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E for Effort

January 13, 2011

I’ve followed the growing debate over electric bikes with great interest.  It doesn’t take a scientific survey to see that many of the people who operate them often do so in an illegal fashion, riding against traffic or the wrong way in bike lanes and cruising onto sidewalks.  I don’t think this happens at a higher rate than with other vehicles, such as cars and foot-powered bikes, but as with anything new it’s sometimes more noticeable.

My take on e-bikes is that they are not bikes.  They’re not exactly motorcycles or mopeds either, but on a spectrum that runs from a Hummer on one end to a tricycle on the other, they’re closer to the Hummer.

For starters, e-bikes have top speeds of around 20 miles per hour.  Sure, there are plenty of bike messengers and racers who travel faster than that, but it’s unlikely that the average bike commuter could sustain that pace for very long or that a delivery person would have much left in him after an hour or two of biking around the city at that speed.  There’s also the issue of acceleration; even Lance probably can’t speed up to 20 mph as fast as a delivery guy on an e-bike.

Additionally, e-bikes allow riders to be less connected to riding, since all they have to do, even after a quick pedal-assist, is steer.  That gives them more in common with cars than with bicycles, since one of the biggest problems with cars is that they make it too easy for drivers to not think about and work on the task of driving — it’s as easy to tap the accelerator to go fifteen mph as it is to go sixty.  If you are pedaling, you are working, and if you are working, you are thinking.  So if an e-bike rider doesn’t have to think about the energy he’s expending or how he, on his own, will stop or turn, it’s all too easy for him to stop thinking about other people on the road.  That’s how accidents happen.

I think of it another way.  Is our problem with cars merely that they are powered by gas or do other factors come into play, such as their size and weight and their ability to accelerate quickly?  Or still another: would you rather be hit by a small gas-powered car going 20 mph or a small electric-powered car going 20 mph?  Which is heavier, a pound of gold or a pound of feathers?

I’m certainly for a New York City in which more e-bikes replace cars and gas-powered scooters and motorcycles.  The city would be quieter and cleaner and you can park at least five of them in the space it takes to store one car.  Just keep them out of the bike lanes.

  1. January 13, 2011 10:25 am

    Great post! Personally, I’m pretty much where you are when it comes to ebikes. But attacks on ebikes can be the leading edge of a general attack on all cyclists, as demonstrated at a recent Community Board 8 meeting on the Upper East Side. So we’ve got to be careful about the distinctions we draw and the bedfellows we make.

  2. January 13, 2011 10:32 am

    Agreed. There’s certainly a Trojan Horse element to some of the calls to license or crack down on e-bikes and delivery people, especially on the UES, it seems.

  3. January 13, 2011 10:35 am

    I don’t know what to think about this whole e-bike issue. In general, I haven’t really seen them traveling much faster than most people on pedal-powered bikes, so I haven’t run into any problems with them in bike lanes or paths. (That’s not to say others haven’t…)

    My feeling right now is that they should be considered bikes, same as others. If a car hits an e-biker, they’re just as likely to be hurt or killed. They take up about the same amount of space as a regular bike, and as long as they’re not traveling at speeds that far exceed those of regular bikes (and are respectful of the rules that regular bikers adhere to as well), I don’t really think it’s fair to banish them to the wilds of regular traffic lanes. (Like I said, I haven’t really noticed them going much faster than normal bikes. Maybe I need to look harder…)

    One thing’s for sure though: the number of e-bikes out there is exploding. When I commute, I ride over the Manhattan Bridge and through Chinatown and SoHo and those bikes are EVERYWHERE.

  4. Chris permalink
    January 13, 2011 12:37 pm

    Part of the problem delivery e-bike deliverymen flaunt the rules is because of free delivery:
    a) often deliverymen are often not paid and must collect tips
    b) deliverymen are paid by X deliveries/hour
    in either case this means making these deliveries as quickly as possible (via wrong-way riding or sidewalk riding)

    To reduce these illegal behaviors:
    a) get rid of free delivery / quotas so that deliverymen aren’t encouraged to cut corners to make a living
    b) educate drivers and business owners
    c) issue citations to business owners for deliverymen misconduct

  5. Jonathan permalink
    January 13, 2011 5:45 pm

    Great post, Doug. There are many people who are ardent e-biking fans, and I’m surprised they haven’t started leaving comments here. They usually state that e-biking gets them outside and more active, and that it’s better than automobiling. Then there’s the issue of cargo bikes with electric-assist systems; the shop owner I bought my cycle-truck from said some nice things about riding with heavy loads and the electric-assist system.

    Think of it this way: the cable guy, when he comes to visit your apartment, brings a new cable box, a reel of wire, a knife, and a big drill. All that could be packed in a cargo bike, and with electric assist, it wouldn’t be a chore to pedal around. If he needed the ladder, he could call the one guy in the truck with the ladder. The cargo bike could be parked on the sidewalk outside your apartment, not double-parked on the street.

    Thinking further, package delivery companies could switch to bigger trucks parked in one spot in the neighborhood. The big truck could hold many cargo-bike sized bins and a fleet of cargo bike delivery riders could distribute the bins, one route at a time.

    The fleet operators save on human resources, because they don’t have to hire people with driver’s licenses, and to keep verifying that their workers have clean licenses; they save on insurance, because e-bikes don’t need insurance; and they save on maintenance, because it’s a bike, not a car.

    The electric-assist cargo bike could be really useful for service delivery in New York, and if those larger companies with fleets follow the lead of the takeaway restaurants, we might see them soon. Reason enough not to ban the e-bike outright.

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