2021 December-January Analysis Featured

How e-bikes can promote cycling in Tbilisi

Many of the bike paths are now there, throughout various parts of Tbilisi – but where are the cyclists? Those moving on spokes still are a trickle, rather than a steady stream flowing across town.

One factor that could soon change this is the increasing prevalence of e-bikes. This, at least, is the view you hear from aficionados, who highlight that Tbilisi’s many hills are an impediment for potential cyclists. Even for those with athletic ambitions, cycling over Mtatsminda to reach Vera from Sololaki is a noticeable challenge – all the more if your hosts expect you to arrive with a mostly dry shirt.

Here, e-bikes could make all the difference by helping when the going gets tougher. The most sophisticated e-bike systems, such as Europe’s market leader Bosch eBike Systems, give gradual support and allow users to switch settings from eco (primarily supporting the weight of the bike) across tour (more support, yet still focusing on range) all the way to turbo. At this top setting, riders can zoom up steep hills at almost 25 km an hour, which is the maximum support speed for most systems sold in the EU.

Certainly, e-bikes have become popular across the EU in recent years. In Germany, of the five million bikes sold during the pandemic, nearly 40% had an electrical motor. Studies for the e-bike industry have found that every other German commutes less than 10 km to work (think upper Saburtalo to Sameba, or Vake to Varketili), making the e-bike likely the fastest mode of transport in urban areas, especially at busy times.

Jeffrey Kent, honorary consul of the Republic of Ireland, is an early adopter in Tbilisi. While his drilling work often takes him outside the city, he says that once in town he usually leaves the car at the office and returns home by e-bike: “I mostly enjoy not being frustrated by traffic”, he says, and adds that it is a special pleasure to scoot past cars stuck in long jams. A strong motor helps him get where he needs to be. From time to time you can spot him on Rustaveli Avenue, too. Jeffrey is one of several million who have found e-bikes transformative. No wonder that the CEO of Bosch eBike Systems estimates that half the bikes sold in the EU in 2025 will have a motor, according to a report in the Financial Times.

So what inhibits the uptake of e-bikes in Georgia, in 2021? Some of the factors preventing their wider adoption may be about to melt away. For a few years now, premium bike shops such as Bikes.ge on Abashidze have offered quality e-bikes as part of their selection. Bikes.ge says they have sold 25 e-bikes in the last two years. Local availability is critical, as airlines do not permit e-bikes as sports equipment because their batteries are a fire hazard.

While e-bikes remain expensive, proponents say that their cost should be seen in the context of them replacing a car for most urban trips: half the wheels and more than double the fun. While midmarket e-bikes are priced at $2.000-$4.000, a steep cost even inside the EU, these remain cheaper than a car, and much cheaper to run, too. Bosch, again, calculates that at EU prices, 100 km on an e-bike costs about 0.30 cents, compared to nearly $8 for only the cost of fuel for a car.

Volto Bikes, a Tbilisi-based company, offers to upgrade existing bikes to an e-bike, as one less expensive alternative. Used e-bikes, or budget versions with limited ranges, are available at upwards of $1200. A substantial chunk of the cost is a lithium-ion battery – imagine many dozens of iPhone batteries strung together – and a new quality battery can easily set you back as much as what now is known as an organic bike. The strongest battery at Volto-Bikes is $600, without engine, steering unit, and installation. In return, such batteries offer a range of more than 100 km on undulating landscape, and in steep terrain still easily enough to go from Lisi Lake down and back up to Tsavkisi, Kodjori, and beyond.

With such an investment, protection from theft is a major concern: “I can leave my house with a bike”, comments one cyclist, “but then I don’t know where to park it once I reach the destination and the risk of somebody just taking it away is quite big.” Here, too, some solutions are now finally making progress. Several startups have developed viable GPS trackers. As the eBike battery can feed power, the trackers – usually priced between $150-220 – can send signals for weeks, and don’t require separate recharging at home. The signals are sent via GSM/mobile phone networks. One Austrian firm, PowUnity, since October 2021 has included Georgia in their coverage. The first year of tracking is usually included in the purchase price, and thereafter the annual subscription fee is between $40-50 for most systems.

When you step inside a restaurant, you set the alarm to receive a notification once the bike changes its GPS position, and you can follow on a map where it goes. PowUnity claims that it has assisted in the recovery of more than 160 e-bikes in recent months. It is likely that once these systems catch on in Georgia, a few bike thieves will be surprised to find their pursuers so accurately on their heels.

The tracking systems don’t, however, solve the overall challenge of parking the e-bike. With battery and engine coming in heavy, many mid-range models weigh in above the luggage limit of even generous airlines. Add in some shopping, and the weight becomes quite a proposition for your third-floor apartment.

There will be a need for new urban solutions. Recently, one e-bike was spotted in the garage of Stamba Hotel. With video cameras, a permanent fixture to lock, and possibly even electrical charging, e-bike owners may well become enthusiastic clients for underground parking. London, in turn, has pioneered neighborhood bike hangars, which replace a car park on the street, for six bikes at a time, with yearly rental fees offsetting the municipal subsidy. The hangars are locked, in addition to the bike lock, giving extra protection also from the elements.

A less likely solution are bike lifts, popular in various ways as a storage solution, in which bikes are pulled out of reach, for example under a balcony. On a stormy night in Tbilisi, you would have to worry about it raining down sustainable modes of transport.

Sustainability is a key feature of e-bikes. Some studies have suggested that more cycling could have ten times the positive impact towards reaching net-zero cities than a comprehensive switch to electrical cars. While e-bikes need to charge, one Tesla could power an entire fleet of them.

Yet the parking conundrum illustrates that increasing cycling in Tbilisi requires more than just integrating the existing bike paths into a connected system. The multidimensionality of that challenge is also brought home when you ask people why they don’t bike. Many still see the roads as too fraught, in spite of many new bike paths. Vakho, a local student, says that he “thought about cycling as a way to get past the terrible Tbilisi traffic, especially on big crowded streets like Chavchavadze and Rustaveli. But I can’t do it because the roads are too dangerous, so I’d rather try those new scooters that you see everywhere.”

Reducing speeding and reckless driving remains important to make more space for those that will be particularly vulnerable once they are on the street. Here, too, the actions of a few hundred or thousand men (and it’s almost exclusively men) with misdirected testosterone greatly constrain what everyone else can do and enjoy in the country. There is still a long way to go (and a few extra-reckless drivers to be removed from their wheels) before many parents will be comfortable strapping their children into a Cargo eBike to cruise them to school.

For safety reasons, too, it would make sense for Georgia to adopt regulations similar to those in many other countries: bikes that offer assistance up to a maximum of 25 km/h are free to use. Faster bikes, with assistance up to 45 km/h, require registration, insurance, and a helmet.

Screenshot of Tbilisi cycling map. The map can be found here.

For many in Georgia, another basic building block is missing: “I would never cycle because I do not know how. They [parents] never taught me”, says Iva. Related to that, another student comments that while they cycle in their village, they don’t think they have enough practice to navigate mean city streets.

Social contagion is likely to lead to dynamic change. “I don’t have anyone to cycle with”, a student said. They might try “if I had someone to go with.” Bringing a friend out to bike, and showing them safe paths to cycle, may thus be one of the single best things that any cyclist in Tbilisi can do to contribute to help people switch. The Caucasus Cycling Network, a group of cycling enthusiasts, regularly organize exactly such community rides, with increasing participation.

With regards to taking safe paths, e-bikes could be a game changer. There are many back roads in Tbilisi, some of them with sufficient potholes to make them thoroughly unattractive for anyone in a low-stance BMW. Douglas Morris, an active member of the American community, together with local cyclists created a detailed map showing such paths, from Dighomi down to Ortichala, available here. These scenic back channels could indeed contribute to a greater flow of cyclists, but often require that bit of extra uphill muscle. As the old adage goes, sweat saves blood, and now that magical electrical charge can take care of the sweat, too.

Hans Gutbrod has been cycling in Tbilisi since 2005 and survives on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HansGutbrod. Gurami Jajanidze, Chelsea Backer Leegstra and Anna Maria Wilczynska, all students at Ilia State University, contributed research to this article.

____________________________ ADVERTISEMENT ____________________________