The E-Cycle, Pedaling That Fine Line Of Ecology And Utility

Bicycles with electric motors are becoming more popular and controversial at the same time. Environmentalists wonder if cyclists are losing their carbon neutrality in pursuit of an extra boost.

An Ideo e-bike
An Ideo e-bike
Marco Völklein

MUNICH â€" "You hear them before you see them ..."

Holger Köhler grumbles at the increasing arrival of so-called e-bikes, bicycles that have motors to help supplement the riders' pedal power. Those on a cycling path who are overtaken by an e-bike hear the hum of the motor well before its rider passes. But when Köhler was cycling up the hill towards his village recently, he was surprised to see a beautifully crafted racing bike pass him when he expected a bulky e-bike, which tend to be unusually ugly.

It seems as if the motorized two-wheeled industry is trying to conquer the very last niche of the bicycle market. Manufacturer Haibike, for example, developed racing bike Xduro, which weighs in at a hefty 41.9 pounds. This is the so-called S-Pedelec, a bicycle fitted with an electrical motor that can reach speeds of up to 27 mph. An insurance registration number is marked underneath the saddle, and a bulky battery is attached to the down tube which in turn powers the motor situated within the chain rings.

For those who ride actual racing bikes without electrical help, such as Köhler, this bicycle is a sacrilege. "It's not sports equipment," he says.

But it could be of interest for many commuters if it were fitted with a mudguard and a carrier. The number of Pedelecs, S-Pedelecs and e-bikes sold in Germany is rising steadily. The number of bikes with built-in tailwind has risen from 110,000 sold in 2008 to 480,000 in 2014, according to Germany's Bicycle Industry Association. And the industry is banking on the trend to continue. In the medium-term, sales of 600,000 e-bikes per year are expected, and that would be equivalent to a 15% share of the market even though e-bikes cost between 500 and 2,000 euros more than their non-motorized equivalents. The standard Xduro costs 4,700 euros, whereas a model with improved breaks and more sophisticated design can cost up to 8,000 euros.

Expensive? No problem

The steep prices don't seem to be a barrier to sales. "The electrical bike has lost its reputation as a cheater's bike," says Anja Smetanin of the ecology-minded German Transport Club. Even though the first e-bikes on offer were city and trekking e-bikes, there is much more variety now. Mountain bikes with batteries and electrical motors, for example, make longer bike tours possible and enable cyclists to conquer steeper ascents.

For small businesses and bike couriers alike, the transport system of choice is the heavy duty bicycle with electrical motor because delivery tours via bicycle are quicker than navigating city traffic in a car. Parents put their children in a children's bike trailer on weekends and are glad that, thanks to the extra energy delivered by the battery, they can cycle down to the local pub and beer garden without too much effort.

So-called fatbikes, a type of mountain bike with particularly broad and thick tires, allow the cyclist to cycle through sand or loose snow. The e-bike motor enables them to travel longer distances despite more friction.

Some environmentalists are banking on the e-bike boom "to support the changeover from normal cars to environmentally friendly alternatives for everyday activities," says Anja Smetanin. Nearly every second car trip of 3.1 miles or less could be made instead with a bicycle. This measure would reduce carbon pollution by almost five million tons a year, according to the German Environment Agency.

But critics wonder if this is enough to convince car-loving drivers to switch over. They also worry that cyclists who up until now were using carbon-neutral means of transport might switch to e-bikes. That would mean converting nonpolluters into polluters.

And what about the risk of accidents? The insurance company Allianz released statistics showing that 10% of cyclists killed in accidents last year were using e-bikes (39 of 396 cyclists). Police couldn't identify a higher risk of accidents among Pedelec users. Munich police says accidents involving e-bikes represent only 1% of the average 2,700 annual bicycle accidents.

But bicycle lobbyists such as the General German Bicycle Club (ADFC) warn that the cycle lanes in cities weren't designed to accommodate more and faster cyclists. Andreas Glas of the ADFC says that broader cycle lanes or specially marked lanes are an urgent necessity.

"You are already going fast at 12.4 mph on heavily trafficked inner city lanes," says Andreas Gerstner, an e-bike expert. Pedelec cyclists can go up to 15.5 mph and S-Pedelec cyclists even faster than that. So he suggests that beginners take courses like the ones offered by German Traffic Control to get used to the bike's driving performance before revving your two-wheeler up a mountain range.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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