With so much emphasis being placed on climate, as well as the recent fuel crisis, and not to mention the frankly unjustifiable cost of insurance for young motorists, the post-graduate workforce is collectively turning its back on the combustion engine. Many of us are thinking about changing the way we commute and doing our bit to help achieve our carbon emission targets.
Naturally, one would assume that public transport would be the alternative mode-of-favour but, in the post-pandemic world, sharing a bus or train with scores of sniffling strangers doesn’t offer the appeal it used to. This probably explains why, during the last 12 months between the number of Google searches for the term ‘electric bicycle’ has increased by over 700%. In fact, the electric bicycle market now is estimated to be worth nearly £300m per year, and that figure is set to grow.
During the same period, electric car sales witnessed an unprecedented jump too. In 2019, there were just 38,000 pure electric cars on the road. Fast forward 12 months and sales in 2020 jumped 186%, resulting in 108,000 newly registered electric cars draining the grid. Whereas the UK driving public appeared quite sceptical about adapting electric cars pre-2020, faster charging stations, longer range, various tax incentives, and better battery life meant that electrically powered motoring took on a charge of its own. The problem, however, is that electric cars are still relatively expensive compared to a traditionally fuelled vehicle. It seems the car leasing industry has taken control of the situation resulting in the Tesla Model 3 becoming one of the most common electric cars on Britain’s roads.
So, when choosing your new commute, do you go for an electric bike, or an electric car? To answer this quandary, I chose to spend a day commuting to our publisher’s London office.
To ensure the test was as realistic as possible we researched both industries to find both an electric car and an electric bike that offered the best value.
Firstly, let’s look at the car. Volkswagen are quickly asserting themselves as a front-runner in the affordable electric car market –possibly out of a sense of guilt after being left red-faced by their role in the quickly forgotten emissions scandal. Volkswagen’s new “e-up!” is available for just £16,000. For that you get an impressive 135 mile range, and rapid charging, which can deliver an 80% charge in just one hour, if you have the right charging facility available. The “e-up!’ was perfect for our electric car commuter test model.
Choosing the electric bicycle proved far more difficult. There are now so many different brands offering electric commuter bikes, that even high-street retailers such as Decathlon and Halfords have got in on the act. There are the obvious global bike brands that have launched their own ebike variants, however we wanted to choose an electic bike specialist. As a result, we settled for British electric bicycle brand Wisper. They’re based in Kent and offer an electric bicycle for every conceivable cycling discipline. Given that a portion of the bike commute would be made on the train, I opted for the Wisper 806 Folding Electric Bicycle – perfect for hopping on and off trains.
To pit the two against one-another, I spent two days commuting to work – one day in the “e-up!” and one day on the Wisper.
Day 1: The Electric Car Commute
I needed to be comfortable that the “e-up!” would comfortably manage the 80-mile round trip, so the evening before the test, I took it down to my nearest charging station which was 4 miles from my home. Having enjoyed a hot beverage and read the newspaper, my little Volkswagen was fully charged and ready to go. I headed home for the night, eager to see how the “e-up!” would perform the following day. At 7am, I headed out of the door and into the e-up!. The model I had was Teal Blue and had the immensely comfortable ‘Fusion’ cloth seats with black trim. Without a sound, and 94% battery, I glided off toward the A24 and the first part of my commute to central London.
Living near Horsham, the first part of my journey is mostly country roads, as I make my way through the stunning Surrey Hills. The little e-up! didn’t seem too phased by the constantly undulating terrain, and the well-balanced suspension, characteristic of most small VWs, gave a very enjoyable ride indeed. We hugged a few corners and even managed to get the power down through certain sections, but I must admit, I was never completely comfortable exploring the performance of the e-up! knowing that I needed my battery to last the return journey as well. Having crossed the M25 and moved on toward Mitcham, I was becoming painfully aware that my battery level was diminishing far quicker than I had hoped. Having covered just over 20 miles, the battery was already approaching 75% – at this rate, I was going to arriving home completely empty. Even worse, I expected the next phase of my commute to be the most power-sapping of all, as the e-up! and I started to encounter serious traffic.
The e-up was in its element in dense traffic. I was able to slice through slow moving lanes with relative ease, and the power delivery from standing meant the e-up! was incredibly nippy and useful for diving into gaps. Still, the battery level hung over me like a scythe and with every burst of acceleration, I felt like I was reducing my chances of making it home at all. At 8:45am, I arrived at the car park near our office, and quickly hunted the bays for an available charging point. My battery was at 48% – not enough to make the return journey. It seems I wasn’t the only one doing the electric gamble that morning, and every one of the NCP’s charging points were accompanied by every colour and model of Tesla imaginable. I parked the e-up! in a normal parking bay and decided to try my luck again later. At lunchtime, I hopped back to the multi-storey, and, with a swift bit of manoeuvring, I managed to dive into an available charging bay before the next wood flooring Regional Sales Director arrived. At 4pm, I left the office and headed back to the car park. The car was now fully charged once more. Phew. Panic over. I would make it home.
With a hint of tyre-squeak, the e-up! shot into the later afternoon traffic. The journey home was certainly less fraught than the drive in, as I was no longer concerned about conserving battery for the return leg. We made our way through fairly heavy traffic and header back to the Surrey Hills, where I could finally test the e-up!’s handling without worrying if I’d actually be seeing my kids that night. It must be said, for such a small car, the e-up! is incredibly well-balanced. As the battery cells are in the floor, the low centre of gravity makes the e-up! great fun to drive. The cornering and availability of power make the e-up! comparable with any small hot hatch from the 1980s. For all the years I’d lost worrying about the battery level on the way into work, the e-up! duly replaced them by making me feel like a teenager in my first car again.
Day 2: The e-Bike Commute
The following morning was a little overcast, but thankfully there wasn’t any rain forecast. I set off as the sun started to rise 2 miles away above Horsham, and the train station where I’d be joining throngs of other commuters in their morning drudgery. It must be pointed out at this point that I am not a regular cyclist. Nor am I particularly fit. As a writer in my mid-forties, it would be fair to say that I’ve probably indulged a little too much on food and drink that I probably shouldn’t have. That said, I consider myself no slouch either.
The early morning roads entering Horsham were quiet and I was able to enjoy the sensation of just getting somewhere. The previous evening, the Wisper electric bicycle had been left on charge ensuring that I had a full battery to power me onto the office. It probably sounds like an odd thing to say, but when navigating a car through dense traffic, you seldom take on board what and who you are passing. When riding a bike, your mind is able to wander a little more, and I even found myself waving and shouting “Morning!” to a few people I barely know. Having never ridden an e-bike before, I’d expected my little bike ride to be filled with huffing and puffing, but power delivery from the little hub-drive motor made the journey an unexpected pleasure. I was soon zipping through the town roads on my way to the station. In less than 15 minutes I found myself standing on the platform waiting for the train leg of my journey.
As the 7:50am Southern train to Clapham Junction arrived, I was so enamoured by my morning’s ride, that I’d completely forgotten to fold the Wisper 806 down. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to fold-up the bike on the train, I got into a flap of panic, as the train edged into the station. There are two hinge clips that need to be released to get the bike into its folded position. The first is on the handlebar stem. This popped off with ease once I’d removed the safety clip, and the handlebars folded down beside the front wheel. The train was pulling to a standstill. The second clip is on the crossbar, allowing the whole bike to fold in two. Again, releasing the safety catch, the hinge clip was released with ease. I lifted the bike at the hinge in the crossbar and it elegantly collapsed into its folded position, as the train doors opened. As I boarded the carriage, I felt quite chuffed with myself at how easily I’d mastered folding the bike down. In hindsight, I think the real credit belongs to the genius that designed the locking clips, as they were so easy to use that a middle-aged fog-brained numpty like me was able to use them without any effort at all. The bike’s folded size was so compact that I simply loaded the bike into a luggage rack and got comfortable at a nearby table. Fifty-five minutes of blissful rest later, I disembarked the train at Clapham Junction, feeling the most refreshed I think I’ve ever felt upon arrival in London. The Wisper’s cleverly designed hinge clips did their work once more, locking into place automatically. All I had to do was unfold the frame and handlebar stem, and we were on our way. My office is just a short ride away from the train station and, at 8:45am, the streets bustled with people trying not to be late, at the expense of common courtesy. I’d always feared having to share the roads with van and lorry drivers, but I soon found to my displeasure that it was pedestrians that presented the greatest danger to city cyclists. With no regard for their safety or mine, commuters thrust themselves into my cycle lane from all directions. Having successfully navigated and avoided every one of these coffee-carrying lemmings, I hopped off my folding electric bike feeling overly chuffed with myself. Before entering the building, I unclipped the hinges once more and prepared the bike for its first journey in the office lift.
Taking up less room than a medium sized suitcase, I was able to stow the bike away underneath my desk for the duration of my day. And there is sat, patiently waiting for me to return. During my day, I genuinely felt more productive, having had a little exercise and some much-needed fresh air. Which was more than could be said for the previous day’s experience, endlessly worrying about whether I’d make it home. Today, I actually looked forward to the ride home.
Leaving work, I turned toward the station and was able to make it to my platform without anyone throwing themselves into my path. With two lots of ‘clip and fold’, the bike was at my side in its compact form, waiting to be lifted onto the train for the 57-minute journey to Horsham.
Almost every direction out of Horsham feels as though its uphill. With two miles to go, I set off on a route that I would offer the least resistance. Fortunately, and largely due to the power delivery of the Wisper electric bike, the journey home just as pleasant and uneventful as the ride into Horsham that morning. I smelt the freshly cut grass those of pensionable age had prepared that day – many of whom looked up from their hedge clippers to admire my electric bike, as I sauntered along at quite a pace with very little effort. The leisurely 2-mile journey took approximately 15 minutes, and with each turn of the crank, I felt myself being boosted along by the 700W motor. When I arrived home, I was refreshed and wanted to go out on my Wisper once more. After a fantastic evening ride through the countryside surrounding my home, I decided that I needed to have one. I duly set about writing to the company to see if I could buy the one they’d sent me to test! This is a first for me. Never, in all my years, have I ever returned from a road test and felt so compelled to make the subject a part of my life for good.
I get it. I totally and utterly get it. I understand why the electric bicycle is becoming the method of choice for commuters. The e-up! is a good little car. Its name only belongs on the lips of Compo from “Last of the Summer Wine”, but it is, without question, a good little electric car. And for £16,000 on the road, it is a bargain. However, my commute left me with the realisation that we are still some way off having the infrastructure to properly support electric cars. The battery level indicator left me paranoid throughout the day and only added an extra layer of stress to my daily commute.
At present, just 7% of the cars on Britain’s roads are electric. Just 7%. Finding a charging point in Horsham was tricky. Finding one available in a multi-storey car-park in central London required cunning and two visits. Imagine what that is going to be like when 25% of the UK’s cars are pure electric. So, if you are going to choose an e-up! then opt for the hybrid version, which will return a mind-blowing 258mpg, and will at least give you the back up assurance that there is a conventionally powered internal combustion engine ready to kick-in when the electricity supply fails you.
As for the Wisper 806 – this electric bike is mine. And you’re not having it.