#eBikeThoughts: Rage Against the Machine

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.

An eBike sits by the Minnesota State Capitol.

My eBike sits illuminated by the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo: author

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.

 

A crowd of bicyclists gathers near Allianz Field.

Group rides can safely include cyclists on traditional bikes and on eBikes, as shown in this gathering last September near Allianz Field. Photo: author

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.

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11 Responses to #eBikeThoughts: Rage Against the Machine

  1. karen alane Nelson December 30, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

    This is such an important pt most people don’t know:

    “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. ”

    All the different classes of ebikes and high speed ones in media, that are essentially like mopeds/scooters in terms of speed and need to be in streets, confuse people.

    I wonder if we just need new names/labels instead of Class x. Like ebikes intend to be used on bike infrastructure with max assist speed of 20 mph just have their own name – and have separate name for any personal EV that could be used on bike infrastructure.

    Maybe “MeBVs” (meebeevess)- personal micro-mobility of the size and speeds for use on traditional bike infrastructure – escooters with max 15 mph, ebikes with max 20 mph assist, e-skateboards, uni wheel things etc..

    • Andrew Evans January 3, 2020 at 10:44 am #

      Off the top of my head I thought mopeds were only categorized by engine size. Something under 60cc is more or less a bike, and something larger is treated like a motorcycle. The smaller ones could maybe get up to 60mph on a good day with a tailwind, going downhill, so yes, faster, but not all much different than an ebike but they really aren’t meant for hiway driving.

      A simple way around this would be to enforce a speed limit on trails. Anyone that wants to go faster than 15-20mph would need to go on the street. Any ebike with the equivalent engine size greater than 60cc would require the operator to get a motorcycle endorsement.

      No idea what that would mean for insurance, but I’d assume mopeds would need to have some coverage. My old motorcycles are something like $20 a month, so I’d assume it’d be cheap.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell January 3, 2020 at 10:56 am #

        This article (https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/the-moped-menace-in-the-netherlands/) includes the old categorization chart as well as some bits about the problem.

        Simple speed limits have proven not to work – for a few reasons.

        One is that many people, typically doing a training ride, will ride 25-30 mph but do so quite considerate of others. They are going fast but are not a problem.

        Speed limits are very difficult and expensive to enforce and can never be enforced consistently.

        The problem is not really speed so much as people riding dangerously and being inconsiderate of others. There appears to be a connection between how much of their own effort people provide and how considerate they are of others and how safely they ride around others.

        • Andrew Evans January 3, 2020 at 11:12 am #

          Yes, and I do realize that speeding bikes would be hard to patrol for since we can’t even ticket speeding cars here in Mpls… However, for better or worse speeding is easy, simple, and enforceable. It gets much harder to patrol for reckless riding, and then issue a ticket or something for it. So yes, potentially those nice riders would pay for what bad riders are doing, since the bad apply ruins the bunch or whatever.

          Just a thought on mopeds. They are small and light enough to really throw around, and still fast enough or accelerate fast enough to get out in front of normal cars and traffic. Obviously they take less effort to drive than a pedal bike. So yes, they would be more apt to be thrown around in traffic, or (and I had to use the term) for the driver to take more risks with. Compared to a pedal bike that takes more effort, or from a heavy larger motorcycle that although is faster wouldn’t be as nimble for a normal rider.

  2. Melissa Anne Wenzel December 30, 2019 at 4:54 pm #

    Good article. As you know, anyone can be safe, or dangerous, simply by obeying the rules of the road, abiding by the “don’t go until I contact has been made”, assertive (but not aggressive) driving/biking, and drive/bike defensively. Because many of the trails are not in great shape, I bike on the road anyway, making the trail conversation moot. The trails I bike near are filled with pedestrians, dog-walkers, kids on bikes with training wheels or in strollers, people in wheelchairs, etc. The (multi-use) trails is as much theirs as it is ours, but none of them feel safe in the road. I do….which did come with practice.

    Keep up the good work of normalizing e-bikes, winter biking, etc. Believe me: it pays off.

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell December 31, 2019 at 10:13 am #

    A bit of perspective from the other side of the pond…

    Firstly, I am a fan of e-bikes. I do not currently own one but I expect as I age I likely will. First for my bakfiets for heavier loads and then likely for my bicycle. I have friends, younger and older, who ride an e-bike because it allows them to commute by bicycle on a hilly route that would otherwise leave them quite sweaty. E-bikes are indeed very good and useful.

    In your post you reference everything to 20 MPH. That is quite fast for average bicycling. The average speed of about 95% of bicycle riders in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and elsewhere is 10-13 MPH. Yes, there are some going a little faster and some going a little slower but most, almost all, are in that speed range. Much faster than that is difficult for the vast majority of people. This even in The Netherlands where almost everyone bicycles frequently and are in good physical condition (and much better physical condition and health than people in the U.S.).

    A key to the success of bicycling in The Netherlands is what is called Sustainable Safety and a key part of this is homogenization of speed (and mass and direction).

    This is why e-bikes in many areas outside of the U.S. are limited to 15 MPH and no throttle (pedal assist only). You are welcome to go faster but you’re completely on your own power. There are increasing calls for lowering the max powered speed to 12.5 MPH (20 km/h) to bring them more in line with average bicycle riders.

    People have stated that after a lifetime of enjoying riding a bicycle for their daily transportation that they no longer do so because of the ‘menace’ of mopeds and e-bikes. There are research projects being conducted to better quantify both ‘the menace’ and how many people are affected by it.

    Something that is very noticeable across The Netherlands is that people on mopeds and e-bikes are less considerate of others. They will pass faster, closer and act more impatient, etc. One theory that is now being studied is that the more of their own power that someone provides the more understanding and considerate they are of others (who are powering themselves).

    I’ve frequently been passed by people on bicycles going 20-30 MPH including pro tour teams and they almost always do so in a very considerate way. People on mopeds and faster e-bikes are indeed very different and do so with less consideration. It can actually be difficult to tell if someone is riding an e-bike but when someone passes you very closely and cuts in front of you then a bit of study will nearly always show that they are on an e-bike.

    For this reason a lot of consideration is being given to tapering requirements that limit the percent of power that comes from the motor at what speeds and pedal power output and/or limiting the total power of the motor.

    E-bikes are a wonderful tool but as you alluded to above, we can’t very well control who rides them and how. Limiting the maximum powered speed to 12.5 MPH is a good first step to keep e-bikes homogenized with other bicycle riders. Limiting the amount of assist, either flat or tapered, will go further to keep e-bikes more consistently safe (and safe feeling to others) while also providing people with the benefits of a motor.

    We should allow e-bikes with greater power but as elsewhere these should be classified differently and require an ID plate that indicates (typically by color) how heavy & powerful they are and thus what bikeways they can or cannot use.

    • Bill Olbrisch January 2, 2020 at 11:59 am #

      This is an interesting perspective. I think that a much higher percentage of the total bicyclist population here is in the extremely athletic category, not because Americans are so fit, but because they are a large percentage of our much smaller cycling cohort. i can see overall average speed going down as the cycling population rises.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell January 3, 2020 at 10:37 am #

        True. Interestingly I think, per capita (overall population), there are a lot more people in the U.S. riding around in lycra (MAMILs) than in Europe. I’d guess this is because pretty much everyone, like maybe 99.9% of people, always wear normal street clothes for daily transportation, commuting, and recreation.

        They’ll wear riding kit only for training rides or races. One exception to this are people who choose to do longer bicycle commutes of perhaps 20+ miles who will occasionally wear kit.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell January 3, 2020 at 10:40 am #

        There’s a little bit of a what kind of environment do we want to create thing for us to think about. Do we want a 20 MPH lycra and helmet clad bicycle driving environment for 5% of the population or something more like Europe where everyone is comfortable riding?

  4. Monte Castleman December 31, 2019 at 11:06 am #

    As someone that knows nothing about e-bikes but wants one, is it the same scenario as regular bicycles where there’s a lot of cheap junk to avoid? Do you normally pedal or use a throttle? Is there one that has enough range to do the Elroy-Sparta trail and back (32.5 miles, relatively flat).

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell January 2, 2020 at 3:06 am #

      There is a wide variety of quality both in general build quality and in how well the drive system functions. A good pedal-assist system should be smooth and largely unnoticeable. For however many watts of power you produce the drive system smoothly provides additional power. You shouldn’t notice changes to the amount of motor power on the best e-bikes. On lessor e-bikes you will feel the motor power ramp up/down a little and on the worst one’s you’ll feel it a lot.

      Besides a very smooth assist system, a key feature for me is a good iPhone app that lets me program how much assist is provided. If I’m producing a lot of watts pedaling and also going slow then that means I’m either going up a steep hill or carrying a heavy load so I want more assist. If I’m not carrying a lot and and riding on flat then I want minimal or no assist.

      Some people like to have a controller on the handlebar to change the assist level. I’ve not found that useful if it has a good app and I’ve set up the assist levels correctly. An accurate battery status indicator is important.

      Outside of the U.S. an increasing number of bikeways do not allow e-bikes with throttles. If it has a throttle it’s classified as a light moped.

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