The post-pandemic future: E-cycles will become the new public transit
Darnel Harris is executive director of Our Greenway Conservancy and Sam Starr is a consultant for Sustainable Urban Freight and Cycle Logistics
Ever since electric bicycles became widely available a decade ago, interest has been building steadily. With a little electric boost, seniors and workers can comfortably cycle up hills without breaking a sweat. Businesses can move huge volumes of goods without costly vans. In 2018, the Netherlands, a country with more bicycles than people, recorded more e-cycle than regular bicycle sales for the first time. Now that Covid is part of our lives, Canadians across the country are desperate to keep their distance, and especially reluctant to get back to crowded subways and standing-room-only streetcars. At the same time, transit agencies and governments recognize that operating vehicles at one-third capacity is neither viable nor efficient.
E-cycles are the perfect solution. These zero-emission, planet-friendly vehicles range from $1,300 to $20,000, depending on quality and the weight they need to carry. With electrical assistance, they can go up to 32 kilometres per hour, and average around 20 kilometres per hour on city streets. In Toronto, more than 50 per cent of trips are shorter than seven kilometres—less than half an hour by e-cycle. For the average Torontonian, an e-cycle is a more affordable solution than purchasing or leasing a car that sits unused 95 per cent of the time. They’re also cheaper to insure—for a $5,000 e-cycle, the insurance would only be around $200, compared to upwards of $2,500 per year for a car.
Larger families and businesses, meanwhile, can use electric cargo cycles, which are two-, three- or four-wheeled heavy-duty cycles and trailers. Not only do they offer all the benefits of regular e-cycles, but they’re also high-capacity, multi-purpose and modular. These cycles can haul up to 350 kilograms, making them ideal for mobile marketing, operating a shop on wheels or even replacing the vans that Canada Post uses on its daily routes. E-cargo cycles are becoming the local delivery mode of choice for city cores, suburbs and towns across Europe, used by logistics giants like DHL, Zedify and UPS. And in Toronto, the city recently approved pedal-assisted electric cargo cycles weighing over 40 kilograms for use on city streets.
To accelerate this transport transition, we must make bike lanes accessible to more people than just the city’s spandex-clad recreational cyclists. We need to build a high-volume, connected cycling infrastructure network, with wider unidirectional lanes in high-traffic areas and commercial centres, as well as cycling highways and charging stations throughout the city. One appealing way to create safer, more convenient infrastructure is to create zero-emission zones, which are only open to electrically powered cycles, cars and trucks. These changes will take some time, but in the short term, we can use paint, signage and bollards to create temporary infrastructure to separate cyclists from pedestrians and cars. Cycling infrastructure may cost tens of thousands of dollars per kilometre, but roads routinely cost hundreds of thousands, and light or heavy rail costs hundreds of millions. For local trips, e-cycles are the cheapest way to go.
For too long, we’ve been mired in debates that pit bikes against cars. The whole time, we’ve overlooked the fact that there’s a whole suite of tools far better suited for local mobility than either of those options. It will be difficult to retrofit our cities, but Covid-19 has shown us that change can happen a lot faster than we think. Torontonians want to live in communities where it’s easy, safe and affordable to experience the vibrancy our city has to offer. E-cycles are the best way to get people back out onto our streets.