E-bikes are getting a lot of press these days, often negative due to the perceived laziness or "cheating" by their riders. If nothing else, the naysayers are keeping the meme generator websites busy. I've been somewhat in that camp in the past thinking technology should have a lesser role in cycling. But times are changing, and I keep seeing people on e-bikes all around North Vancouver. As a mode of transportation rather than recreation or sport, they provide a very good alternative to the single occupant vehicle for those not interested or not physically able to put in the effort required on a regular bike. I've never had the opportunity to try a proper one, and its an itch that's needed scratching for a while. This week that itch was scratched! Read on for a bit of a bike review and my thoughts on riding around Canmore...
Last year I rode Copenhagen’s bike share e-bike (shown below), but that experience left me questioning how good they were. It was unreasonably heavy, and it took a lot of effort to get going, even on the flat. When the power did kick in it was pretty good, but you were unable to coast, meaning your legs always have to be turning, which is a weird feeling and somewhat detracts from a relaxing bike ride when you’re used to just rolling along after you build up some momentum.
Fast forward nine months, and I needed to rent a bike to tour around the town of Canmore. Checking out the Rebound Cycles rental page, I saw my opportunity to try a very similar looking, but proper e-bike, the Devinci Cycles E-Griffin upright urban electric bike. The first few pedal strokes put a giant smile on my face, and it didn't really leave for the rest of the day, or the day after really. I'm totally sold on them. To try and describe the feeling of the e-bike experience, it’s somewhat like turbo lag in car, where you press the pedal down and a second later experience a magical power boost. If you keep pedaling, the power just keeps on coming. Never has an upright urban bike been such fun!
Some tech specs... The bike uses a Shimano Steps electronic drivetrain, this pairs a conventional cassette (11-32 range) and rear derailleur system with a single front chainring (I believe this was 38T). The gear range of such a drivetrain on a conventional bike would be somewhat restrictive on steeper climbs for all but the fittest. My own commuter bike runs 38T front, 11-36 rear, and that requires a fair bit of effort on steeper climbs, so this bike has less gear range and is a fair bit heavier, a recipe for disaster if it wasn't for the electric magic. The motor, connected directly to the cranks effectively flattens hills, no other way of saying it, its like hills dissapear and don't factor into route choice anymore. The gears almost become an afterthought, as the power does much of the work. The handlebar mounted controller allows you to switch the display between various information screens with the black button, while the two grey buttons allow you to switch between eco, normal, and high assist. Unlike some e-bikes with a throttle, this is pedal-assist, so at the least, you have to do a minimal amount of work to get the assist. I played between the three modes, but with no need for significant range on the day, I kept it mostly in high. The more assist you use the more battery is required, and thoughts of range anxiety did enter my mind at first, much like you hear about for electric cars. We had the bikes out for about 5 hours, although moving time was only about 1 hour 40 of that according to the GPS, and the bikes still had plenty of juice left at the end. At the top of the hill where we had lunch, the range had dropped dramatically, but it seems like that estimate may have applied if we kept going up that hill, as we headed back downhill and rode around on the flat, the range increased again. At the end of the day, the bike still had 46-62km of range depending on the mode and presumably similar riding conditions to what we’d just completed, so its more than capable of a big commute, or even a week of commutes in a town like Canmore.
The downside is the cost, which I guess depends on whether you're replacing your regular bike or your car with one of these. This e-bike retails for $3599, this seems to be about the going rate for a similarly equipped e-bike, but it’s quite a significant amount when most people on conventional urban bikes have probably paid less than a $1000 for them. It’s also a lot more bike than I’d typically leave locked up in Vancouver. In Canmore, theft may be less of an issue. Cheaper alternatives are available but with lower spec parts or lets say somewhat industrial looking designs.
How Much Easier is It?
While most of my day was spent riding around the flatter parts of downtown Canmore, we managed one relatively long steady climb. I had my GPS and heart rate monitor running on the Benchlands Trail climb, and measured the climb as having a 48m elevation gain over 0.87km, and an average grade of 6%. Without trying, we were just cruising up, I averaged 12.4 km/h, with a heart rate of 96 bpm. It felt flat, it felt wrong almost, as I can see the grade, but the effort I typically have to put in on a hill like that was absent. Despite the hot weather, I literally broke more sweat having lunch on the patio of the Iron Goat at the top of the hill.
I tried to find something close to this climb that I ride on my regular bike. The Ironworkers Memorial Bridge From North Vancouver to Vancouver, southbound climb is close, it has a 47m elevation gain over 1.0km, and an average grade of 5%. so slightly longer but slightly reduced grade. Taking stats from last week, where I was equally in no rush, and in similar early season shape, my speed averaged 10.9 km/h with a heart rate of 149 bpm. Comparing the two somewhat similar scenarios shows there is a 14% increase in speed with a 36% reduction in effort with the e-bike. Hard to say how accurate that is without doing back to back tests, but ridding the e-bike its obvious how much effort its saving.
Do I want one? You bet I do! Will I get one? That I’m less sure of, I still like riding a normal bike, I like that my urban bike is relatively cheap, compared to these at least, that I don’t worry too much leaving it locked up (I still do of course). I still like getting exercise from my bike even when it’s just for transportation, and I would still feel like I’m cheating a little, or short changing myself from a workout on an e-bike. But the power is just so intoxicating... Its definitely something I'll keep my eye on for the foreseeable future.
So e-bikes are awesome, fun, addictive, fast, useful, easy, enabling... those are some of the words I can think of to sum them up. Moving onto the ride around Canmore, I should probably start with the views. They are incredible! Rocky Mountains wrapping 360 degrees around the town with exposed jagged rock faces, towering above the tree line. It's an easy place to like.
A quick check of the 2016 census data shows that the Town of Canmore (extents shown below) has a population of almost 14,000. Of those commuting to work, 73% drive, 4% are passengers, 1.5% take transit, 12% walk, 7% bike, and 2.5% do something else. Comparing with other similar mountain towns, the bike and walk mode share is somewhat similar, but much better than most bigger cities. Most in Canmore have a commute less than 15 minutes, and few are over 30 minutes.
The typical distances required to get around Canmore are perfect for bicycle commuting. I've often thought there is huge potential in similarly compact towns to increase active mode-share. Even though vehicle speeds are relatively slow in town, which makes cycling on the road pretty safe on most streets, the lack of dedicated bike infrastructure will always be a barrier for many that will not mix with traffic. On our ride around, all drivers were patient with our large group, I suspect many of them are also cyclists in some shape of form and appreciate the threat they pose. With a complete network of safe cycling facilities, the barriers to cycling are greatly reduced and mode share would likely be much higher.
The first signs of that high quality safe infrastructure have recently been implemented in Canmore. The highlight of the trip (other than the e-bike) was riding Canmore's latest bike paths. Spring Creek Drive features a wide shared use path on both sides of a slow and narrow road with a separate red bike path for cyclists, and traditional grey concrete pedestrian sidewalk. Both are immediately adjacent to each other with no physical or grade separation. This comes with both pros and cons.
The one negative is the increased likelihood of pedestrians finding themselves on the red part of the path. The two photos below show one couple walking as desired, mostly on the sidewalk. The other photo shows a group of three people spreading out across the full width of the path. With no barrier of any kind to separate the two halves, such situations are always a possibility. It's not a perfect solution as it frustrates cyclists, and then cyclists often scare pedestrians. This becomes more of an issues as volumes increase. At peak tourist season, there may be more such misuse as the number of unfamiliar pedestrians increase. Extra signage and pavement markings may help reduce those instances and compliance may improve over time as more and more people familiarize themselves with the desired operation.
On the plus side, this is a good solution where right-of-way prevents better separation, something i've come across during the design process in other locations. It just requires a little consideration and respect for other user along the path. By being immediately adjacent with no grade changes, it is easier to clear snow from the combined path rather than two separate narrow paths, and I understand the snow typically piles up half on the buffer and half on the red path, leaving some separation present over winter, where volumes and tourist numbers will be a bit lower. The lack of separation also makes passing easier, whether passing pedestrians on the wrong side, or slower cyclists. The 1.8m red portion was comfortable for side by side cycling too, which wouldn't have been the case had there been curbs present at either side. In this case, if you had to veer of line a little, there are no vertical objects to disrupt you. All in all, it’s a good solution where the right-of-way is constrained. At the intersection with Main Street, the intersection is fully protected, requiring two stage turns, but as its unsignalized, bikes have priority and pass through relatively unimpeded. Separate crossing areas are provided for pedestrians and cyclists, and at the corners, pedestrians and cyclists are required to cross paths, where again, consideration and respect for other people are needed. A few more images are shown below.
Around the town there was barely any time where we wouldn't see someone on a bike, from kids to adults, and elderly people, cyclists are very visible and a familiar sight helping to create strength in numbers. While much of the town is relatively flat, there are some higher and outlying neighbourhoods, which may discourage some from cycling. As e-bikes become more mainstream, and the prices come down, I think we’ll see a new segment of the population start to ride bikes, who previously shied away from it because they were either physically unable or just didn’t like the idea of getting sweaty. Over and above the bicycle technology though, a complete and safe bicycle network is key. The quicker that can be built, the quicker that mode-shift will occur.
There are other bike facilities around town, that are less compliant with modern bike facility design standards, and now understood to be less conducive to attracting the interested but concerned potential cyclists out of their vehicles. Such facilities include regular bike lanes, sometimes adjacent to parked vehicles, or Sharrows in the downtown core. Multi-use paths also play a large role in the bike network, which depending on location and potential demands, can work reasonably well or can become congested with undesirable conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists. Some examples are shown below.
Leaving on a positive note, the new bike facilities are a sure sign of positive things to come and the intent of the Town. I look forward to returning, with the mountain bike in hand next time, or will that be an e-MTB???