While ways to solve Auck­land’s con­ges­tion prob­lem are be­ing hotly de­bated, Matt Weavers has a so­lu­tion to put for­ward: elec­tric bikes. Ly­cra and high lev­els of fit­ness aren’t nec­es­sary, ei­ther.

Idealog - - RIDE ON -

I like to drink beers. I smoke the odd cig­a­rette. I used to pay for a gym I didn’t use. I don’t like wear­ing ly­cra un­less it’s to a party. And I ride a bike. Up a large hill six times a week. How is this pos­si­ble? Well, I have an elec­tric bike.

Last year, Auck­lan­ders wasted 20 days sit­ting in traf­fic. That’s al­most a month we could have been ly­ing on a beach dream­ing of not sit­ting in traf­fic. In the same time, Auck­land grew by 43,000 peo­ple and 43,000 new cars. With an­nual pop­u­la­tion growth set to hit over 50,000 very shortly, our grid­lock risks end­ing up like down­town Manila on a pub­lic hol­i­day.

Over $3 mil­lion a day is be­ing spent on in­fra­struc­ture to avoid this night­mare sce­nario. Ev­ery­one can’t wait to see the sub­way in Auck­land, but this takes time. A lot of time. As an in­di­vid­ual, there’s lit­tle we can do to speed things along short of pick­ing up a shovel and help­ing with the dig. Af­ter re­ly­ing on the gov­ern­ment to sort it out for the last 50 years, only re­cently are we see­ing a turn­around. Luck­ily, there’s now some­thing we all can do to help, and it's far more en­joy­able than dig­ging a gi­ant hole.

Cy­cling in Auck­land has never gone main­stream for two rea­sons: safety and hills. Dodg­ing the traf­fic can be ter­ri­fy­ing. Some cy­clists go to such lengths as wear­ing bum-hug­ging, rave-wear just to stand out to driv­ers, which of­ten works for all the wrong rea­sons. Now with the open­ing of the ex­cel­lent cy­cle paths, safety is not the is­sue it was. Pro­file projects like the hot pink Nel­son St cy­cle­way and the SkyPath un­der the bridge are rais­ing the pro­file of cy­cling as a safe ac­tiv­ity for ev­ery­one. Im­por­tantly, this also means less ly­cra. When we see reg­u­lar peo­ple rid­ing in dresses, jeans and suits, the cul­ture starts to change.

While our 50 vol­ca­noes sure are pretty to look at, they don’t make for a flat city. Like most peo­ple, hills don’t ex­cite me. The idea of rid­ing a bike to work al­ways seemed like some­thing pro­ceeded by an in­ter ven­tion with friends, fam­ily and a softly spo­ken priest. But in the last few years, tech­nol­ogy has come to the res­cue in the form of a gi­ant cell phone bat­tery and a small mo­tor built into the con­ven­tional push bike, giv­ing mo­ti­va­tion­ally chal­lenged peo­ple like me an easy way in.

The best bit about an elec­tric bike is rid­ing up­hill. Much like go­ing down­hill, you get a lit­tle bit ex­cited. Ask any qual­i­fied as­tro­naut and they will agree that cheat­ing grav­ity gen­er­ates a mild eu­pho­ria. This gets even bet­ter when you start over­tak­ing proper cy­clists pre­tend­ing to be Lance Arm­strong strug­gling in the Pyre­nees. It’s the smell of vic­tory in the morn­ing, with­out break­ing a sweat.

Take the safety and hills out of the equa­tion and cy­cling to work makes a lot of sense. Ev­ery day, over 300,000 peo­ple drive to work within an easy 5km ra­dius of the city. On an elec­tric bike this takes about 10 min­utes. Sud­denly the idea that com­mut­ing can be fun is no longer ridicu­lous.

So why hasn’t this taken off ? Well they aren’t cheap. For about $5000 you can get a bike with un­pro­nounce­able Ger­man com­po­nents, a leather seat and a very so­phis­ti­cated bell. At the other end of the mar­ket for $2500, you can take your chances on a bike from China which is prob­a­bly just as good, if not a lit­tle uglier. While it is still the price of a used car, the mar­ket is ex­plod­ing over­seas. Over 37 mil­lion elec­tric bikes were sold last year, out­selling elec­tric cars 10 to 1.

In Auck­land, it’s gain­ing mo­men­tum. Lack­ing any of­fi­cial fig­ures, we must sub­sti­tute it with the well-known eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor, ‘how many sell­ers are there on Trade Me?’ There, it seems, con­tainer loads of elec­tric bikes are chang­ing hands each month. You see it on the streets as well, with su­per­hu­man re­tirees over­tak­ing cars on their ex­pen­sive elec­tric bikes. Tra­di­tion­ally, trends shift from the young to the old. Due to the high cost of en­try, this time it’s the oldies that are on the cusp.

As prices fall and young peo­ple start get­ting in­volved, shift will hap­pen. For Auck­land to cope with growth, some­thing has to give. At the mo­ment, main­stream up­take of elec­tric bik­ing seems as good as a so­lu­tion as any on the ta­ble. In­stead of wait­ing 20 years for light rail and other pub­lic works, this is some­thing we can do to­day. Imag­ine our city with fewer carparks, less pol­lu­tion and peo­ple en­joy­ing their ride to work. All it’s go­ing to take is a few for­ward-think­ing in­di­vid­u­als and in­no­va­tive busi­nesses to get on their elec­tric bikes and lead the way. If a beer-swill­ing, gym­dodg­ing, lazy guy like me can do it, so can you.

The best bit about an elec­tric bike i s rid­ing up­hill. Ask any qual­i­fied as­tro­naut and they will agree that cheat­ing grav­ity gen­er­ates a mild eu­pho­ria. This gets even bet­ter when you start over­tak­ing proper cy­clists pre­tend­ing to be Lance Arm­strong strug­gling i n the Pyre­nees.

Matt Weavers is a founder of Big Street Bik­ers, a startup hack­ing Auck­land’s traf­fic prob­lem with an elec­tric bike sub­scrip­tion model. www.bigstreet­bik­

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