Alastair Dalton: Electric bikes could be transformational

The Scotsman transport correspondent Alastair Dalton finds an electric bike makes Edinburgh's steep streets easy pedalling. Picture: Jon Savage
The Scotsman transport correspondent Alastair Dalton finds an electric bike makes Edinburgh's steep streets easy pedalling. Picture: Jon Savage
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It is the one form of transport that sparks unalloyed delight - and it could become a game changer.

Electric bikes add an exciting new dimension to cycling, and when you try one for the first time, as I did last week, you’ll immediately see their potential.

The views I’ve heard about electric bikes include “brilliant” and “sounds fantastic”, while one cycle-mad friend told me: “I’m scared to try an electric bike as I fear once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruit...”

Riding one in Edinburgh last week, it was if the hills had been taken away. What should have been an arduous climb up Arthur’s Seat proved to be a doddle, and on an electric bike, the normally challenging Mound can be regarded as the Flat.

But it’s not just on hills that they come into their own. I was raring to go at traffic lights for that acceleration buzz as you put your foot down, so to speak.

The beauty of it is that you’re still cycling - and getting up to 80 per cent of the workout, without the sweat. Riders typically find themselves cycling twice as far as on a traditional bike, more than compensating for the “pedal assist”.

With a typical 60-mile range, there’s plenty of scope for that.

As cycle hire scheme developers nextbike managing director Julian Scriven put it to me last week, electric bikes are perfect for people who want to lose weight but don’t want to exercise - a “gateway drug into cycling”.

Electric bikes, which provide power assistance up to 15mph, also enable riders to keep up with the traffic. That’s pretty significant when much of Edinburgh is a 20mph zone, and some even reckon that makes them the quickest way to get across the city, by any means.

In Northern Ireland, you need a motorcycle licence to ride one, and also have it taxed and insured.

Thankfully, such restrictions don’t apply in Scotland. Just as well, because electric bikes could transform cycling - massively widening the attraction for the less fit, the less confident, the overweight, older people and those who don’t want to reach their meeting out of breath.

It may also keep people commuting by bike when they move further away from their work.

But up to now, electric bikes have been out of reach of most people, costing as much as a second hand car. The ones I tested were worth more than £2,000, while mountain bike versions can set you back three times that.

That’s about to change, with electric bikes due to come available as part of cycle hire schemes in cities such as Edinburgh and Stirling next year.

They are expected to be offered for only a slightly higher rate than traditional bikes. I can see big demand.

Many of the folk trying them, even those who haven’t cycled for years, will become instant converts.

If that all helps to “normalise” cycling, which is still very much a niche form of transport, that can only be good for health, pollution and congestion.

It will also increase the pressure to make roads safer for cyclists, such as with more segregated lanes.

The beauty for cyclists just now is how empty such lanes are, and more people taking to bikes, particularly travelling at different speeds, could create its own congestion.

But for ministers, that might be a nice problem to have to face.