My Clean Break column today takes a look at how Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, the high-end travel company, has slowly started to add electric bicycles to its fleet as a way to accommodate aging boomers and people of different fitness levels. Replacing regular bikes with e-bikes on a tour isn’t really an environmental story, for obvious reasons, but this is a positive health story if it means getting more people out and exercising. And in a broader sense, e-bikes could encourage more people to get out of their cars. In that sense there are environmental benefits to this tech.
We’ve all met them. Super-couples that hike together, run half-marathons side by side, and jump out of airplanes holding hands.
Sickening. Young and old, they make the rest of us feel inadequate.
But super-couples are an anomaly. The reality is that many couples aren’t such a good match when it comes to physical activity. Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, the high-end travel company that does bicycle tours throughout world, knows this first hand.
“With a lot of people who take our trips, one half of a couple really doesn’t want to do it,” says Norman Howe, president of B&R. “The one who doesn’t want to do it is intimidated by the idea that they won’t be able to participate as an equal with their partner.”
It’s partly why, about a year ago, company officials began exploring the benefits of adding electric bicycles to their fleet. The simple fact is that some tours are more difficult and demanding than others, be it because of longer routes or uneven terrain. The company’s bike trip to Tuscany is a case in point.
“It’s probably the scariest destination from a hill point of view,” says Howe.
Last October, the company held its annual end-of-season gathering and invited a number of electric bicycle makers to give product demonstrations. The E-Venture electric bicycle, manufactured by Swiss firm Scott Sports SA and equipped with a Bosch lithium ion battery system and drivetrain, got the highest grade. After the event, B&R purchased 30 of these e-bikes and added them to its European fleet.
“Our customers will get the option of using them for this first time this spring,” says Howe, adding that it is considered an upgrade so does come at a slight premium.
He emphasizes that the bikes are only assisted by electric propulsion – that is, they don’t rely exclusively on it. Travellers can’t ride them like mopeds or electric scooters. What they get is a boost when they need some help, such as when battling a head wind or taking on a steep hill.
“These things look like a bike, ride like a bike, feel like a bike, but when you hit the hills it just makes the experience a little better,” says Howe, adding that in his view it will be a “great democratizing thing” for people who may otherwise be reluctant to travel by regular bicycle. “And you still get a sense of accomplishment riding these things.”
The potential reaches far beyond the weaker half of a couple. It includes all consumers that have never given bicycle tours a thought, perhaps because of that intimidation factor. It also includes aging but devoted long-time customers, who can keep coming back every year even if the knees are starting to give out and energy levels are in decline. The e-bikes are designed to compensate.
Market research firm Pike Research has estimated that nearly half a billion e-bikes, electric motorcycles and electric scooters will be sold worldwide between 2010 and 2016. E-bikes would represent 56 per cent of that market, it predicted.
“Demographics and economics are aligning to create a strong market opportunity for two-wheel electric vehicles,” according to Pike analyst Dave Hurst. “In some countries, these vehicles will be engines of economic growth, while in others they will be signals of broader consumer behavioral shifts.”
For B&R, it’s all part of the evolution of its business, and certainly shifting demographics play an important role. Average customer age lands somewhere in the low 50s – the classic baby boomer.
“The boomer crowd is in denial about aging, so they’re going to hang on to the activity component of their lives for as long as they can,” says Howe.
By adding e-bikes to its fleet, B&R is helping them to do. E-bikes may represent only 3 per cent of the fleet today, but as boomers age “I would imagine the number of e-bikes we have will grow as a percentage of our overall fleet,” he says.
No doubt, bicycle tour companies around the world are heading in the same direction.
Call it a boomer boost that leads to happier and healthier trails.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.