The electric ambitions of a teen climate activist

19 year old Ambrose Hayes can't afford a house or an electric car, but he's decarbonised what he can - he's bought an electric bike for commuting.

Ambrose Hayes is not your typical 19-year-old. Ambrose is on a mission to revolutionise urban transportation and combat climate change, one electric bike ride at a time.

His journey into the world of electric bikes began with what he describes as "a YouTube rabbit hole" on urban planning. As he delved deeper, Ambrose gained an understanding of how cities are structured around cars, sparking his passion for sustainable alternatives.

For almost two years now, Ambrose has been navigating the streets of Sydney on his electric bike, making it his primary mode of transport from his home in the inner west. Becoming an electric bike rider has not only reduced his carbon footprint but also slashed his weekly public transportation expenses, nearly offsetting the initial $2400 cost of his bike.

Unlike many of his peers who eagerly pursued a driver's licence, Ambrose never felt the allure of car ownership. "I did get my learner's permit, but only did 4 hours of driving," he admits. "I've seen all the issues with car-oriented transport, and I don't really want to be a part of that."

Ambrose was also put off by the expense of owning and driving an internal combustion engine car.

Last year the Australian Automobile Association found that over the 2022-23 financial year, transport costs rose nearly 50 per cent higher than the consumer price index (CPI), and they remain at levels causing considerable discomfort for many Australians.

Which probably accounts for the rising number of people opting for an electric bike as a mode of transport.

Peter Bourke, the general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia, and WeRide, a non-profit promoting bike riding, says e-bikes cost only a few cents to run, and about 15 cents to charge up.

The number of e-bikes in Australia has grown massively in recent years. Since 2017, when national statistics on e-bikes started to be kept, Bourke says e-bike sales have roughly doubled every year, and they now make up almost 50% of all bikes sold in Australia from independent bike dealers, where most e-bikes are sold.

However, we don't have important sales data on exactly how many e-bikes are on the road because in 2021 Bourke says the Morrison government changed the rules on the way e-bikes sales are coded, without consultation with the bike industry, and they are no longer required to have an import permit.

"We've opened up the door to lower quality, poor quality and dangerous quality products," says Bourke.

Ambrose Hayes says he sees "many bikes that are imported and then sold in Australia, or sold online and delivered, do not comply with safety requirements." He'd like to see international e-bikes regulated better.

Teen climate activist

Ambrose Hayes's climate activism stretches back to his teenage years when he joined the frontline of the fight against climate change. At just 16, while some of his peers were mastering parallel parking, he was leading student strikes in Sydney and part of a class action by young activists to stop the former Morrison Government environment minister from approving an expansion to Whitehaven Coal’s Vickery mine in NSW.

It wasn't until his final year of school that Ambrose considered the potential of electric bikes. "I've never been a sporty person," he reflects. "The only dialogue I'd seen about people riding bikes was either for leisure or sport."

Now, as a student of urban management and planning at Western Sydney University and a dedicated member of Pedal Set Go, a bike riding advocacy organisation, Ambrose says the biggest concern for many people he talks to about electric bikes is safety.

He believes many of these concerns can be overcome with better education for bike riders, because it "will develop the skills and confidence for cyclists which can improve safety and get them to ride more."

“If you learn the right ways to ride a bike, and you learn the safe places to ride then it's not really dangerous.”

He's reluctant to label cycling in Sydney as "dangerous," but he does advocate for improved riding infrastructure along with the importance of learning safe riding practices.

During a stint house-sitting in Surry Hills, Ambrose witnessed first hand the impact of well-designed cycleways and shared paths to encourage bike commuting.

"There were safe, separated cycleways and lots of shared paths, and people could get around with pretty much not having to go on any paved roads.”

Protected, bi-directional cycleways that are separated from car traffic and have a gap next to parked cars to prevent riders being 'doored', "are great to have on busier roads to make it safer to walk and ride, and having the cycleways wide enough to pass riders is ideal as well."

"I'm really excited to see the increasing investment in active transport," he says. “The quality of bike lane projects has also increased a lot. There are more standards now on what gets built, so if you look at some earlier projects, it was just a painted lane on the road but now it is more likely to be a safe lane separated from cars.”

"But there's still so much to be done."

Ambrose welcomes the recent commitment by the federal government to spend $100 million over four years on active transport infrastructure: "it promotes healthier lifestyles, reduces traffic congestion, and contributes to a cleaner environment."

However, he says the money is "a relatively modest investment per capita" and he questions whether this level of funding can "create a truly transformative shift towards active transport."

In contrast, the City of Sydney council has pledged nearly $25 million for cycling infrastructure in the coming year alone.

While Ambrose continues to champion electric bikes and push for sustainable urban development, he hopes his efforts will inspire others to embrace eco-friendly alternatives and create cities that prioritise people over cars.

Peter Bourke, the general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia, and WeRide, will be on the SwitchedOn podcast in coming weeks.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
June 24, 2024
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