More power to you: alternative transport for the weary commuter

Bikes, scooters and skateboards are increasingly electrified – and popular

E-scooting in Dublin 4. With an average speed of 12mph, electric scooters and bikes could complete short journeys quicker than vehicles in many cities. Photograph: Alan Betson

E-scooting in Dublin 4. With an average speed of 12mph, electric scooters and bikes could complete short journeys quicker than vehicles in many cities. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

In the most recent census, of 2016, there were more than 1.8 million people commuting every day, with the majority of travel done by car. Next up was walking, followed by buses and cycling.

There are plenty of options, however, if you want to ditch the car but don’t want to be beholden to the public transport timetable and want something a little easier than a traditional bicycle.

Those methods of travel are increasingly electrified, which means under the right circumstances, you get to feel better about your carbon footprint too.

So what are the options?

Electric bikes

I am not a natural cyclist. I love being out in the open air, but when it comes to cycling at any speed, well, let’s just say I won’t be giving any Tour de France cyclists a run for their money. But a few months ago I decided that I needed to dust off the bike while the weather was still half decent and get back to two wheels instead of using the bus every day.

Have you never noticed that Dublin city centre is down a hill? It’s a very subtle one but it’s a hill nonetheless. It’s great on the way in, but on the way home, when you are already tired from the day and you have to battle the inevitable wind – not to mention dodging city traffic – the return journey can be a little too much. At least until you get a bit of practise in and pick up the pace. And by you, I mean me, obviously.

But there is a compromise. Electric bikes allow you to get a bit of exercise in but will also give you a bit of help when you need it most. It’s not like the scooter – you can’t just push a button and go. You still need to pedal; no pedalling means no movement. Admittedly it won’t be quite as taxing, but that all depends on the level of assistance you select.

To see how easy it would be to switch from the bus (warm, if a little cramped) or a regular bike (open to the elements, but so much effort on the way home that I might be quicker walking) to an electric bike, I picked up a Raleigh Motus bike for a week from MacDonald Cycles in Rathgar.

It’s not difficult to see why electric bikes have their fans

According to owner Alec MacDonald, the shop now sells more electric bikes than traditional ones. MacDonald Cycles has been in business a long time. The Rathgar store has been there a few decades now but the company was started by MacDonald’s father and then both he and his brother got into the business. “That’s not to say we’re selling thousands a week, but we definitely sell more electric,” he says.

MacDonald was an early proponent of electric bikes. It’s not difficult to see why electric bikes have their fans. You feel like you are getting some exercise in, but when things get a bit difficult, you can turn up the intensity of the motor.

The upshot? Your commute is a little easier and a lot less sweaty, but you still get a bit of exercise.

The Motus has four different modes: eco, tour, sport and turbo. The higher up that list you go, the less distance you’ll get out of it, but on the tour mode, you’ll comfortably tackle average hills while not burning through the battery too much. You’re talking about once a week charging, with the average rider getting about 100km out of the battery.

You’ll need to charge the bike’s battery, of course, which can take a couple of hours. You can either hook the charger up directly to the bike or unlock the battery and charge it wherever you can.

The other thing you’ll need to remember is that electric bikes need to be serviced regularly. That goes for regular bikes too, but unless your mechanical knowledge is good, you’ll need to call in the professionals for this one. Some shops, such as MacDonalds, offer servicing as part of the package when you buy an electric bike.

So why aren’t the bikes even more popular? There’s the cost – electric bikes cost upwards of €1,000, although serious cyclists (ie not me) know how easy it is for the costs of a regular bike to add up. E-bikes qualify for the Cycle to Work scheme, although MacDonald points out that the cap on the bike value is too low for most electric bikes. The cheapest e-bike he has in the shop is €1,500 and he would be in favour of the Government raising the ceiling on the scheme, encouraging more people to get out of their cars and on to their bikes.

There is another option: retrofitting your existing bike with an electric kit. That is something a few bike shops around the country will do. Easy Motion in Dublin 12 offers conversion kits for €865, which is less than an electric bike but not exactly cheap either. They typically comprise a wheel, rechargable battery and motor.

The obvious benefits are that you are simply adding on to your existing bike, so it is cheaper than shelling out for a new e-bike. There are other deals to be found online too, although unless you are a mechanical expert, you’ll still need to find someone to fit the kit.

However, be careful what kit you choose. Not all bikes are suited to the conversion kits. The type of kit may also be a legal issue. While real-world stores offer standard-powered kits, online stores offer significantly higher-powered ones. If you go for one that is too powerful, it may mean your bike is illegal for use on Irish roads.

E-scooters, ready for action. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
E-scooters, ready for action. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Electric scooters

Have you noticed more and more people out and about on electric scooters? Chances are you may have had one buzz past you in the city centre, as they are becoming an increasingly common sight around Irish cities as more people catch on to the fact that they will get you to your intended destination faster than sitting in traffic.

There is one huge “but” there, though. E-scooters are, as of this moment, illegal on Irish roads. That’s because the legislation governing motorised vehicles is about 50 years old. But there are moves to modernise it, and to make electric scooters legal on the roads. Minister for Transport Shane Ross is reviewing the matter, with a report from the Road Safety Authority recommending the scooters be legalised – subject to certain conditions. That could mean licences and safety equipment becoming mandatory. All should become clearer in the next few months, but until then riding e-scooters in public could end with your new toy being seized by gardaí.

That doesn’t seem to be deterring people, though. A few months ago, I tested a Seat eXs Kickscooter, bringing it to and from work on my daily commute to see if it was a potential replacement for the bus trips. The scooter reaches speeds of 25km/h, has three modes and can be folded down to carry – awkwardly – on a bus if the weather is too bad or the journey gets a bit too hairy.

For short journeys, the scooter makes sense. But you’ll have to get over the abject terror of being alongside cars

Because that is the main problem with e-scooters – you are sharing space with cars. Ireland doesn’t do brilliantly for cyclists, who have been fighting for safe facilities for years. Segregated lanes in the cities are a rarity and where they are painted on the road, they can be – and frequently are – ignored, and they aren’t always in great condition. Travelling alongside cars on a scooter under those conditions is slightly terrifying.

The conclusion? For short journeys, the scooter makes sense. However, you’ll have to get over the abject terror of being alongside cars.

It’s not a cheap endeavour either. The Seat scooter is a rebadged Segway, and it comes in at €600. There are cheaper options though, with Segway Ninebot scooters costing under €500. Retailers such as AppliancesDelivered have started selling “smart transport”, which includes these e-scooters.

Skateboards, unicycles

On one of those tortuous journeys home on my (non-electric) bike, there was one moment where I was passed by a guy on a skateboard and I thought that was the moment I should just give up. However, watching him in the distance, I realised one important thing: he never put his foot on the ground, and when you are going up a slight hill, that just defies the laws of physics. What I didn’t notice the first time was the subtle shift in weight, but it turns out it was an electric skateboard and I wasn’t quite as bad at cycling as I thought I was.

Electric skateboards fall into that legislative grey area that e-scooters inhabit. Technically, they are illegal to use on Irish roads, but realistically, how many people have been pulled up for using them?

Most work quite simply: a handheld remote control governs speed and braking. The rest is down to good balance and the ability to shift your weight to turn correctly.

Electric skateboards look very similar to a regular skateboard; it’s only on closer inspection you’ll spot the battery under the deck.

The downside? Not only are they expensive compared to a regular skateboard, you are more vulnerable on the board than on a bike, for example. Especially when you consider the potholed streets around our cities that cause enough of a problem for cyclists.

If that’s not adventurous enough for you, you could try an electric unicycle. That requires a bit more balance and confidence, as do the Segway Ninebot Electric Skates. The latter may not be suitable for road use, but because they are electric, they probably shouldn’t be used on the path either.

What does the RSA say?

Electric bikes: If it can be powered by mechanical or electrical power alone (ie it can continue without you pedalling or scooting it) then it is considered to be a “mechanically propelled vehicle” (MPV). Road traffic law states that if an MPV is used in a public place, it must be roadworthy, registered, taxed and insured, plus the driver needs to have the correct driving licence and must wear a crash helmet.

Conversion kits: There is no law against using conversion kits. However the addition of the engine may result in your bike being treated as an MPV. Conversions must be carried out to an appropriate standard so as not to render the vehicle unroadworthy, unsafe or likely to cause an incident.

Electric scooters: Currently the subject of a review, the RSA has recommended e-scooters be made legal on Irish roads. However, that will be subject to a number of conditions.

Electric skateboards etc: “Regardless of the type of vehicle, if it can operate on mechanical or electrical power alone – even if you initially have to pedal, push or scoot it to get it going – then it is considered to be a mechanically propelled vehicle (MPV). Under Road Traffic law if an MPV is used in a public place it is subject to all of the regulatory controls that apply to other vehicles, ie. it must be roadworthy, registered, taxed and insured.”

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