Hybrid bike disappoints test driver

Hydro Bike

There’s a bicycle with an electric motor that Ontario Hydro is demonstrating, made in California by a company called ZAP (zero air pollution), and, thinking it might be the solution to a problem, I took it for a spin.

The idea is not to lounge, as on a motorcycle, while the electric motor spirits you across the pavement. The motor is intended as a « power assist’’ that you flick on when you need help getting up a hill or accelerating. Or that simply gives you a boost when you’re tired from pedalling.

The ZAP bike was fun to ride. The motor is smooth and powerful, driving rotors pressed to each side of the back tire. I wheeled and I swooped and I accelerated from a standing start faster, while pedalling sitting down and motor-assisted, than I could pedal standing up without the motor. Without pedalling, it whisked me along at about 20 kilometres an hour.

But in the end, I decided that promising as this bike is, it’s not the solution I was hoping for to get more people cycling to work. Surveys by the City of Toronto’s Urban Development Services Dept. (formerly the Planning Dept.), show that 55 per cent of Toronto cyclists don’t ride their bikes to work because they say it’s too far.

Those who do ride to work generally travel less than four kilometres. A bicycle with an electric motor could extend that to ten kilometres with no extra physical effort, says Phil Jessup who is deeply involved through ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) with global warming issues and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by cars.

The problems with the ZAP bicycle are that the motor costs $600 — which is too much for most people — and it would be too easy for thieves to rip off. What’s more, the battery loses half its power at 0° Celsius, which in Canada creates a huge disincentive to buy. Moreover, without pedalling, the battery will power the bike for only one hour and it takes two-and-a-half hours to recharge.

Too bad. On other fronts, the city is making great progress in persuading people to mount up. In the summer when it’s not raining, people are making a total of more than 30,000 bicycle trips a day. That compares with about 575,000 trips a day made by motor vehicles, mostly cars. In the last ten years, the number of people biking to work downtown has almost doubled.

According to Daniel Egan, a bicycle planner in the city’s Urban Development Services Dept., it was introduction of the mountain bike, with fat tires that won’t slip into sewer grates and higher handlebars that let people sit more comfortably upright, that spurred interest in bicycling downtown.

Then came bicycle lanes, created by the city, to make cycling safer. In the downtown area — which extends from the lakefront to the railway tracks just north of Dupont Ave., and from Bathurst St. to the Don Valley — there are now 29 kilometres of lanes for bicycles that line both sides of streets, and four kilometres of streets with bicycle lanes only on one side.

The downtown area is about five kilometres square and has a population of about 140,000 people.

The city’s goal for the downtown area is to have enough lanes so that no matter where a bicyclist is, he or she won’t have to go more than 500 metres to reach a lane. And its policy on motor vehicle traffic is to ensure that volumes never exceed those of 1989.

Part of the city’s strategy for reaching those goals is to rapidly increase the number of bicycle lanes. Earlier this year it decided that instead of increasing them by three kilometres a year, which has been the pattern, it would increase them by 14 to 15 kilometres a year over the next five years.

Now if only someone would build a better, more reasonably priced electric motor for bicycles, maybe it would do for outlying areas what the mountain bike is doing downtown.

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