Laura Laker in Lisbon
Thursday 3 August 2017 07.30 BST
Wander around Lisbon’s city centre with its vertiginous cobbled streets, treacherous enough on foot in the rain, it’s hard to imagine cycling ever taking off. Some streets are so steep there are funiculars to help you scale them, and Lisboetas on bikes are a rare sight outside of summer.
Like many hilly cities around the world, Lisbon has a serious congestion problem, and its urban planners know that if more people were persuaded to cycle they could reap huge benefits in air quality, health and liveability.
Enter the electric bike. In June Lisbon unleashed 100 public hire bikes – two thirds of them electric – on the streets of the leafy Parque das Nações neighbourhood. They are available to beta testers across 10 docking stations, via an app. The wider scheme will eventually comprise 1,410 bikes: 940 electric to cope with the city’s hills, the rest conventional bikes. They will be linked by a 100-mile network of cycle routes.
Lisbon certainly isn’t the first hilly city to look to e-bikes. Madrid introduced BiciMAD, a 100% electric public bike rental service in June 2014. London’s hilliest neighbourhood, Muswell Hill, was once promised its own e-bike hire network, although the idea fizzled out. In June this year, San Francisco got its first 100 electric bikes via Social Bicycles, the company which is also rolling out an e-bike scheme in the UK’s hilly seaside city of Brighton.
Transportation planners in hilly cities around the world – from Hong Kong to Rio, Rome to Swansea – could take note.
Not all of Lisbon is hilly, however. According to Lisboa Horizontal, a project that sought to map the city’s gradients for cycling, 63% of all the city’s streets are less than 4%. Luckily for city planners, the modern part of Lisbon where most locals live and work is relatively flat. What’s more, campaigners say it is possible to avoid the very steepest hills for most journeys. “Most relevant routes aren’t too hilly; it’s possible to get from the river to the castle without an excessively steep hill,” says local cycle tour guide, Ricardo Ferreira. “If you move to the city you know how to get around – and there’s no shame to walk for 100 or 200 metres.”
Pedro Machado, who works for Emel, Lisbon’s transport body, says the bikes will be placed in the flatter parts of Lisbon – the plateau area and the riverfront. Although the e-bikes are there to help with hills, that’s not their only purpose.
“[We’re focusing on] cycling on the outskirts because it’s a plateau, which covers more than half of the city,” he says. “We have seven hills and they’re all in the city centre.
“Madrid has [shown that] e-bikes solve the problem of hills but they also give you more range. If you’re comfortable riding 3km on a regular bicycle, then you’ll be comfortable doing 8km on an e-bike, so it captures people that would not be able to use a normal bike.”