Guest Author: Jack Kinder, graduated MSc student, Cardiff University
[A summary of the blog is available below]
In 2021, the Welsh Government provided funding for an e-bike loan scheme, E-Move, through which participants across a number of rural, and semi-rural Welsh communities, namely in Newtown, Aberystwyth, Rhyl, and Barry could trial an e-bike and accessories for a month for free. This post seeks to summarise research conducted last year on the e-cycling practices of E-Move Trial participants.
The research explored key motivations, barriers to use, and interactions with other daily practices, as experienced by E-move participants of different life-stages, ages, and genders. From this, a secondary aim was to consider the extent of e-cycling practices in potentially triggering transitions to more sustainable transport practices beyond the E-Move Trial.
The research involved semi-structured interviews undertaken after participants completed their trial of an e-bike and survey responses filled in by the same participants both prior to and after the E-Move Trial. In total, 30 participants completed an interview (15 male, 15 female), with 24 also completing both pre- and post- loan surveys.
A social practice theoretical positioning of the research has contributed to a consideration of the materials of e-cycling and how these offer both competencies and restrictions for different individuals that facilitate or limit (e)cycling. In this sense the Author discusses the role of the e-bike and its accessories to ‘re-craft’ cycling and other related practices (Shove et al., 2012). The study considers how individual performances and the practice of (e)cycling fit more broadly in a transition from an automobile system to a more sustainable alternative (Watson, 2012).
The addition of variable electrical-assistance; transformative potential
The re-crafting of cycling through the addition of electrical assistance enabled almost all participants to overcome previous barriers posed by topography, significantly lowering the intensity of physical exertion and competency required to overcome steeper inclines and through this, alter meanings assigned to e-bike practices. In line with the literature, several participants cited how they were able to travel greater distances without getting tired, and therefore cycle more frequently (Castro et al., 2019; Fyhri & Fearnley, 2015; Popovich et al., 2014), or follow new leisure routes previously not possible by conventional cycle (Jones et al., 2022).
For those who had cycled regularly, electrical assistance was viewed as an option to fall back upon when physically fatigued, which was often described as ‘reassuring’, but did little to change views on their own competency to cycle, or the already positive meanings assigned to cycling. However, for many participants who had not previously been regular cyclists and had less confidence in their own abilities to cycle on grounds of fitness, or ongoing physical or mental illness, the addition of electrical assistance made cycling for exercise and leisure purposes more manageable, enjoyable, and exhilarating, therefore dramatically altering meanings attributed to the practice of cycling. Success and enjoyment using the e-cycle had in some cases triggered holistic changes to participant attitudes and behaviours, including increased self-efficacy, greater independence and reduced reliance upon others to meet their mobility needs, and the ability to stem isolation.
For many of those living in rural communities without access to a car, across all ages and gender, the shift between a conventional and electrically assisted bike had a dramatic impact upon modifying one’s attitudes towards travel and meanings assigned to it, with the e-bike acting as a liberator and source of freedom by facilitating trips previously not possible prior to the Trial. This, in turn, had further virtuous impacts upon energy levels and personal drive to see and do other things, and several participants explicitly stated how this had resulted in tangible improvements to their physical and/or mental wellbeing. This was especially apparent amongst the seven participants who had noted recent, and acute challenges with regards to their physical and mental health, and had prior to the scheme expressed a lack of confidence in their own cycling abilities.
Many participants who already cycled spoke of a dwindling sense of motivation to continue prior to the Trial, with barriers of topography becoming increasingly salient and, in some cases, the materials of their conventional cycle failing to support this continued practice. This, combined with the fact that many new or returning cyclists also lacked the confidence in their own cycling competency to overcome existing barriers to conventional cycling, suggests that boundaries of recruitment to conventional cycling were narrow, and by many seen as a practice exclusive to those young, or for those who possessed high levels of fitness, and confidence in their own competence. Therefore, the recrafting of cycling through the e-bike’s materials, and the widening of recruitment boundaries for a greater number and diversity of participants suggests that there are significant opportunities to sustain and spread (e)cycling practices in rural and topographically challenging environments. These findings hold significance in the context of towns and their wider rural communities such as Newtown, Aberystwyth, and Rhyl, where public transport provision is underdeveloped and underfunded, and vital sources of social infrastructure are often dispersed over larger areas, and beyond reasonable walking distances.
E-cycling as a compelling alternative to the car for shorter-trips
The incorporation of ‘practice bundles’ within the study’s focus enabled a greater breadth and depth of understanding regarding why certain e-cycling practices were hindered or supported, highlighting both conflictual or symbiotic relations between transport and non-transport practices (Scheurenbrand et al., 2018). Participants held a variety of motivations which resulted in a variety of e-cycling ‘practice bundles’, including use of the e-cycle to commute to work, undertake shopping, and escort children.
Particular success was found with the bundling of e-cycling and shopping trips because of the additional materials available through the e-cycle such as electrical assistance, added sturdiness, and panniers reducing the physical effort and increasing the competency and confidence of participants cycling when weighed down with heavier loads. This led to the evolution of meanings associated with the bundling of cycling and shopping from being viewed as unattainable to feasible. This contrasts with the findings of Ravensbergen et al. (2020) on the bundling of shopping trips with conventional bikes in which the carrying of heavier loads remained challenging for many, and particularly women.
The desire of several participants to replace use of their car for shorter journeys even prior to the scheme related to discourses of health, environmental responsibility, and proportionality, alongside a wider backdrop of the myriad of socio-technical landscape pressures including rising fuel prices and price inflation. This highlights the co-evolving nature of e-cycling and driving practice dynamics (Watson, 2012), with e-cycling as a transport mode actively competing for the same elemental components as the car or conventional bicycle including the ability to meet desired social norms around convenience or environmental impact, and the cost of travel and fuel (Scheurenbrand et al., 2018).
Participants spoke of how their experiences using the e-bike to undertake shopping trips had resulted in adaptations to their typical weekly schedule. Here, the materials of the e-bike, in particular electrical assistance, had enabled the cessation of reliance upon the car for shopping trips, and had enabled the development of more sustainable lifestyle patterns in the short-term. The results suggest a potential realignment between driving and e-cycling practices when it comes to ideas of convenience for shorter journeys, highlighting how the Trial provided a platform for re-negotiation between the dominant and subordinate practices of driving and (e)cycling (Scheurenbrand et al., 2018; Watson, 2012). As argued through the systems of practice approach, these shifting dynamics between competing practices offer points whereby the boundaries of recruitment and defection between the two transport modes may potentially shift. This provides an opportune moment for urban design or policy interventions to provide further momentum to the stabilisation or potential extension of e-cycling practices.
Weight as a barrier, and material ‘trade-offs’
The added weight and size of many of the e-bike models, in particular the Tern HSD and GSD was raised by participants as a drawback. For many, issues arose when seeking to perform the ‘micro-practices’ of carrying their e-bike out of storage, or when pushing the e-bike when dismounted (Shove et al., 2012). Both issues were more frequently raised by women and older E-Move participants as a significant issue with the added weight and size of the e-bike acting to disincentivise use (Thomas, 2022). However participants of younger age and men amongst the sample also raised the weight of their e-bike as an issue. Participants explained how the weight and size of their e-bike had made trips linked by car journeys impossible, such as leisure trips further afield, or one-way commutes to or from work. Although not mentioned by participants during the study, the added weight of the e-bike would also likely impact upon the ability to trip chain with rail transport without difficulty.
What became apparent was that a trade-off between the e-bike’s different material components existed, with different models striking a different balance between battery range, weight, and sturdiness, with each participant often valuing each component differently. One participant spoke of how she had found the Tern HSD she loaned heavy, recognising how this resulted from the larger battery, and that a model with a smaller battery would have amply supported her travel needs, whilst reducing the burden of weight. This model is also fitted with a heavy-duty pannier rack, a heavy-duty frame to support load-carrying and an adjustable handle and seat post, which add to its weight. The material features of its design intended as a compact high-end replacement to a car, which would be suitable for a range of journeys undertaken by different family members, limits its use by people negotiating one or more steps, and by those with less strength than the average able-bodied adult male. Others explained how on longer distance leisure trips they had almost got caught out with the range of their E-bike, and how given the terrain required to navigate, they would have preferred a model with a battery enabling a greater distance range. The weight of some e-bikes compounds the problem of managing hilly terrain when the battery runs flat.
The continued marginalisation of cycling on the road
It is important to recognise the presence of barriers persisting in the wider transport system that currently limit the stabilisation and extension of e-cycling as a practice. Beyond the high initial cost of purchase, numerous participants had cited a lack of cycling routes segregated from traffic as major barriers to cycling prior to participation in the E-Move Trial. Their slower speed made them feel vulnerable, and a nuisance to faster-moving traffic.
Despite one participant noting how the increased acceleration potential of the e-bike, particularly on incline, enabled them to ‘feel more confident’ riding unsegregated from road traffic, many who had cited highway safety concerns as a major barrier prior to the Trial expressed this as a persisting concern during the trial period when using their e-bike. Amongst women in particular, a lack of designated cycle lanes, as well as the aggressive and unpredictable behaviour of drivers towards (e)cyclists, acted to limit their e-cycling, despite the added materials of the e-bike previously discussed. This aligns with the findings on conventional cycling, safety, and under-represented demographic groups in terms of tolerance of riding unsegregated from traffic and fears of road danger (Garrard et al., 2008). It highlights the risk of a business-as-usual approach to infrastructure provision to promoting an inclusive and equitable e-cycling practice on the grounds of age and gender.
Feelings of uncertainty around belonging on the roads remained for many despite the material differences compared to standard bikes, suggesting that (e)-cycling as a practice remained largely marginalised and subordinate to driving practices on main roads. This relates to co-dependent practices such as transport planning, infrastructure development, and road design and how these are often aligned to and condition the self-extension and dominance of driving practices, whilst exerting parallel forces of marginalisation on subordinate transport practices including e-cycling (Urry, 2004; Shove et al., 2012; Watson, 2012).
E-cycling as an entity: challenges and opportunities
The above has highlighted how, for many participants, meanings attributed to the practice of e-cycling changed significantly over the course of the trial period, as a result of newly accessible materials, and increased perceived and actual competence aiding the re-crafting of e-cycling practices.
However, the fact that several participants were shocked at the ease at which they could cycle using their e-bike, or bundle e-cycling practices with other practices, such as shopping, highlights how in low-cycling contexts, many lacked pre-existing knowledge of the e-bike and its potentially distinct constituent elements. This suggests that enduring images of e-cycling, as an ‘entity’ and tacit knowledge surrounding these, were not readily available to participants prior to the trial.
As is the case with conventional cycling in low-cycling contexts, more work was required from prospective cycling practitioners in order to acquire the knowledge, competencies, and materials required to e-cycle for different trip purposes, compared to places with a more established cycling culture where skills and knowledge were more accessible, and often commonly shared, or tacit (Aldred and Jungknickel, 2014). This is of greater significance in the case of e-bikes, where its materials are more complex, and less known about, given the e-bike’s relatively recent emergence as a technology and practice.
As outlined in the literature, the practice of (e-)cycling as an entity provides the framing and resources to support a large diversity of individual performances of cycling, which themselves ‘fill out’ the practice through a ‘multitude of unique actions’ (Reckwitz, 2002: 250). The re-crafting of (e-)cycling triggered through the introduction of the e-bike’s particular materials, and the diverse array of e-cycling performances that resulted through the Trial, highlight how this prevailing image is capable of significant dynamism and innovation, and can potentially frame and resource diverse e-cycling practices in the future. However, this is reliant upon continued visibility of, and normalisation of such performances, which in itself is reliant on sustained retention and recruitment of practitioners. Given in low-cycling contexts instances of cycling and e-cycling are less common, individual performances may be ‘hyper visible’. If these individual performances of e-cycling do not show bundling with other practices such as carrying shopping, or children, or only include certain age groups or genders, this may lead to the narrow conception of enduring images of e-cycling (built on the collective of these individual performances), with only certain competencies and meanings being sustained over time.
As already alluded to, interventions in policy or to the built environment provide the opportunity to give further momentum to the stabilisation or potential extension of e-cycling practices. Participants were asked how they felt e-cycling could be encouraged.
- Of primary concern for many was addressing the affordability of purchase with suggestions of government funded discounts, interest-free loans schemes as currently offered for cars, as well as the continuation and extension of the E-Move Trial within rural, and poorly connected localities in Wales, and other UK regions. It is worth noting that Sustrans and Welsh Government have recently confirmed that the E-Move Trial will be extended through to 2024.
- Participants suggested that a roll-out of on-road infrastructure to support (e-)cyclists was needed, with some suggesting that provision of dedicated cycle lanes would modify the attitudes of drivers towards (e-)cyclists. However although reallocating road space to subordinate practices is likely to be a necessary condition, this alone may not encourage cycling. Further qualitative research on (e-)cycling infrastructure would be fruitful and should focus upon gleaning the perspectives of underrepresented groups and those not currently cycling.
- The varying experiences of E-move participants in navigating trade-offs between the e-bike’s materials including weight, size, sturdiness, and battery range capabilities highlights the need for a diverse selection of e-bike models to be available both during the remainder of the E-Move Trial but also on the market for purchase. The offering of lighter models is identified as particularly important to encourage diverse recruitment across gender, given the increased challenges and limitations to enjoyment increased weight as a materials posed to the e-cycling practices of female E-Move participants. This is complicated, though, in that mobilities of care, often associated with the gendered practices of women’s social reproductive roles, require heavy materials. For example, carrying children and shopping, often together. Whereas space is allocated for parking cars in streets, there is very limited storage available for keeping e-bikes secure. This compounds the issues of cycle weight and size for care-givers particularly if they need to negotiate steps or stairs when keeping an e-cycle at home.
- Finally, several participants advocated for Sustrans to undertake an intensive advertising and information sharing campaign to raise awareness of the e-bike’s specific materials. In order to avoid falling into the traps of previous behaviour change strategies however, the Author suggests that action and visibility-based campaigns would be more effective in developing tacit forms of knowledge and skills, including demonstration days, guided bike rides through major rural settlements, as well as through the extension of the E-move Trial itself.
The addition of electrical assistance enabled almost all participants to overcome previous barriers relating to physical fitness, ability and motivation.
E-bikes enable a greater number and diversity of people and provide opportunities to sustain and spread (e)cycling practices in rural and topographically challenging environments.
The bundling of e-cycling and shopping trips is possible because of the array of panniers and carrying bags available as well as the electrical assistance, of the e-bike, which reduces physical effort and increases the competency and confidence of people cycling when weighed down with heavier loads.
E-bikes enable women to cycle given the above benefits, however, the weight of e-bikes is traded off against those benefits. The weight of the e-bikes makes handling them challenging for older people, women and disabled people especially. The e-bike’s weight can become problematic if a rider is caught out without sufficient battery power to complete their trip, particularly on hilly routes.
In countries where cycling levels are low, the marginalisatation of cycling remains and people continue to feel vulnerable using existing infrastructure, much of which requires cyclists to share space with vehicles. Related to this, many people (and particularly women) lack the knowledge and confidence required to begin e-cycling without additional support. See above for recommendations on how to support (e)cycling.
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