It has been a terribly hot and long summer in London. And when I reminisce about the light evenings and the thick air – in the midst of the ensuing bleak winter – what sound will punctuate my memory? The low hum of chatter that hangs around pub gardens? Faint music emanating from every basement bar in Soho on a Friday night? Perhaps even the muffled, leafy silence localised to North London’s Hampstead Heath? No. Unfortunately none of this will stick. The sound of the summer in 2023 was the irritating and ubiquitous whine of the e-bike.
The e-bike – specifically the e-bike rental company Lime Bike – has taken over the city. Lime Bike’s genius bid for maximum convenience means that the bikes themselves can be discarded wherever the rider finishes with them – often the middle of the street. There are no pesky docking stations to limit our freedom. And so now they clog up every cycle lane and most parks while in use; abandoned ones litter the pavements (hazardous for the blind, disabled, those with buggies). I have seen more than one dumped in Regent’s canal – with their lurid green colour penetrating even the murkiest of London’s water. In fact, it is hard to think of an analogous social trend, exploding so dramatically overnight with no sign of waning in popularity.
Like many London trends, there is a few months’ lag effect on Dublin. But e-bikes – and their more insidious counterpart, the e-scooter – are slowly beginning to take hold in Ireland’s capital. Soon, if London is a helpful guiding principle, we might expect Dublin’s streets to be groaning under their weight.
The e-scooter is still effectively illegal on Irish roads until the Road Traffic and Roads Act 2023 comes into force later this year (though that did not prevent me nearly colliding with one on Tara Street recently). But it is the electric bike that is booming – road-legal under EU directives up to 25km/h. Sales are increasing, roughly in step with global trends. And though Lime Bike is not currently available for consumers in Dublin, the company launched a pilot in Castlebar last year. Free Now – the car-hire app – said earlier this year it was expecting to integrate e-bikes into its service.
This has all the makings of a transport revolution. And the e-bikes come with fervent acolytes. In theory, the battery-powered vehicles are designed to take the worst pressure off cyclists. London, at least, is a rather hilly city and they are a trusty aide when tackling the steep inclines of Primrose Hill and Greenwich Park. The thinking goes like this: if we make cycling less physically taxing, it will encourage more and more people to eschew the car or the bus, generating a net positive effect for both the environment and the cardiac health of the population. Perfectly noble.
Exactly how many parents will be comfortable with their children cycling to school if they are expected to weave between and dodge adults on 35kg battery-powered vehicles?
Until you dig a centimetre deeper and realise that e-bikes are a scourge on the fabric of any city. They make an annoying noise. Though their speed is technically capped at 14.8km/h they can be hacked and modified to go much faster. They accelerate quickly and weigh around 35kg (around four times the amount of an average road bike). As cycling campaigner and Conservative commentator Peter Hitchens says: they are “things which look like bicycles to the uninitiated but are in fact electric motorbikes”. And now these vehicles (posing as bikes) are sharing cycle lanes with children; and slower, lighter, human-powered bikes.
According to Dublin City Council more than 30 cycling infrastructure schemes are under construction or in planning stages – all aimed at providing segregated bike lanes across the city. Even better, Another 80km of lanes is planned from 2025 to 2027. But what on earth was the point of decades-long campaigning to implement cycling infrastructure in Dublin – only to quickly fill these lanes with motorised vehicles? Like opening a vegan restaurant with meat and dairy on the menu. Exactly how many parents will be comfortable with their children cycling to school if they are expected to weave between and dodge adults on 35kg battery-powered vehicles?
Embracing e-bikes while splashing cash on cycling projects strikes me as a fantastical exercise in one-step-forward, two-steps-back thinking. The explosion of discarded e-bikes in London ought to act as a cautionary tale for Dublin City Council. But if they fail to heed the lessons of the British capital, now swarmed with the things, the council will fast open itself up to accusations of short-term thinking. They would not be alone. This is a modern phenomenon: we adopt new technology with open arms without thinking about the litany of negative byproducts it might generate. Take, for example, the advent of the smartphone. Who suspected then that it would completely revolutionise the way we exchanged news and information? We saw it too with vapes and e-cigarettes: we expected to help society give up smoking, while also hooking a generation of under-18s on a new form of nicotine.
This is no argument against progress. It is perfectly reasonable to celebrate new technology that looks as though it might drag us – kicking and screaming – into a modernised world. But we ought not be blinded by something masquerading as progress: e-bikes might be fun and flashy, but their imprint on the shape of a city is not a positive one.