So, I’ve basically gotten the hang of my magic carpet/ iron pony/ set of wheels with wings attached, and discovered how comprehensively it flattens the hills – which alone is a reason for everyone in Auckland to rush out and buy, borrow, or bike-share one. But getting around on an e-bike over the last couple of weeks has led to a number of other unexpected discoveries. I wanted to write them down while they’re still fresh. Before the novelty wears off and it’s as if I’ve always travelled this way.
1. If you flatten the hills, you expand the map. It seems obvious, but an e-bike expands your bike range in the same way that a bike expands your walking range. It’s not just that I can travel further – it’s that I travel differently. Ordinarily, I favour back roads and/ but hate steep hills, and try to plan a route that balances the two. But on the e-bike, I can detour without consequence. I can follow my nose. I can double back, and take the long way round. I can explore… and still get home on time.
The day I picked up the bike, for example, Google maps told me to head up Khyber Pass, the most direct route, albeit a bit truck-filled for my tastes. But I felt like checking out Carlton Gore Rd, skirting round the Domain, and then riding across Grafton Bridge – while still making it home by 3.
Either way, I’d be heading uphill to start with, but suddenly it didn’t matter; my usual calculus of effort/time was beside the point. So I followed my nose, found a whole new weird way to get on the NW Cycleway – and still got home on time.
2. On an e-bike, there is no such thing as a head wind. Oh, you know it’s there in theory, but in practice? It’s like someone’s stuck a hairdryer in the front basket to give you the full BeeGees effect, but no more than that. It doesn’t slow you down one whit.
3. On the other hand, watch out for the Marilyn Monroe effect. You’re travelling faster than usual, and often into a brisk wind. So if you wear a skirt/ frock/ lavalava/ utilikilt, and you don’t want to give everyone an unexpected thrill, you may want to master this one cool trick.
4. Speaking of pennies, that’s what it costs to charge the battery. While the sticker price of an e-bike may seem high, the savings are immediate, and huge. Pretty soon, filling the car with petrol starts to feel absolutely bonkers, like buying crates of fancy bottled water and using it to flush the toilet.
Also, a social note: etiquette-wise, get ready for “Can I plug my bike battery in for a bit?” to become the new “Can I borrow your wi-fi?”
5. Get used to hearing the question, “But isn’t it sort of cheating?”
Yup. Of course it is. In exactly the same way that riding a bike instead of walking is sort of cheating. And in exactly the same way that catching a bus rather than walking is sort of cheating. And in exactly the same way that jumping in a car and driving everywhere is cheating… but how come nobody ever asks that question?
6. Be prepared to be transformed into someone who really, really, really cares about proper bike infrastructure.
This was surprising. I mean, I’m down with the programme: we need separated bike lanes, connected paths, people on bikes are road-users too, yada yada yada.
But there’s something about whizzing along a regular road at 20 kph or more that really consolidated this for me. For starters, every bump in the road, every pothole, is more significant. Things will seriously fly out of your basket if you don’t lash ’em down before you set off (that’s truth, not a folksy metaphor, although it would make a good folksy metaphor).
And hazards become exponentially more hazardous. We know this is true for driving speeds, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it was for me. Perhaps because I usually bike at a pace that gives me time to think about every single parked car I pass and every single car that approaches me. On a regular ride, especially with kids, I picture and plan defensively for all the different things each driver might do. My usual pace is such that I can practically have a conversation with someone sitting in a parked car as I pass by.
But on the e-bike, when I’m moving at a speedier clip with far less time to react, everything happens faster. Even on roads with a bike lane, every single parked car becomes an Unexploded Door Bomb. It’s a horrible feeling. On my second outing on the e-bike, when a parked car suddenly pulled a U-turn in front of me, I thought my number was up. Luckily, the bike has good brakes.
I’m a sanguine rider who’s ridden in all sorts of cities, but the e-bike reminded me how these roads look and feel to someone with a younger, more impulsive brain, or an older, less responsive body. It also made me realise what my children are telling me when they beg me to ride on the footpath with them instead of the road: most of our streets are dangerous by definition for people on bikes. We’re just conditioned to pretend they’re not, and to be grateful for the privilege of biking on them.
That’s not good enough any more, and it’s going to have to change.
7. Back to cheerier thoughts. You don’t have to go fast on an e-bike, of course. You can just use the motor for that little bit extra when going uphill. But this was a revelation: at certain times of day, an e-bike can get you there in half the time.
Not just half the time of a regular bike – half the time OF A CAR. Or even a bus. Not to brag or anything, but: the other day I had a meeting in Ponsonby. I was running late, and set off only five minutes before the meeting was due to start. I got door to door from the Pt Chev shops to Ponsonby (4km) in ten minutes.
Notwithstanding the nervous wear and tear of riding in the door-zone, as mentioned above, it was pretty great. And even better – when I got there, I didn’t need to spent ten minutes looking for a parking spot. Aucklanders, you feel me?
Here’s another example. I go to night school once a week. On paper, it’s a 7 minute drive without traffic; but at 6pm, rush hour in Auckland, you can double that and add some.
So I bike down Pt Chevalier Rd towards Unitec instead, carefully threading the needle between the stop-start traffic on my right and the parked cars on my left. The other night, between Meola Rd and the traffic lights, a distance of 1km, I passed 43 cars crawling along.
Let me reiterate: travelling a kilometre at very low speed, I beat forty-three cars to the lights. Never have I felt more like “one less car” on the road!
(The kicker: most of those cars contained exactly one person. And about a third of those solo drivers were gazing at – or worse, typing into – their phones as their vehicles rolled blindly forward. People!!)
A necessary piece of infrastructure, unfortunately. pic.twitter.com/F1m4RHnMSS
— Josh Zisson (@BikeSafeBoston) April 6, 2015
Anyway, I sidled through the traffic jam, revved up Carrington Rd, and made it to my destination in exactly ten minutes. As I tied my iron pony to the railings and headed into class, I realised I’d seen the future… and it sure as heck wasn’t self-driving cars.