwyler, professor, Biel/Bienne engineering school: What you find in an electric bike of course is a battery. The battery is to the bike what the gas tank is to a car, that’s where the fuel, the energy is stocked. You also have an electrical motor, it can be attached in the back or in the front wheel or be just above the pedals, in the middle of the machine.
Then there’s the control system as well as an display that will give you various indications such as the battery charge, your speed etc.
The bikes were subjected to a test developed by the Biel/Bienne Engineering School to reproduce real-world conditions.
An external motor simulated the cyclist’s pedaling.
Eighty kilograms was divided between both wheels to replace the cyclist’s weight. This set-up was placed on rollers reproducing a slope of 6 percent.
We tested 13 bikes from both specialized shops and supermarkets. All models offered assistance up to 25 kilometers per hour. We did not test the fast 45 kilometer per hour bikes because they are little used.
The engineering school evaluated three aspects of electric bicycles: motor power, in other words the effectiveness of the pedaling assistance.
The second criterion was battery autonomy. Finally, the quality of the bike’s materials (like the frame, brakes, etc.) was evaluated by Vélo magazine.
Here are the test results, from the worst to the best bike, rated from one to six:
1) We start off with the worst bike. Landi’s Xtrabike is one of the two cheapest bikes tested, with a list price of 1,390 Swiss francs. Not a single technical parameter satisfied the experts. Rated 3.6 out of 6.
2) The same goes for the E-Racer by Athléticum, which is just below average with a score of 3.9.
3) The Crosswave by Migros, one of the lightest at 23 kilograms, benefits from correct pedaling assistance. Score: 4.3.
4) The laboratory was unimpressed by the Villiger’s motor power, even though this bike costs 3,799 francs. Ill-suited to hilly routes. However, resistant materials. Score: 4.4.
5) Ditto for the Koga, one of the most expensive bikes tested, at 3,999 francs. The lab judged its battery autonomy insufficient. Not a good choice for long rides. Score: 4.5.
6) Close behind was Jumbo’s California, with a score of 4.6.
7) The Raleigh scored a little better, with the best battery autonomy of any bike tested. Weak point—its motor power. Score: 4.7.
8) Excellent value for money was the Léopard by Coop. One of the lightest bikes, excellent autonomy, but merits better quality components. Score: 4.8.
9) Same score for the Stromer, the most expensive bike at 4,490 francs. Average battery autonomy and assistance. It owes its good technical score to the quality of its materials. Score: 4.8.
10) Ditto for the Weeller, with a good score of 4.8.
11) Three bikes obtained a score of 5 or more. The Flyer is technically speaking well-balanced. Surprise, this bike has the same motor as the less well judged Raleigh. Flyer’s score: 5.
Jean-François Urwyler, engineer: If you take the Flyer, they chose to mount it with a powerful engine at the detriment of its range. So, whereas the Raleigh, probably meant for flat countries has a weaker engine but a longer range. Typically, between a Flyer and a Raleigh, a Flyer is better adapted to Switzerland.
12) The Cresta has just average battery autonomy, but excellent motor power. Perfect for very hilly cities. Score: 5.
13) The best technical score was obtained by the Watts model. Excellent motor and battery autonomy. Interesting price in this top trio: 2,990 francs. Score of 5.2.
Outside the laboratory, all of these bikes were road tested by a panel of 100 cyclists with varied profiles. Among them, retirees, athletes, women and men.
The top five technical bikes also received excellent user ratings.
It should be noted that three bikes that received average technical scores in the lab were very well rated by their users.
So, how to make the right choice? To find the bike that’s right for you, seek advice from a specialist and test ride before deciding. We visited Vincent Ebiner’s shop, a leading retailer of electric bikes in French-speaking Switzerland, offering a wide selection of brands and covering the three top types of motorization.
Vincent Ebiner: There are several types of ebikes. This type has an engine in the middle, above the pedals and the gear is in the wheel hub. Now, this allows you to stop, and to a change gear even without riding. Now imagine, you stop at a red light, without slowing down or downshifting gear and you can start again in first gear. It’s like in a car, on a steep hill. You can’t start in third so you can shift to first…
Now with this one, the engine’s in the rear hub and the advantage is that you can have a number of different gearing options. Lots of people enjoy riding their traditional bikes and they like the advantage of having different gears to play with.
So on this type of bikes, you have to be used to changing gear and all that ?
Vincent Ebiner: Yes , exactly, if you already must get used to the electrical components of your bike, and on top of it you have to deal with all those gears. It can be a bit much…
Now the trouble with these bikes is you can’t have a very powerful engine since it’s attached on the front wheel fork. You see, in the rear you have a whole system of stays to ensure the motor’stable. So if you have a motor in front, that can cause problems.
So not the right kind of bikes for Lausanne or Fribourg, for hilly cities?
Vincent Ebiner: No but for Geneva for instance, it’s a real pleasure.
To sum up, a good electric bike must meet your needs and expectations, but three criteria should be taken into account—the duration of your outings, the hilliness of your routes, and your own bicycling ability.
Total comments: 1 | Add to the discussion.
Great story. We’ve put together a small electric bike sharing system at University of Tennessee. So far we’ve had great feedback. Some details are available at www.cycleushare.com, or the facebook or twitter of the same name. The Swiss model looks interesting.