E-Bikes: The freedom of a car, with none of the baggage

The economy isn’t what it used to be, and the price of a car, even a used, rusty, stinky shitbox, is more than you can probably afford on a uni-student income. At least, it was more than I could afford, and it was more than my folks could either, so I took the third option. I bought an E-Bike.

New bike face.

So, what is an E-Bike?  

You’ve seen them around the city, usually being used to deliver UberEats or any of those other shitty gig-economy apps. They’re fairly similar to normal bicycles, except with a battery and an electric motor bolted on. They’re also regulated as bicycles, meaning you don’t need a licence, insurance, or heavy protective gear to ride one. 

To legally classify as an e-bike, or, to use the VicRoads terminology, an electrically power-assisted cycle (EPAC), it has to meet some restrictions. You can’t have a throttle, you can’t have more than 250 watts of power in the motor, and you can’t go faster than 25km/h. 

Frankly, however, these are more like guidelines than actual rules. Most shops sell bikes with motor options at 500w or above, some bikes even have motors on both wheels, totalling a fucking bonkers 1500w. You can get a thumb throttle with most options at no extra cost. If the bike is limited at all, it’s often not to the legal 25km/h.  

It’s trivial to get an e-bike that goes far faster and far harder than it’s legally supposed to.  

The laws are fundamentally unenforceable, as the only visible sign of a noncompliant bike is the throttle, and most cops don’t know to look for that. In reality, as long as you’re mindful of speed limits, don’t pass 25km/h in busy areas, and either don’t have or don’t use a throttle, you won’t run into problems.  

While I would never advocate for or admit to breaking the law, I will note that the model I bought offers a 500w motor at no extra cost, and the website specifies they “can” set the top speed to 25km/h. Haha. 

Anyway, the point is that that extra power means you can get places faster with a fraction of the effort. It means you can bring more shit with you and arrive less sweaty.  

The main market for e-bikes is older or disabled folks, who can use these as, essentially, adaptive devices to make the world more accessible.  

I got one instead of a car. 

Going Car-Free 

Let’s not pretend I’m some radical, however. The idea of “going car free” has been around for decades – a UK charity recently ran a challenge on the topic, Urbanist Youtube has been growing for years, and /r/FuckCars is on a meteoric rise. E-bikes aren’t new either, while the popularity is kinda recent, the tech has been around since the 90s. But most of that discourse is from the perspective of parents and families, or the elderly and disabled; people talking about ditching a car instead of never buying one.  

So what do they offer to a uni student? 

The main thing is ease and flexibility. I use mine instead of PTV or my analogue road bike. I don’t have to worry about routes, timetables, AOs, or Myki fees. I don’t have to worry about hills, wind, or overloading cargo.  

I can even bring a friend! Yeah! My bike can support the weight of an adult passenger, and while it’s not the pure lap of luxury, it’s still easy and fun. Plus, it has some of that coolness that comes from riding a motorbike.  

Key-word, some. No one’s gonna think I’m a Bad Boy for showing up to the date on an Electronic Bicycle. 

E-bikes also have some of the general problems and considerations motorbikes do too.  

They’re more expensive than an analogue bicycle, so you need to be more concerned about security. Some e-bikes have built in anti theft devices, but that’s a minority. I store and charge mine in the garage, but I would be more hesitant about owning one if I had to lock it on the porch or street. You could probably still get away with that, though, because you can take the battery off and charge that inside. An e-bike with a good lock and no battery is an unappealing target for theft.  

(Side note: as a rule, e-bike batteries have locks. It’s a fairly unobtrusive, weatherproof little keyhole thing, and you need to have the key to take the bats. No one is going to rip your batteries off in the street – even if they did, it would only work on an identical bike. You can also leave them bat-less outside, they’re designed for that and the contacts are weatherproof.) 

They also have some of the safety issues motorbikes do, particularly on the less-than-legal options.  At higher speeds crashes are more dangerous, and where motorcyclists have a plethora of safety gear available, no practical options exist for the e-biker. That is really more of a theoretical issue, however. Even the very illegal bikes tend to top out at around 50, and while that is fucking dangerous and stupid, it’s nowhere near what you can get on a real motorcycle. Really, if you follow the law, or at least common sense, you’ll be fine – and the evidence suggests that. There is medical research on this; while e-bike riders do have slightly more accidents than analogue cyclists, e-bike injuries look like cycling injuries, and not like motorcycle injuries.  

They happen, they’re not great, but they probably won’t kill you. 

There’s a reason you don’t need a licence, is what I’m saying.  

They also have a lot of advantages compared to both cars and motorbikes. The one you’ll probably notice first is convenience. You can park an e-bike anywhere, and it’s free. Nowadays most places have purpose built bike parking out front, or at least the ever present Street Sign, laying out parking rules you will never have to read.  

Commuting to and from the CBD by car is effectively impossible – between the traffic and the parking, it’s just a massive pain in the ass. Even in the suburbs parking is a pain – it might be faster to drive to the store, but it can still take ages to find a park. 

If you even have somewhere to park at home – if you live in the CBD or inner suburbs car parks are hard to come by. A friend of mine owned a car in high school, but sold it when she moved to Melbourne. There just wasn’t space at her student accommodation.  

You can always find space for an e-bike, or an e-scooter. 

That space extends to when you’re actually riding somewhere – the feeling of whizzing past an armoured column of stuck traffic is powerful and freeing. I’m not usually one for the uppity I’m-better-than-you cyclist but in those moments? Yeah. I am better. 

E-bikes are also really fucking cheap to run. Day-to-day, you just pay for electricity, and you pay fuck all. It would cost about 18 cents to fill the whole bat, and you’re nearly never going to have to do that. I’ve done some napkin maths and for the 1,000 km I’ve done on my e-bike that would have cost me at least $100-$150 just in petrol by car.  

Fuuuck that. 

And shit, we haven’t even mentioned rego or compulsory third party insurance. The average stats I found put that at about $2,000 a year, more for twenty somethings, and for guys. You could buy a new e-bike every twelve months and still be in the black. Point is, if you want the freedom of a vehicle, and you live within 10ks of uni or the city or wherever you usually go, an e-bike is the money-smart move.  

The big if 

Ah, wait, fuck… there is a really big asterisk on this whole pitch.  

Bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, are a really great, fun option if you live where it is safe to ride them.  

And that can be a very big if.  

I was cycling daily before I got my e-bike, I’ve been doing it since highschool. You build up a lot of confidence by doing that. I’ve cycled on regional highways, sketchy trails, and through the occasional six lane intersection. That is a style of bike riding known as “vehicular cycling,” it is the domain of people with poor decision making skills and scant regard for safety. Like, let’s be honest, I do unsafe things on bicycles, both analogue and electric. All legal things, but unsafe nonetheless. 

I can do it, I have fun doing it, but me and people who think like me are a minority opinion. There is research on this; “strong and fearless” cyclists comprise about 5-10% of the population, whereas “interested but concerned” riders are about 60%. You’re probably in the latter category, that means you can’t put “strong and fearless” in your Tinder bio, and it means a lot of the bike infrastructure around Melbourne isn’t going to be good enough for you. There aren’t many good separated trails, or protected bike lanes in this city. Most “infrastructure” consists of painted bike lanes, quiet side streets, and indirect recreational paths. On a bike, you’ll often need to choose between being direct and being safe, if you can even be either.  

If you want to put it in your Tinder bio you can just become a psycho, but the whole system is pretty thoroughly fucked. To quote a podcast, “you can’t run a whole infrastructure policy on the concept of git gud.”  

It’s entirely fair if you don’t want to ride a bike because you live somewhere unsafe to do so. 

If you want to get a feel of how safe your local area is I can’t recommend the Melbourne Bike Grid Map enough. I’m not sure who made it, but it’s a nearly encyclopaedic map of bike trails, routes, and random points of interest across the city and surrounds. Certain routes have more info on them in the sidebar, sometimes including the cartographers editorial perspective. Play around, go between on and off-road routes, get a feel for what your area looks like. I have that permanently saved on my phone, and bookmarked on my computer. 

Final notes 

One last thing I haven’t really touched on is e-scooters and going multi-modal. I haven’t touched on it because I don’t have much personal knowledge and would just be relaying secondhand info. 

I have a couple of friends who own e-scooters, and from what I hear those can be a really great option. The laws are slightly different, (eg; legally they’re limited to 10km/h) but they can fill a similar niche as an almost-vehicle. 

As a rule, e-scooters are half of an e-bike. They take up half the space, they cost half as much, and they have half the range. That’s based on some light research and the convos I’ve had with those friends, so take it with a grain of salt. The smaller size (and fact that some models can fold) means you can bring them on trains, trams, and buses with little hassle. That opens up a lot of options for going multi-modal on PT. You can go multi-modal with a bike, but unless you buy a folding bike you can only take it on trains – sometimes.  

While we’re here, don’t get a folding e-bike. It’s not worth it. Just get a scooter – it’ll be cheaper, easier, and more reliable. 

You can also use bikes and e-bikes as a cheaper option for a park-and-ride out in the suburbs. I have a friend who started looking into that after he got his insurance bill a couple months back. The range/speed of an e-bike isn’t much of an issue if you’re just ducking down to the train station each day.  

Ultimately, if you’re looking for the speed, confidence, and convenience of owning a vehicle without the monetary or legal baggage, e-bikes are a great option. They exist in this really brilliant sweet spot between bikes and motorbikes where you can legitimately get the best of both worlds.  

So that’s it for the general knowledge portion of this discussion. There was plenty of info and background on what e-bikes are, and if they could work for you, but I didn’t answer the big questions; 

How do I pick one? 

And how do they feel? 

If you are interested in what e-bike ownership feels like, what surprised me, and what I’ve discovered, I’m going to dive into that in my next article. Look forward to some tips, tricks, a quick buyers guide, and an in depth review of the Vyron Haz-e. I love that bike, and I’m gonna love ripping it to shreds.  

Article written by Josie Buden

Header image via Cargocycles

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