In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. This is a great starting place for promoting the use of electric bikes. Creatures of habit (such as humans) are more inclined to change their ways when the world is in turmoil. The inconvenience caused by the coronavirus pandemic could be the perfect incentive to switch to an e-bike.
Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG
Transport geographer Paul Plazier is an expert in the field of electric bikes. Two years ago, he was awarded a PhD by the UG for research into the use of this increasingly popular mode of transport. At the time, he concluded that the decision about whether or not to buy an electric bike was largely steered by people’s enjoyment of cycling, the health benefits, the image and affordability. Motives such as sustainability and road traffic were less important. At least, for consumers... The latter two are definitely key factors for policy makers and people working in urban and regional planning.
Plazier sees huge opportunities for electric bikes, particularly in terms of commuter travel. ‘The nature of these benefits obviously depends on the alternatives. If an employee leaves their car at home, there are benefits to the environment, there is less traffic on the road and the employee will soon notice the health benefits. If someone becomes less reliant on public transport, they will also see health benefits, and there will be more room on the buses and trains. But I think it’s always a pity if someone swaps a regular bike for an electric bike. Regular bikes are healthier and more sustainable. This said, e-bikes are definitely a good thing. They can persuade people who would otherwise never cycle to try getting on a bike. Recent studies revealed that in the Netherlands, people with an e-bike go for longer bike rides than people with a regular bike. In other countries, people with e-bikes go on more bike rides than people with regular bikes. These are the potential positive effects. But as far as I’m concerned, the basic principle is: just get on your bike.’
While carrying out his PhD research, Plazier ascertained that a lot of people switch to an e-bike when something in their life changes fundamentally. ‘This could be after moving house, having a child, changing jobs or getting divorced. Life events like these usually involve a short period of uncertainty, which creates the perfect opportunity to break the habits of a lifetime. They can be the trigger for people who were already unhappy about the way they travelled between home and the workplace. The coronavirus pandemic is also one of these triggers. People’s lives have been turned upside down: different routines and rhythms, working from home instead of going to the office, new leisure pursuits, new daily schedules.’
So Plazier is advising employers and government bodies that this is the time to act. ‘Subsidise the option for staff members to try out an e-bike. Or offer financial benefits if they buy one. Draw up road maps, for example, to reorganize commuter travel. But most of all: invest in bike highways so that cyclists can comfortably enjoy cycling long distances.’ He also considers it important to make bike paths safer by widening roads, for example, and laying them out pleasantly, without too many distractions. Whichever way you look at it, e-bikes are here to stay. ‘You can’t stop the electrification of transport. Consider electric cars, mopeds, scooters, segways and so on.’
But the advent of the e-bike is not all roses. The bike paths and cycle lanes have become busier and there are huge differences in the speeds at which users travel. This can lead to dangerous situations, and sometime serious injuries. Plazier acknowledges this. ‘There is a call to make helmets compulsory for e-bikers, but I’m against this. One of the main benefits of riding an electric bike is that it feels like riding a bike. You’re in the open air and it’s no hassle. Having to wear a helmet would put a lot of potential users off. The Dutch just aren’t used to biking in a helmet. Rules for young and old people might be a good idea, but I prefer recommendations to obligations.’
Does he mind being called ‘Mister e-bike’? Plazier laughs. ‘No, it seems to have become my nickname. Colleagues sometimes quip about ‘the other bike professor', by which they mean my colleague Marco te Brommelstroet, who is a professor at the University of Amsterdam. He’s welcome to the title. And to be honest, I don’t even have an electric bike!’ Plazier lives in Utrecht, but works part-time at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the UG, and part-time at the international advice agency Sweco. ‘It’s based in De Bilt, close to the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute). It’s within easy cycling distance of my house. If it had been more than, say, 15 km, I would have considered buying an e-bike.’
His two jobs have a lot in common, because they both revolve around transport (including cycling). He enjoys the mix. ‘The job at Sweco is very practical, while my work at the UG is mainly theoretical. It’s good for my personal development. I keep up-to-date in my field and my contact with fellow researchers in the Netherlands and abroad gives me the opportunity and the time to study new trends and developments. My job at Sweco, on the other hand, takes me out into the field, where I can see the relevance in the practical situation. This stops me from sealing myself off in an academic bubble.’
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