Electric bikes have a chance to succeed where traditional bicycles have failed. By adding the assistance of a small motor, eBikes are starting to chip away at some of the excuses why drivers won’t switch to cycling as a primary or even supplementary means of transportation.
Although adoption is relatively new in the United States, the bicycle manufacturing industry sales figures show the future. In the first two months of 2019, the wholesale numbers of traditional bicycles dropped in every single category. Unit sales were down 19.6 percent and dollars down 6.5 percent. In sharp contrast, eBikes were up 24 percent in units and 50.1 percent in dollars. In some European countries, eBike sales have surpassed traditional bicycle sales.
Undoubtedly, eBikes will make up a greater percentage of the bikes you encounter on the streets and trails. But are they safe? That question is being asked in communities around the country.
States and local municipalities are proposing new eBike legislation almost weekly. New York City frequently makes headlines with its eBike bans (Class-2 throttle assist, not pedal-assist). Meanwhile, misconceptions abound.
Is speed a problem?
Modern eBikes have not existed in any great quantities until recently — especially in the United States — so many people don’t know what they are or how they work. As soon as you mention a bicycle with a motor, the accusations start flying, likely because the closest comparison that comes to mind is a moped.
Because an eBike can travel at a top speed of 20 miles per hour, people think that is how fast they travel all the time. But eBikes don’t have to travel that fast. A rider can ride just as slowly and safely as every other cyclist on the road or trail.
In fact, eBikes are significantly harder to pedal over 20 mph than conventional bikes due to the added weight (10 to 20 pounds) and because most motor systems cause drag, when they are not assisting. Direct-drive hub motors cause so much drag, unpowered, that companies offer it as a feature — regenerative braking. As any eBike rider can tell you, going faster is difficult once you reach top speed. Conventional bikes do not have this limitation.
I regularly get passed by conventional bikes — even single-speed bikes — when traveling at 20 mph. This is especially common with race trainers. When traveling the length of Summit Avenue, I will pass many cyclists traveling at 20, but I will inevitably get passed by a dozen or more. A seasoned race rider can easily sprint to near 30 on flats and sustain mid-20s. Daily commuters can pace me at 20, though likely not for the extended duration I can maintain on an eBike.
I recently trailed a commuter at an average speed of 20 mph from downtown St. Paul to Como Park. He more than quadrupled his lead on the downhill (again, motor drag), after the railroad bridge on Como Avenue. I only caught up to him at the stoplight. The 20 mph speed limit on eBikes was chosen for a reason: It was found to be an average speed of a seasoned bicycle commuter on a traditional road bike.
Where is the call for road bikes to be banned or speed-limited? It seems hypocritical to claim eBikes pose a unique speed danger when their top speeds are inherently limited and those of traditional bikes are not.
Like most eBikes, mine has a speedometer, which has given me insight into how fast conventional cyclists travel. Nobody travels 10 mph on those marked trails in Minneapolis parks, except for riders with small children. Everyone else, even on crowded paths, is doing an average of 14 to 17 mph and, while passing, near or above 20.
Convince me otherwise (any many try), but in my opinion, the type of bicycle is not at fault for reckless riding. That responsibility resides solely with the rider. Just because you can ride fast, doesn’t mean you will — or have to. A person who rides an eBike with disregard for others’ safety won’t suddenly become a conscientious rider, just because he or she has a traditional bicycle.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to decide what types of people buy bikes or convert from driving to cycling. As cycling for transportation increases in numbers, so will the numbers of irresponsible riders.
What about weight?
A less common argument is that eBikes weigh more than traditional bikes and, therefore, are more dangerous. The average weight difference between an eBike and equivalent traditional bike is roughly 15 pounds. Sure that is 20 to 50 percent heavier, but what specific danger does this create?
If we’re talking about kinetic energy — the energy of impact when two riders collide, or a rider collides with a pedestrian — then the argument is without merit. I am a skinny 125-pound rider with a 50-pound eBike. If I am defined as a danger, then so is anyone else whose combined rider/bike weight is at or greater than 175 pounds.
The other part of the kinetic energy equation is velocity, but, as noted, traditional bikes can more easily exceed the speed of eBikes and often travel at or near the same speed. Ultimately, it makes no difference what type of bike you are on. On a busy trail, you will always meet someone riding more slowly than you are, at whatever arbitrary speed difference you deem reckless.
Are eBike riders too old?
Most eBike riders are older — seniors, if you will. Again, eBikes can travel just as slowly as any traditional bicycle. Your 90-year-old grandparent probably isn’t going to race down the bike path at 20 miles per hour, unless he or she feels comfortable doing so. Anyone compelled to ride that fast is an irresponsible rider; the type of bike is not the inherent danger.
To be clear: I am fine with limits and restrictions being placed on eBikes. The problem I have is when the arguments imply that eBikes pose a danger that traditional bicycles do not.
Go ahead and argue that 20 mph is too fast for bike trails. But since eBikes are not unique in their ability to travel that fast, then all bicycles should be limited to slower speeds, if the restriction is to be made at all. If you want to argue for legislation or advocate for restricting usage, then target those arguments to attributes unique to eBikes.