Every morning Dutchman Marc Dekker hops on his electric bike and cycles 40 miles from his house in a suburb of Utrecht to his work in the town of Ridderkerk. And when work is done, he cycles back another 40 miles. All in all it takes him about three and a half hours to commute. “The actual distance is 45km (28 miles), but I make a detour to avoid having to cross a river by ferry,” he says.
For years Dekker went by car to his job as a computer programmer. But early last year his employer called him into his office and said: I am worried about you. “He was right,” Dekker says. “I was continuously tired and had a short fuse. I drove to work very early in an attempt to avoid the rush hour and when I got home it was already dark. The traffic jams were killing me and I was never outside. Something had to change.”
It was a speed pedelec – an electric bike that can go as fast as 28mph (45km/h) – that brought about the change. “I love cycling,” Dekker says. “I always wanted to cycle to work, and I tried to do so on my racing bike, but the distance was simply too long. And then I tried out one of these fast electric bikes. Five minutes later I knew my problem was solved.”
The government of the Netherlands is about to reclassify such high-speed e-bikes as mopeds, meaning their owners will be banned from cycle paths, the bikes must be fitted with registration plates, and riders must wear helmets, obtain a driver’s licence and take out insurance. A similar situation already exists in Britain and many other European Union countries, with e-bikes limited to 15.5mph.
But for Dekker – who now cycles to work every day – his high-powered bike has enriched his life. “Every day I am grateful I can cycle to work. I only go by car when there is a storm. When it rains, I get wet. So what? At work I can take a hot shower and change. This has made such a change in my life. The stress has gone. I feel energetic when I get home, instead of tired. And the great thing is: I don’t have to go to the gym anymore, so it actually saves time.”
Dekker is one of the growing number of Dutchmen who use electric bikes to go to work – although it must be said that most of them cover less impressive distances.
According to a Dutch survey from 2012 the e-bike has the potential to cause a growth of 4% to 9% in the total amount of commuting trips by bike in the Netherlands. In some areas this could even be 20%.
“That survey was done before the advent of the speed pedelec, so we think the effect will be much bigger. But we don’t have any statistics yet to account for it,” says Otto van Boggelen of Fietsberaad, a Dutch centre of expertise for cycling policy.
In the Netherlands, all kinds of initiatives have emerged to stimulate people to commute by e-bike. Companies, universities, local and regional authorities offer their employees bonuses when they come to work on an electric bike. For example, the region Arnhem-Nijmegen gave 650 employees who bought an e-bike a discount of 30%. Erasmus University Rotterdam offers a bonus of €350 (£295) to employees who purchase an electric bike.
“These initiatives have been quite successful,” van Boggelen says. “Generally you see that when people give it a try, they continue to go to work by e-bike. But they aren’t inveterate motorists, of course. They are usually people who have always wanted to cycle to work, but simply couldn’t because of the distance. The e-bike enables them to fulfil this wish.”
Commuting by e-bike offers many advantages to all parties, he says. “It enables employers to economise on parking places and improves the health of their workforce. Authorities see it as a tool to minimise traffic jams and CO2 emissions. To the commuters it offers exercise and fresh air. And they save on petrol costs.”
The e-bike has also saved many Dutch bike shops. The sale of regular bikes is declining in the Netherlands, but shops still make a profit out of the growing number of expensive e-bikes they sell.
For some time the e-bike suffered from a dowdy image, because in the beginning they were mainly bought by elderly people. But the new generation of fast electric bikes or speed pedelecs are no longer considered a means of transport for the older generation. The number of young people buying them is growing fast.
According to van Boggelen, the speed pedelec is attractive because “you can still experience the bike-feeling” while moving as fast as a moped. “The great thing is, you can choose how fast you want to pedal and you don’t arrive sweaty at work.” He thinks the e-bike could also offer possibilities for commuting in other countries. “In hilly areas these bikes are really helpful. But you do need a safe cycling infrastructure.”
E-bikes also pose problems. They are expensive and can be prone to theft. The Dutch police have recently announced they are going to deploy decoy e-bikes to track down gangs of professional bicycle thieves.
And then there is the question of safety. Until now, speed pedelecs have been allowed to use the extensive Dutch network of cycle paths, provided they don’t go faster than 15.5mph. From January 2017, though, the Dutch government will put speed pedelecs on the same footing as mopeds.
That is already the position in most other EU countries, including the UK, where speed pedelecs must be registered as mopeds with the DVLA, taxed and insured. Riders are supposed to wear motorcycle-style helmets – but few do. A recent investigation by the Sunday Times found evidence of London commuters using high-powered e-bikes and retailers selling them without making clear that unregistered bikes should only be used on private land.
“Safety risks hardly increase when you use a regular e-bike, but risks are certainly higher when we’re talking about speed pedelecs,” says Wim Bot of the Dutch Cyclists Union. “So for the safety of other cyclists, we don’t want people on power bikes to use cycle paths in the city. We do think these bikes are a great alternative for the car when it comes to commuting though.”
Marc Dekker agrees: “If it wasn’t for my speed pedelec, I would have never decided to go to work on a bike.”