3 years with an e-bike

My Bike, as I unboxed it.

A little over 3 years ago, I tore my ACL. It wasn’t awesome. I was in constant pain, and worst of all, I couldn’t ride my bike – my primary means of commuting. I decided that an electric bike would help keep me moving and active.

In October 2016, I brought home a VanMoof Electrified S (that link actually goes to the current model, the S2). I was immediately in love with my bike. I think I only rode my former, much-loved MEC Hold Steady (matte-black version) once more before it was sadly stolen in March of this year.

My VanMoof is definitely a v1 device – even the 2017 version of the same bike had some notable improvements. That being said, 3 years in, I’ve come to know it pretty well, and with that in mind, here’s some things I love, and things I don’t.

The Awesome

  • the integrated lights! I don’t know why this wasn’t immediately stolen by all commuter-bike manufacturers, whether electric or not. I have mine set to “Auto”, so they just come on or turn off based on light levels, and I never have to think about bike lights again.
  • Electric-assist: I know, it’s an electric bike, but riding 10-15K a day, with assist that “smooths out the hills” is still revelatory.
  • Quiet. I’ve read that both the 2017 model and S2 are even quieter, but this bike is already much quieter than virtually every other electric bike I come across. There’s a light whisper with the regular e-assist, and a slight whine when I engage the boost feature. Speaking of…
  • Boost! There’s a button on the handlebar to get a boost of extra power beyond the assist level – this is very handy to keep chill on hills, starting up at lights, or when heavily leaden with bags.
  • The design remains distinctive and lovely. I get questions or appreciative comments monthly, even 3 years later.
  • Ride comfort. This is a well-built bike made for a comfortable ride, and is quite smooth.
  • Battery life. I bike 10-15K a day in my commute, and I generally only charge my bike once a week. I think it advertised 100K and 3 years in, I feel I regularly get pretty close to that. Except in wintertime, when the batter is notably worse.

The not-great.

  • The touch interface. Mine has simply never worked reliably enough to use. I’m supposed to be able to touch turn it on, adjust assist levels and what not. I just pretend it isn’t there.
  • The app. It’s pretty bare bones. It loses connection with the bike semi-regularly so I have to force-close and restart it. I wish it integrated with GPS tools like Strava or Runkeeper to pass on information. I’d love to look in my VanMoof app to see total miles, average speed, time spent with what level of assist/boost, etc.
  • The bike software itself. I’ve had my bike “crash” 3 times (about once a year). It takes resetting the software, a process that itself means plugging the bike into a powered micro-usb cable for a bit to reset itself. 3 times in 3 years isn’t a lot, but it does always seem to happen at the end of a long ride when the battery is low, coincidentally right when I’m about to ride up a big hill
  • Speed settings. My bike seems really happy cruising along at about 18-20 km/h. Which is fine, but definitely much slower than a lot of other e-bikes run at. The Boost, for instance, doesn’t work if you’re going more than 20km/h. I find when riding on the flat, once I hit a speed of about 22-24k, the bike feels like it is actively resisting me, rather than assisting me. So, 18k is fine, but often not as fast as I feel I could go without additional effort, but the bike feels like it is fighting me if I do.
  • Weak motor. I joke that my bike is made for Dutch Hills (Holland is famously flat). It really struggles up the bigger hills in town – from false creek up Ontario st is a daily ride for me, and it whines somewhat ominously, and even the boost, while definitely helpful, means I still get a workout up there (maybe this is good?). Compared to a Trek ebike I was able to try out, I’m clearly not getting the same level of push up a hill though.
  • No gears. I don’t want many, but from that one time I did a tour of burrard inlet, biking from home, across the lions’ gate, along and back over the second narrows, having a gear to help me climb hills better, rather than relying on the underwhelming motor would be nice.
  • Cheap/bad parts. VanMoof definitely skimped out on some of these. The stock pedals and cranks look and feel cheap. The brakes have been problematic the whole time – indeed, the first time I took my bike to a shop to get my brakes adjusted, the comment was “Oh, these are really bad – you should replace them soon”. for a $3K bike, that’s not cool.

Other notes

This isn’t so much about the bike, but rather Vancouver – I don’t feel like I can ride this bike and park it anywhere – even with the “smart lock” and tracking technology built-in, Vancouver is so bad for bike theft that unless I know I’ve got secure bike parking or The Bicycle Valet at my destination, I won’t ride anywhere I’d have to leave my bike out of sight.

You may wonder if I’m happy with my bike, based on that list of pros and cons above. In short, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. The bike is amazing, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Particularly the newer models, which all have very directly addressed several of the problems I’ve seen with it.

Everyone should ride a bike more – and if you need some help doing so, I cannot recommend an e-bike enough. And in 2019, your options are much broader as to what’s available, for a surprisingly reasonable amount!

Traffic Circles: A commuter’s rant

Traffic Circle
A typical Vancouver Traffic Circle

Traffic circles are common at intersections of Vancouver’s residential streets. In theory, they’re great – keep the flow of traffic moving, rather than the start-stop stutter of 2-way/4-way stop signs. In practice, they’re terrible, and I believe it’s mostly to do with poor signage & education. The city provides a page with a nice description of how traffic should flow around them. There’s even a video (warning: WMV file. Why this isn’t just up on a City YouTube channel beats me). But based on my experience as a driver and increasingly as a cyclist, no one knows these rules.

Nearly every day I have a dangerous interaction at  a traffic circle: both in my car & on my bike – because no one seems to know how to interact with them. This is made worse by the city’s well-intentioned, but ultimately poorly-thought-out “adopt a circle” project, wherein community gardeners can tend to the greenery within the circle. Sure, it makes them pretty, but it reduces visibility dangerously as the plants grow taller & thicker. Several times I’ve had a close encounter with a pedestrian or cyclist whom I simply couldn’t see through the plants growing in the circle.

What the rules are:

  • Vehicles travel counter-clockwise around the circle
  • Vehicles already in intersection have right-of-way
  • Arriving at the same time, yield to the vehicle on your right

These seem like a pretty simple set of rules,  right? If crows can keep 3 things in mind at once, surely drivers can too? Sadly, no.

What drivers actually do:

  • Drivers going straight assume they have right of way.
  • Drivers turning left go clockwise around (the shortcut)
  • Drivers turning always cede right-of-way to cars going straight
  • Drivers sometimes yield to cyclists, regardless of who was there first.
  • Drivers sometimes think they can go around the circle at the same time as a cyclist.
  • Drivers assume pedestrians will stop for them
  • Drivers yield to the car on the left instead of on the right.
  • Cyclists assume they always have right-of-way.

Here’s the thing. The sign on our traffic circles are not helpful. Several people I’ve asked thought that the black shield (see photo above) was a yield sign, so they should yield left. Why not use a sign that indicates, with arrows, traffic flow & yield rules? Even the standard European round-about signs would likely better:

Roundabout
Clearer instructions: Yield, go counter-clockwise

I think we need an educational campaign in the city about how to interact with these circles, while at the same time improving the signage on all of them. Maybe Preventable could get involved too.

In which I narrowly avoided being crushed

This morning on my morning commute I was speeding down Ontario, quite pleased with myself for how I was catching every green light on my route (due almost entirely to the efforts of a woman who was much faster than I, but ended up stopping at each light so I would catch up with her).

Coming down from the roundabout at 10th to Broadway, the woman ahead pressed the button & the light changed green for us. I sped up, so as to catch the light – it was still green as I entered the intersection. Because I had a solid green light, I didn’t do my customary traffic-check that I do as lights change (either red->green or green->yellow) – I just went. I was also riding fast, so looking ahead. I suddenly felt, rather than saw, something large immediately to my right. Turning, I saw the grill of one of those large Cube trucks seemingly feet from me. I utterly froze, convinced I was about to be hit by this truck that was in the intersection with me. Through some combination of my momentum and pure luck, the truck missed me – by inches.  I’m honestly still amazed that I wasn’t hit.

I’m going to assume the truck driver wasn’t actually trying to kill me, but just wasn’t paying attention, as the truck just kept motoring west on Broadway – no brakes, no stopping to make sure I was ok, no honking horn – nothing that would indicate he (or she) had any idea of how insanely close to hitting me they were, nor even that they had just run a red light.

I, on the other hand, had to immediately stop. I was shaking so badly I couldn’t get my legs to work right. I nearly fell over trying to get out of my clips to sit on the sidewalk for a few minutes to collect myself. A really nice homeless guy stopped to ask if I was ok, and offered some sympathetic expletives regarding the truck driver.

I’m not sure if this miss made it a bad morning or a fantastic, lucky morning. I will say that I truly enjoyed my coffee upon arrival to work.

 

Nighttime cycling, open data, app idea

Last night I had a board meeting that ran until about 9pm – this being the fall, it was dark when I rode home, for the first time since I’ve started this daily bicycle commuting thing. I’m generally well-prepared: I wear reflective clothing, my saddle-bag has a reflector, I have a back light that flashes. I don’t (currently) have a front light because it mysteriously disappeared the first time I forgot to take it off my handlebars. I think I’d also like a helmet light to help my vision too.

My route, from Broadway & Fir to home took me along the 10th ave, Ontario & Ridgeway bicycle routes – all ones I’m well familiar with during daylight hours. However, these all become significantly less fun at night. Why? Because there are so many lights that don’t work, dozens more lights who are almost entirely obscured by trees, others yet so dim as to barely light the ground at all. The nicest portion of the ride is the stretch up on Ontario from 12th to 16th, where those new bright-white lights that seem more focused (less light pollution?) have been installed. The stretch of 10th from Hemlock to Ash was by far the worst.

The streetlight across from my house (which is also on a bike route) has been out for sometime. Last night Leah called the city to let them know about that, which you can do via the 311 service But given that there’s a data feed of street lamps for Vancouver, maybe we can automate this a little more. I don’t have the time in the next couple of days, but if anyone has time to cobble together an app, here’s what I was thinking of:

  • Map that shows street lights, let me click on a lamp to indicate it’s not working, obstructed, dim, etc.
  • Twitter service that, based on location of the tweet (using @replies), maps that to the above.
  • Sends a service request to the city (is there a 311 API?)
  • A cool feature would be to “darken” bits of the map based on this data, so you could “show” a map of Vancouver at night based on where lights are on/off, etc – this could be the most useful service, particularly if mapped against bike routes, running routes, etc.