The speed pedelec market has not yet taken hold in the UK, in part due to the restrictive legislation around high-powered e-bikes, but many believe they could be the next revolution in urban transport. Rebecca Bland dives into this evolving market
This piece first appeared in the March edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
Across Europe, particularly in Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, there’s a movement of faster-paced electric bikes that are helping to enable people to choose bikes over car ownership.
It’s not cargo bikes, but the perhaps lesser known category of speed pedelecs, or S-pedelecs.
These types of electric bikes can provide assistance up to 45km/h, and be equipped with a motor that can provide more than the usual 250W of continuous power.
While you still need to pedal to operate these bikes, the extra speed can provide benefits for those who perhaps feel an EAPC (electrically-assisted pedal cycle) e-bike isn’t quite up to the task – for example, those with longer commutes, or on busy roads where something a bit faster would make riders feel safer mixing with traffic.
But while this part of the e-mobility revolution continues in parts of Europe, the UK is desperately lagging behind, with uptake and awareness stuck behind miles of red tape and confusing legislation.
To legally ride a speed pedelec in the UK, consumers need to have an applicable driving licence and go through a time consuming registration, taxation and insurance process, arrange an MoT for the bike after three years, and wear a motorcycle helmet when riding it.
Why? Because the UK classes S-pedelecs as e-mopeds. Because of this classification, it also limits where customers can ride their S-pedelecs.
Essentially, any shared-use paths or cycle lanes are out of the question, including some bus lanes – depending on the local authority.
To gather a bit more insight into how the UK could position S-pedelecs, what needs to change to make them more attractive to consumers and how retailers can make the most of the tight legislation currently enforced in the UK, BikeBiz spoke to Mathis Gelens, sales manager of Swiss S-pedelec brand, Stromer, and David Flynn, head of marketing for their UK distributor, Hotlines.
The biggest difference
Working largely in Europe, the Stromer brand has grown in popularity as one of the early adopters of S-pedelecs, alongside brands like Riese und Müller.
Their key markets are currently Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, with Germany also making swift progress in terms of accepting the S-pedelec.
The biggest barrier to increasing the awareness, and of course, sales, of S-pedelecs lies in the legislation countries adopt, and in particular, the way these types of e-bikes are classified, as Gelens explains: “I think the biggest difference in respect to the regulations is that in those countries, there is a specific category for speed countries.
“In most countries, you have the e-bike, which doesn’t have to be registered, and then you have the e-moped, which as we all know you sit on and use your hands to propel it forward, not pedal.
“But in the key markets, you have the specific category of speed pedelec. And as soon as this category has been created, the registration of a speed pedelec becomes much easier than in other countries.
“Every time that you enter the market with a speed pedelec in a country where it is not known, first of all, people don’t know what it is. They think, ‘Hey it’s an e-moped but with pedals, how is this possible?’ So it takes some time.
“But in countries where the process is smooth and efficient, it’s much more attractive to customers and retailers, and makes it easier to register and start driving the speed pedelec.”
The right regulation
As mentioned above, the UK uses the e-moped classification for S-pedelecs. While there’s not much debate in favour of placing S-pedelecs in the same category as slower e-bikes – they’re much faster and do need some regulation of sorts – if the Government is serious about encouraging more people to ditch their cars, the S-pedelec does present a more viable option for many than something that’s restricted to assisting to 15.5mph.
The way Stromer thinks the question of safety could be tackled is by variable speed limits for S-pedelec users, and by utilising technologies such as geo-fencing which is already highly used by shared transport e-scooter schemes.
“A very important aspect of regulations is identifying where the speed pedelec can drive,” continued Gelens.
“So in the UK, for example, you’re only allowed to drive them on the road, which brings the speed pedelec between the cars and doesn’t always give the safest feeling to the person driving. In the key markets, they are allowed to drive in the cycling lanes.
“However, we often get comments like, ‘A normal e-bike goes 25km/h, a speed pedelec goes 45km/h, aren’t they a danger to other cyclists?’
“We do agree, but we also don’t, because you have to see the speed pedelec from the perspective of a car. In some places, it will not be a danger to drive at 45km/h, but if you go into the city, where it’s more crowded and there are more people and bicycles, then a speed pedelec should also adapt.
“So we are also a big supporter of having adapted speed signs for the speed pedelec.
“Depending on where you’re driving, you have to adapt to regulations. You now see it with e-scooters, with geo fencing, restricting where they can ride.
“Our bikes are fully connected like I think most speed pedelecs on the market are, which means geo-fencing would be possible to use. So if you’re driving, for example, out of the city centre, it will go 45km/h, but whenever you enter the city centre it will be down to 25km/h.”
S-pedelecs are not there to replace e-bikes per se, instead, they’re an excellent tool to be ridden alongside slower bikes. But with sharing the same space as other road users, comes a collective responsibility – much like how car drivers should look out for cyclists, cyclists for pedestrians, etc.
In the UK, this type of conversation will only take place if the Government sees S-pedelecs as a useful e-mobility tool and consider changing the classification within which they are currently registered, as Flynn explained: “There’s some great progress being made on urban mobility topics but undoubtedly, the Government needs to speed up the process to address environmental issues and make cycling, walking or public transport more appealing to the general public.
“On speed pedelecs, they are a great solution for people needing to make longer journeys so anything which encourages people outside of cars and onto this type of vehicle should be promoted.
“There’s a collective responsibility to use them legally and safely now to demonstrate their purpose, value and relevance in the mobility landscape.”
So while the red tape is in place, and customers have to go through an often month-long process that can cost hundreds of pounds on top of the S-pedelec they have already purchased, what can retailers do to incentivise consumers to purchase one?
“A retailer will invariably stock regular E-bikes, and speed-pedelecs,” continued Flynn. “If they speak to a customer and the intended use clearly fits a regular e-bike, sell that. If the customer would gain an advantage from the speed, range and features of a speed-pedelec; sell its attributes and begin the conversation of how to register and insure it.
“If the benefits don’t outweigh the additional admin required to ride it legally, loop back to an e-bike.
“Speed pedelec customers throughout Europe are purchasing to directly replace car, bus or train journeys. Many European brands talk about speed pedelec ‘drivers’ in the knowledge they are utilitarian vehicles chosen to get owners to their destination quickly and safely.
“Everyone is happy to insure and tax their second car or motorbike, or continually update that rail card: why should this task be that much more onerous than any other transport method?
“If you’re selling it as a regular bicycle with additional admin, you’re underselling its functionality in someone’s lifestyle.
“There’s a huge topic to be investigated here around cycling culture, and where the bicycle industry slots into the wider urban mobility landscape, but keeping things simple: a retailer sells a speed-pedelec by articulating the benefit specific to that customer’s lifestyle and intended use.”
Identifying a bicycle as a way of getting from A to B rather than a hobby or fitness tool is key to encouraging a wider acceptance of the S-pedelec, and bicycles in general.
Discussing the attitudes of society towards people on bikes could warrant an essay in itself, but essentially, by making it harder to get hold of an S-pedelec legally, the government opens itself up to having unregistered, more powerful e-bikes on the streets.
Gelens added: “I think if we now look at the UK or other new markets, there are two kinds of customers here. The customer who buys a normal e-bike at 25km/h, and tunes it so it goes faster than it’s supposed to go, and it’s very hard to track down or detect.
“Then you have the speed pedelec where you know it’s going 45km/h, but the customer has two decisions.
“First of all, are you going to register it? This is often a hard process, and the moment it is registered you have laws applied like where you can drive, the requirement to wear a motorcycle helmet, etc. and it means you’re now in the picture because there’s a licence plate on the back of it.
“Or, you decide not to register it and it looks like a normal e-bike, and you can drive in the cycle lanes. And that’s the pain point in this whole setup.
“We try to lobby it so that all the legislations in the EU and UK will be the same, but it will take a couple of years before the UK will reach this. But the good thing is that we’re all aware that something has to change on the e-mobility side.
“And the S-pedelec is the perfect tool to give more people the chance to take a bicycle to go to work, to cover bigger distances which they are not able to do with e-mopeds or normal bicycle.”
There’s no doubt there are definite benefits for certain people with an S-pedelec.
And that is what cycling and e-mobility are all about – giving more people, more types of people from different backgrounds and fitness levels the freedom to leave their cars behind.
While Stromer targets commuters in their key markets, they’re also seeing some other types of riders purchasing S-pedelecs.
Gelens said: “We have seen the people who are buying bicycles, and they use them for commuting. However, in emerging markets, we see that consumers also use it as a status symbol, or as a fun object to drive.
“But our philosophy or our vision is purely focusing on the commuting side.
“We have our slogan, ‘#HereToChange’, where we focus on changing mobility, getting more people out of their cars and putting them on bicycles or S-pedelecs to go to a more sustainable, greener world. Hopefully, the governments will also start pushing more for these types of vehicles.”
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And unfortunately, there is unlikely to be much more uptake in the UK until the Government does start pushing for more types of e-bikes.
While retailers can guide customers through the steps and ensure they’re well aware of the legislation, there’s also no liability with the retailer to make sure the customer does take out insurance or register the S-pedelec, as Flynn discussed.
Flynn added: “Speed-pedelecs will not replace e-bikes in a store range, nor should they, but as an additional category for the growing number of people looking for alternative commuting methods, the speed pedelec has a bright future – irrespective of the admin steps needed to prepare it for life on the road.”
Thus, the popularity of these types of bikes, and encouraging more entrants to the market is unlikely to prosper until a separate category is introduced.
But in the meantime, retailers can continue to point the customer in the right direction, in terms of both registering an S-pedelec or choosing the right type of e-bike for their needs.