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Berlin is a fantastic city where good design is ubiquitous and bicycle infrastructure is both plentiful and of a standard that many cities would be envious of. I recently spent a couple of days in Germany’s capital touring local design projects on the smart ebike as research for my article on reimagining urban buildings which has just been published over at Bettery Magazine.
But who am I kidding. The real reason I went to Berlin was to play on this electric bike, designed by the guys at smart – a company more famous for their 2-seater car than their 2-wheeled bike. There are lots of rules about electric bikes in the EU (there are lots of rules about everything in the EU…), and, technically, this electric bike is actually a pedelec – a bicycle with an electric engine that only kicks in when a rider peddles. So anyone hoping for a bicycle which they just turn on and go would be disappointed. But readjust your expectations and you’d be pretty pleased.
The ebike feels a little strange at first for anyone used to riding a bike that only moves fast when you peddle hard enough. However, once you’ve got over that slightly weird feeling of being pushed along by a more powerful force (remember when your parents taught you to ride a bike by pushing it before releasing you? It feels just like that), the ebike could totally open your mind about the potential of the bicycle for urban commuting. Bike advocates often state that most urban trips are of a cyclable distance, and though this is totally true, what about the trips that are longer distance? These are the trips that, at best, people take on public transport or, at worst, buy a car for. And then get hopelessly devoted to their 4-wheeled friend which they end up using for trips of every distance. An electric bike that brings all the fun of cycling with few of the drawbacks could make cycling a more viable transport mode.
The ebike is a simple device. It looks largely like a normal bicycle, with two peddles, breaks and gears, but it also has a removable control panel on the handlebars (pictured above) that allows you to control the engine’s power and keep up with other stuff like battery charge, speed, total distance cycled etc. This control panel is your friend. Turn it up to 4 – the highest level – and setting off from traffic lights is close to effortless. In fact, the whole thing is pretty much effortless. I spent six hours cycling through Berlin and never once broke a sweat (it was blisteringly cold, but still). For those who love cycling because of the ‘accidental exercise’, this bike is not for you. For the lazy people among us, THIS BIKE IS THE BEST.
It’s not all effortless, however. Find your battery running low and you will need to turn to the ‘recharge setting’. This setting is evil and the total opposite of what this bike is about. It requires more effort than a regular bike, with your additional effort going to recharging the battery. Though the battery is far better than your iPhone and doesn’t conk out the moment you use it, take my advice and plug it in overnight. You don’t want to be using the recharge setting. (And talking of iPhones, the ebike has a USB port and smartphone dock. It’s a geek’s dream).
This bike is also not great for those of us who live in a fourth floor apartment with no lift and no decent bike storage (ahem). Put simply, it weighs more than a Boris Bike. Put even more simply and in a way that people who don’t live in London will understand, it weighs a hell of a lot. And then there’s the price. At €2,800 (that’s around US$3,600 or £2,200), the representative from smart may think it’s ‘pretty affordable’, but I think it’s a pretty hefty chunk of my income.
However, any complaint about the ebike becomes almost irrelevant when I consider the experience of using it. Cycling around Berlin on this vehicle genuinely changed the way I viewed the city. When I got my first bike in London I realised that I had just opened the door to parts of the city that I would have otherwise never known. It was a fantastic feeling, and one which I got all over again when using the ebike. Except this time I’d opened the door to an even bigger geographical area.
My cynical side says electric bikes don’t get people out of cars, and instead get current cyclists onto a less active transport mode. My idealistic side says the electric bike could transform the way we get around our cities. Regardless, I’m left wondering where I can find €2,800.
Joe Peach is Editor in chief of This Big City.