The types of innovations that excite me in cycling are things related to reliability, durability and sustainability and cargo. I don’t really care about aerodynamics, weight reduction or high end materials. They’re not relevant to 99.9% of people and they are usually anything but sustainable.
Good things are happening. You just need to look at Riese & Muller, Urban Arrow, Tern, Gocycle, Bosch, Yamaha, Rohloff, Pinion, NUA Bikes, Nicolai and many others to see that. But all the good that is being done is being dwarfed by the stagnation and lack of useful innovation happening elsewhere.
Look at Specialized’s website for example. Every single model they offer is fitted with derailleur gears. They ditched their urban brand Globe many years ago. That was the only good thing they’ve done in my opinion. Everything else has been innovation in the wrong areas. Yeah, the Levo is a great electric mountain bike, but EMTBs aren’t going to free us from cars. They’re just fucking up the world more. Allowing more people to fuck up the countryside than ever before. And driving their bikes out there with their big SUVs.
It’s not enough for belt drives and gearboxes to still be niche in 2020. We need them to be mainstream if we’re going to get rid of cars from our urban and suburban areas. People want bikes that need a simple service once a year, like a car. They want tyres that don’t need inflating once a week, like a car. Schwalbe seems to understand that. I’m very excited about their new Aerothan tubes. But it definitely feels like most of the industry doesn’t get any of this. The U.K. cycling media most definitely doesn’t based on what I’ve seen. They approach everything from a performance perspective. If we’re going to see an urban cycling takeover, it’s not going to be anything to do with them.
But at the end of the day, it always comes back to the car culture. As long as bicycles are not treated as serious vehicles in a society, people will not be willing to spend the money required to get all of the benefits of the type of bike tech I support.
I’m tired of being met with a sea of rusty old derailleur equipped bikes at every bike park. And even at bike shops, seeing nothing but derailleur bikes in 2020. We desperately need change now. As much as I love Shimano, they are hugely to blame for this current situation we’re facing. They need to stop making derailleurs for non-race bikes and strongly push manufacturers to make the shift to gear hubs. And they need to come out with a gearbox, as has been rumoured, that really pushes the bike industry in a new direction.
I feel like I’ve waited forever to get rid of my car and get out of my finance deal a year early. I decided I wanted to go car free about a year ago and have been counting down the months ever since. And on Tuesday it finally happened.
As you might expect with the car industry, there were a few final hurdles to jump through though. The collection agent was sent to pick the car up with no information whatsoever. He didn’t know it was an EV. He didn’t know what the range was. It was even worse than what I experienced two years prior when my first EV was collected. They did drive it back to base, even if they did break the wing mirror backing it out of the driveway. This time, the guy refused to drive it back to base because it was too far at highway speed, and he had no idea how to charge an EV. Just as in 2016, he told me that his employer provided him with a fuel card, but no charge network card or any training on EVs whatsoever. I suggested he call a flatbed but he said they can’t do that at short notice. Funny how when I had the slightest problem with my Renault Zoe, they sent a flatbed immediately. When I’m handing a car back and I’ve paid it off, it’s impossible.
So once I had waited another whole week with the car just sitting on the driveway, it was finally done. Luckily, I was able to do the whole thing contact free. Leaving everything in the car and communicating from the landing window. I was expecting one guy to come in a truck and take the car after inspecting it, but of course not. That would be too logical. I had a guy inspect it, then had to wait 3 or 4 hours for the flatbed driver to arrive. And then he inspected it again. To check if anything had happened in the last 3 hours of it sitting still presumably.
He drove it across the road where he parked the truck, loaded it up and secured it in place. And that was it. My 4 years of car ownership done. Well, not quite. Just after he left I got an email telling me I was going to be charged over £50 because the car was dirty. It’s a pandemic! Normally I would have taken it to the car wash at the local garden centre the day before, but obviously I can’t right now. I’ve been staying away from people since March. Mercedes themselves are exempting people if they miss their scheduled services until the end of the year I think because of Covid. Why are the collection company not doing the same thing with stuff like this?
But at least that’s the final hurdle to jump over as a car owner, and now I can relax. Sort of. I don’t feel that huge weight lifting off my shoulders like I was expecting, but perhaps I will do soon. I think I’m more struck by the reality of an empty driveway in a suburban area with neither good public transport nor quality bike infrastructure than I am with relief to be rid of the car. This is how I lived until I was 27, but back then, after my college years I was riddled with crippling anxiety that left me mostly housebound for years. I did very occasionally use the odd train or bus to get around the local area, but in general I cycled anywhere I needed to go in the town.
It was only in 2014 when I got a full-time job that I came to the conclusion that I had to get some other kind of vehicle, in order to make the daily 5 mile commute at 6:30 every morning. In hindsight part of me wishes I had just kept cycling back then, and believed in myself that I could do that distance. It was only years later that I realised I could.
I decided that a scooter would be the cheapest and easiest way to commute, and so I went to my local Yamaha dealer and saw a bike I liked. I actually ordered it before I took my CBT. I can’t remember why. It seems weird considering my lack of confidence at the time. I rode the scooter for two years in all conditions. I’m quite proud of that especially because I never crashed, even though it was close a couple of times when it was particularly icy.
I really loved riding my Yamaha Majesty S, but over those couple of years I grew more and more frustrated about the climate and the lack of electric innovation in the motorcycle industry at the time (and still am in 2020), so I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and learn to drive in order to buy an electric car. It also gave me the ability to go on longer trips. Doing an EV road trip to Scotland really appealed to me. So it felt like the right choice at the time to get my licence.
With hindsight, the best thing about driving by far was doing those long road trips. The daily trips for commuting and running errands, while fun with the nimble Smart especially, weren’t really memorable. Often times, they were not remotely enjoyable. In general, the scooter was more fun for daily riding and the car was only really good for longer trips. I think the fact that both cars were sub 100 mile range EVs with slower than average charging speeds made it even more fun to me. Especially back in 2016 when the charging infrastructure was far more sparse than it is now. Now it’s so easy that it’s not challenging any more. Which I guess is another reason to stop owning a car.
Having said that, I definitely want to rent an EV at some point when the pandemic eventually ends (hopefully) and go back to Scotland. And this time go all the way to John O’Groats rather than Inverness, which is where I stopped on both my prior trips. It will be really interesting to see the difference in trip time and charging. It will be a monumental difference compared to what I’m used to. Going from 60-80 miles of range and 45 min stops to 300 miles of range and 30 min stops. It’s a whole different world.
Unfortunately, it’s still way too difficult to rent an EV. All of the large rental companies like Enterprise don’t offer much choice, if anything at all. Places like Turo are better but even there, it’s hard to find EVs if you live outside of a major city. I hope this changes soon. Perhaps it will improve in a big way next year in response to the pandemic.
But really rental and sharing are just a first taste of what’s going to happen with MaaS and RoboTaxis. We know that cycling is amazing for travelling locally and touring, especially when quality infrastructure is provided. But in order to travel around in any other way, you need transport solutions that are convenient and connected together seamlessly. The solutions exist to make it work, so we need to get on with it as a top priority.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be done all in one app, but it does have to be convenient. For example, there shouldn’t be a single train station without docked bike or scooter rentals (preferably both). And then when you combine that with autonomous cars it becomes undeniably more convenient than car ownership itself. Even in awkward, rural locations. But we can’t just assume autonomous cars will come along and fix everything in a year or two. We have to offer other compelling options in the meantime. Both because we can’t afford to wait, and because people will still want choice even when RoboTaxis take over.
When I got my drivers licence as an automatic only version to save myself time and hassle, my colleagues didn’t get it. They probably still don’t but I haven’t talked to them in 6 months to check. There was a young girl doing her driving lessons in order to drive a manual car, and I was baffled that the driving test industry had progressed so little. They are totally unprepared for the changes that are about to happen. That aspect in itself will be fascinating to follow.
As for my own experience; despite all the wasted money, unnecessary stress and the eventual realisation that I never needed a car or scooter, I wouldn’t change anything if I could do it all again. I gained a lot of valuable knowledge and skills that I never thought I could. I became a better cyclist for having the experience of operating those different vehicles. It also gives me more points of reference to compare transport options to in the future. 4 years of car ownership and 6 years of total motor vehicle ownership is an interesting experiment in the grand scheme of things, and it feels like the right time to move on. I’ve talked to people my age who have been driving continuously since they were 17. That’s 16 years already at 33. I can only barely comprehend that. Lifetime car owner was definitely never going to be me.
The next couple of years will be a pain in the ass for sure. Having to go out of my way to avoid diesel buses, coaches, taxis, Ubers, trains etc. But soon enough it should start to be more like plain sailing. It really has to.
As we’ve seen from the tragic accident in Scotland last week, the U.K. rail network is facing an existential risk from the climate disaster. That might sound hyperbolic. But when you consider the likely future of self driving cars, a dramatic reduction in vehicles on the road as a result; the rise of electric bikes and the inevitable mass rollout of associated infrastructure, it doesn’t look promising for the rail industry.
As I’ve recently written, the rail network is already going to be threatened by the other forms of transport I’ve mentioned due to the fact that the network hasn’t been invested in for so long. It’s not like in Japan where they wouldn’t walk away from such a great system. Loyal daily passengers will only remain loyal for so long if they’re dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving.
But it’s when you couple that with the threat of climate change that things really unravel. I’ve been following the weekly update videos Network Rail put out on their YouTube channel for a while now. There’s an obvious trend in that they’re constantly having to fix damage caused by extreme weather. It’s mainly landslips but also work on reinforcing sea walls to protect against sea spray. Landslips in particular must be costing NR huge amounts of money, and it’s money that is not being spent on upgrading the ageing infrastructure. Watching TV shows about railways just shows how much disruption is already being caused from rain, storms, heat etc. It’s only going to get worse, and as we’ve seen this week, it can be deadly.
Road transport I believe to be at less risk from the climate disaster, but I would say the main benefits will be as we switch to autonomous driving. Because we have so many privately owned cars, the cars are parked all over the country, so whenever extreme weather hits, the cars can’t be moved and they get written off and float down the road.
However, once we stop owning cars and we replace them with self driving fleets, the number of cars in the country will drop potentially 90%. This will not only eliminate traffic, but it will also allow vehicles to avoid flooded roads or be moved to a safe location before the weather hits if it’s scheduled to hit a wide area. Because our road network is completely connected, if one road is flooded, they can go another direction. Trains can’t do that, and that’s a giant problem that the rail industry will struggle to get around.
Since the benefits for road traffic mainly take effect once we go autonomous, and that technology doesn’t exist yet; at the moment the only way to minimise the risk of flood or storm damage is to get rid of your car and buy a bike. Even a big, heavy cargo bike can be taken upstairs with your couch and the rest of your belongings. You’re not going to leave it to be flood damaged if you can avoid it. With a car, there’s very little you can do, especially if the weather is unexpected or worse than forecast.
It’s true for the infrastructure as well. It would be far cheaper to build elevated bike routes and bridges in high risk areas than it would be for other modes. We need to do everything we can to improve infrastructure and reduce risk. Invest in the rail network, move away from car ownership, and make us a bike society.
One of the things that frustrates me most as a cycling enthusiast is when people buy cheap, junk bikes because they think bikes are overpriced or they can’t afford one.
So I decided to do a little calculation to compare riding the bus for short journeys (5 miles or less) around town over a year to buying a bicycle, to see which comes out ahead on price (not to mention fun, health benefits etc).
I looked on the Stagecoach bus website for Worthing and found that a Worthing 52 Week Megarider season ticket costs £603 per year. Compared to buying a ticket on the bus or via the app per ride (or even compared to monthly season tickets), it goes without saying that it’s a bargain and I would get it if I was a daily bus passenger.
So if I was to ride a bicycle for all of these short trips around town instead, I could spend about £600 on it. Except you tend to keep a bike for several years at least. So I think it’s fair to say that I could spend around £1800 on bikes and equipment. And after 3 years I could keep it and continue saving, or buy another one if I felt like it.
The money adds up, but why not just buy a cheap new or used bike and save even more? Cheap new bikes generally use worse components which will end up lasting far less time than more expensive ones (up to a point where it becomes mainly about weight). This will mean more maintenance costs for you, higher likelihood of the bike letting you down during a ride, for example with a dropped chain during your commute, which no one wants. When you buy a more expensive bike, the components are more reliable, work better and are longer lasting. And that’s before you get into things like belt drives and internal hub gearing which take the benefits to a whole new level.
Buying second hand can be a good idea if you get lucky, but in my experience, I think you’ll struggle to find a bike in a good enough condition at a low enough price. You often find people selling bikes in the hundreds of pounds when they need a lot of work. To the point where it makes more sense to just buy new. I hope that as cycling matures and more people buy better quality bikes, and actually look after the bikes they own, it will become better. But for now, I would recommend to buy a good quality new one. It’ll pay for itself in the long run. And perhaps even in the short run. If you replace an Oyster season ticket in London with a Brompton you could save thousands every year.