I seem to spend about half my life riding around on electric bikes… and then writing about what it's like to ride them. This can get a bit like groundhog day because ebikes all have one quite important thing in common: their top speed. In the UK, Europe and Australasia, the limit is 25kph or 15.5mph. In many cities and states in America, that is also the case1.
So the situation is this. If you spend a fortune and buy the best electric bike in the world, it will do 15.5mph. If you go and buy some shonky-looking number for a pittance – I do not remotely recommend this, but it's a free country – it will also do 15.5mph, at least if it is legal. Because that is the law.
Do you think 15.5mph is rapid? I am not by any means a speed freak, and even I don't think 15.5mph is fast. Sure, it's a lot quicker than I can run. Also, it's a perfectly reasonable speed if you are weaving through traffic, or if you are pootling about with no particular destination in mind. However sometimes, I have places to go, people. Sometimes, I get a bit of open road – yes, even in central London, where I live – and I want to put the hammer down. In short, if I'm travelling 15.5 miles, I don't want it to take me a minimum of an entire hour.
In certain situations, 15.5mph is downright unsafe. We've all been on country roads and seen cyclists being closely pursued by tractors, lorries and combine harvesters with hay threshing attachments on the front, while a 5-mile tailback forms behind them. But mainly, 15.5mph is very tedious. So I am humbly suggesting that we move it up to… 20mph. Now you're Captain Speedy!
Okay, 20mph is not all that rapid either. But it's fast-er. About 30% faster by my maths. On a bike, that is enough to make most people feel like they're going quickly. After extensive research, I can tell you as a fact that I don't get that feeling at 15.5mph.
1 Okay, American readers will be aware that the ebike speed situation is somewhat more complex over there, with multiple classes of electric bike with different laws for each in different parts of the USA. Fun times. But in some parts of the USA, the ebike speed limit is the same as the UK.
We are all supposed to be ditching the car and travelling in a less ecologically damaging manner. Ebikes are very green compared to cars, and an excellent way to get about. An increased e-speed limit would attract more people to electric bike riding and away from pollution and foulness. It would open up longer commute distances whilst also being more fun.
I am aware there are always safety implications to changing speed limits. But come on; it’s only 20mph.
There are several reasons I don’t see this as a contentious idea. Firstly, it is perfectly possible to do 20 on a bike with no motor. It is not a freakish bicycle speed. There is a popular misconception than ‘cheats’ on ebikes habitually overtake standard bikes but other than on hills, this is simply not true. On a road bike or even a lightweight hybrid or urban bike, 15.5mph is not at all fast. Hell, if you’re fit, you can reach that kind of velocity on a Boris Bike. Those are the notoriously weighty and low-geared hire bikes you see docked around London.
Another reason is that 20mph is the speed limit in most of London these days – even the Westway, as I was alarmed to discover recently. In other words, after much consideration, 20mph was deemed to be an acceptably safe speed for streets where pedestrians are ever-present. For cars, buses and lorries. I asked a top scientist and he told me that cars, buses and lorries are much much heavier and harder than a bicycle, and somewhat less manoeuvrable. So if 20mph is okay for cars, why not for ebikes?
Then there is the fact that technically you can get an ebike up to 20mph and beyond by doing what we cyclists call 'pedalling really hard'. Hope that's not too technical for you. However to do that takes a lot of effort. That's because the electrical assistance drops away entirely after 15.5mph, and ebikes are generally heavy, and geared low. If it's okay to go at 20mph with a lot of concentration on physical effort – and hence, less concentration on the road ahead – why is it not okay with zero effort? Hmm?
A final reason is that lots of ebikes already go at 20mph, or faster. Why? Because – and I hope I am not shocking anyone here – a lot of people simply do not care what the law says, and have their ebike's limiter removed. Plus, in much of the country you’re about as likely to run into a policeman on your illicitly souped-up ebike as you are a gang of elves.
Obviously, people should obey the law. I always do. However, the large number of ebikes on the road that have been hacked to go faster than 15.5mph has not led to a spate of horror crashes. So thank you for carrying out this valuable research, law-breakers.
Perhaps this is mission creep and nanny stating, but introducing a legal 20mph ebike speed limit could be a good moment to make helmets mandatory, and perhaps hydraulic disk brakes on ebikes too. That might allay fears at taking on such breakneck speeds.
I don’t think ebikes should be able to go at 25mph or 30mph as a rule. They cease to be much like a bicycle at that point and become a lightweight moped. An increase of 4.5mph to 20mph, however, is really not a lot to ask. The benefits are obvious: longer commutes with smaller carbon footprints. The ability to pull away from danger faster. And most importantly, an end to the embarassment of riding a £4,000, state of the art electric bike and being overtaken by someone on a bloody Brompton.
Let’s get the world moving (slightly faster).