I think I’m fairly representative of large section of young South Africans between the ages of 18-25. Many people my age are living in a city, and are either still studying, unemployed or job hunting, working at a junior position at a certain company or volunteering to get experience.
Whether or not we’ve been lucky enough to find work or have funds for study, or unlucky enough to have not, we all have one thing in common. Getting around South African cities is a pain if you’re young and not earning megabucks.
This is the stage in life when transport becomes a priority. We need to get to work, or study, or a place to jobseek: but time has become too precious to spend on public transport. Parental transport favours have run out and taxis make us terrifyingly aware of our own mortality before our time.
Cars, however, are costly to buy and maintain and not every young person can afford it. So why don’t more of us cycle? And wouldn’t an alternative mode of transport such as an electric bike be a bit more 21st century? I visited local electric bike store Cycology in Milpark to see.
Owner Vincent Truter has had an exceptionally varied career that belies his years. He was a creative director at an advertising major advertising agency, an urban regeneration specialist and post-grad student of Japanese buto dance. At a time when he was feeling particularly disillusioned with life in Johannesburg, he says, his car was stolen. Truter was forced to get around on an electric bike lent to him by a friend. He was so impressed he bought the company with the distribution rights to A2B cycles.
“At the bottom of the road, there was a tree I’d driven past every day for four years on my way to the office that I’d never even seen before,” Truter explained to an audience at JoziHub’s first Green Tech Talk event. He says that commuting by bike instantly reconnected him with the city that he loves.
“I found it was a game changer that forced me to get up from behind my computer. New technology had always forced me to be more stationary, now I was using it to discover this incredibly vibrant thing happening at street level.”
From the start, he says, he was aware that cycles as a day-to-day form of transport are a hard sell to South Africans, and it wouldn’t be enough to simply put the bikes on sale, spend a bit of money marketing them, and hope that buyers would flock to his door.
“I could never simply talk about this product,” he says, “I would have to share the experience of using it.”
His marketing strategy, then, is based around getting people on the bikes.
“I knew that bikes were boys’ toys,” he explains, “So the first thing I did was take a group of 30-40 year-old-women on a ride along the waterfront in Cape Town, to establish the notion that we’re talking about more than just buying a bike.”
This hands on marketing, which extends to beginners’ classes at the Joburg store every Saturday morning, rapidly developed into a personal manifesto that he also calls cycology. As the website puts it: ” We’re about the slow ride, the unexpected journey, the freedom to exhale, a real-time way of connecting people, places and passions.” Slow may not be entirely appropriate, though. His Cape Town store is based at the upmarket Mount Nelson hotel not just because it’s a traditional sort of place where people are likely to feel like a bike ride, but because you can cycle to anywhere in Cape Town within eight minutes from its front door.
Or so Truter says. That’s a claim we’d like to put to the test.
So convinced is he that electric bikes are the future, that through cycology Truter also runs a foundation which is working with the likes of the City of Joburg and external researchers to help advise and plan on new cycle routes.
But don’t mistake him for a do-gooding hippy: convincing people to adopt electric bikes for Truter is a cause, but it’s one that he’s very clear is about business first.
“We hit the top LSM customers initially,” he says, “We try to reach corporate South Africa by taking senior management out for a ride in the afternoons. After 30 minutes, they’re very receptive.”
He’s also realistic about the scale at which change can happen. Initially, he hopes to encourage companies to buy bikes or provide loans for staff simply to get around areas like Sandton during the work day. Convincing people to commute from suburb to town by bike will take better infrastructure, like cycle paths.
“In South Africa right now, we can do things for the first time. That’s what makes it exciting for me, there are lots of things we can do.”
Each bike has a bespoke internal motor system and is powered by a battery that requires a simple recharge that lasts up to 65 kilometres.
So, if you were thinking of buying an electric bike for commuting purposes, what might your considerations be?
This is the biggie. Truter may be looking at rich corporate clients, but word of mouth to the masses is going to be passed around by people like me. So does it make sense? I use around R350 a month commuting to and back from work everyday on a Metro Bus. Throw in a few trips to various places on the weekend using taxis and that’s around R450. I obviously don’t pay any extra costs as this isn’t my own private vehicle so that’s all my transport expenses.
I am however looking at buying a car in the near future and starting off with a smallish secondhand model is probably the best option. Let’s say I go for an Opel Corsa Lite, a 2007 2-door model goes for around R40 000 and let’s say I pay this amount in instalments of R2 000 each month for two years. Add monthly expenses to keep it on the road (e.g petrol, e-tolls and insurance) and that’s around R 4 000 a month, or about nine times what I currently pay.
Cycology bikes range from R 14 500- R35 000 depending on its body and battery size. If the city was serious about getting people to adopt them, it could help to resource low interest loans to buy them. Say a loan of three years at 5%? At that rate, the payments on R14 500 would work out to just over R466 – or more or less what I’m already paying anyway.
There’s some extra costs, of course.
A single charge costs R1.65c – R1.85c and will keep you going for 65km. I would probably go for the cheapest bike for R14 500. Work is approximately 6km away from where I live, so that’s 12km each day, meaning I travel 264km a month and would have to recharge a bike about 4 times a month, so that’s around R6.00-R7.00 a month (which is obviously cheaper than a car). Let’s throw in a few taxi rides for bad weather or long distances too.
Weather, pedestrians and other drivers are all factors that determine a person’s experience while travelling to a certain destination and Joburg isn’t popular for the friendliness and ease of any of those, in fact, they can either make or break your day and determine your mood.
For me (and probably a lot of other people) what counts the most though is safety, weather and space to carry things. The best option here would be a car, because you get the freedom to be in your space, at your own time and carry whatever you need to in your boot. So a bike wouldn’t be very practical in this sense
So would I buy a bike?
I don’t know – but mainly because it’s been 17 years since I last rode one. I can’t even sit on one of Truter’s machines without falling off right now. Still, I’m going to give it a go by heading over to his beginners classes over the next few weeks, and I’ll report back here with how I get on.
In the meantime, the most important question is whether or not you could be convinced. Thoughts in the comments box below…
Hit the gallery below to see photos of the different Cycology bikes.