Assisted living: What does the rise of e-bikes mean for cycling?

Assisted living

What does the rise of e-bikes mean for cycling?

By: Caley Fretz

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It’s easy to draw a line in the sand, to see the e-bike issue in black and white. Too easy, really, to put the e-bike, which has a small electric motor, in the ‘motorized’ category, ban it from trails and bike lanes and paved paths, and call it a day.

But the issue is not black and white.

The debate over the e-bike’s place in the clan of cycling comes down to definitions. Define trail. Define equality. Define assist. Define safety. Define bicycle. Define cyclist.

Does the bike embody minimalism, or technology? Is complete reliance on human power irrefutably essential to the experience, or are two wheels and a set of pedals enough? Do electric-assist bikes belong on singletrack? What about bike paths? Rails-to-trails? Bike lanes?

Define the definitions until you have something definitive. Define them until you can answer one very simple question: Do e-bikes belong?

Define: E-bike

The definition of an e-bike is somewhat fluid, but for the purposes of this discussion it can be outlined as an electric motor-assisted bicycle with no throttle. The motor assists pedaling, rather than replacing it.

Federal guidelines are overly broad, and require only that power output be limited to 750 watts (1 horsepower) with a maximum speed of 20mph when powered solely with the electric motor; any more than that, and the e-bike loses its “low-speed electric bicycle” label, and must comply with a completely different set of laws.

The e-bike industry knows it has a problem with this regulatory definition of e-bike, which is set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC); 750 watts is far too powerful. The Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) wants to split e-bikes into three categories within the sub-750 watt genre, the least powerful of which would abide by exactly the same rules as a purely pedal-powered bike.

Laws governing e-bikes on roads, sidewalks, paths, and trails fall under state jurisdiction, and vary wildly. Some states, like Alabama and Nebraska, classify e-bikes as motorcycles, requiring helmets and licenses.

The effort to reclassify e-bikes into three categories is occurring at the state level; the BPSA is aiming at California and New York first. It will be a long, difficult process to bring regulations in line across the entire country.

Define: Cyclist

In a sport that glorifies suffering, solitude, and pure hardheadedness, the concept of a motor pushing one forward is an existential attack on deeply held values.

It is the natural reaction of most cyclists to scoff at e-assisted bicycles. We ride because it is a purely physical endeavor — a way to go fast, and far, all under our own power. Cycling is a way to lose weight, gain fitness, and test ourselves. Adding a motor spits in the face of all of those goals.

We think of motorized bikes and imagine the Sunday road ride being pulled around by some joker on a mountain bike, pushed along by a tiny motor with the power of Tom Boonen.

But the reality is far from that — the reality is that e-bikes are not aimed at the Sunday group-ride crowd, at least not yet. They’re aimed at people who, until now, have avoided the bike completely.

E-bikes are a way to bring the non-athlete, or the former athlete, or the aging athlete, or the disabled athlete, onto two wheels. The technology’s foundations lie in a desire to ease the daily commute, not take Strava KOMs or blast singletrack.

“The reality is that most of the people who are interested in this category are just interested in having a nice leisurely ride in a natural setting,” said Larry Pizzi, president of Currie Technologies, a leading e-bike brand. Pizzi has founded the e-bike group within the BPSA that is behind the legislative lobbying in New York and California. His group represents 99 percent of the cycling industry, he claims. The industry sees the potential to bring new customers to cycling.

This is an important distinction: E-bikes aren’t for the avid cyclist; they’re for the casual one, or the potential cyclist that currently doesn’t ride at all. Perhaps e-bikes can begin to turn those non-riders into us. At the very least, Pizzi said, “more folks on e-bikes means more drivers with a bit of empathy for those on two wheels.”

The e-bike is, potentially, a powerful source of equalization. But the question remains: if you’re on an e-bike, and the battery is aiding in a good portion of your forward movement, are you actually riding? Are you a cyclist? Should you be allowed the rights of a cyclist, on roads and paths and trails?

That e-bikes have the potential to put more people on two wheels is unquestionable. That these riders should be classified identically to those who move under their own power is not.

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Define: Trail access

In November, the Moab field office of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency which administers more than 247.3 million acres of public lands across the United States, made a landmark and potentiality precedent-setting decision for the mountain biking Mecca in Utah: E-bikes would be classified as motorized vehicles and, thus, restricted to motorized trails. That means no e-bikes on key sections of Kokopelli, Pipe Dream, or the last few miles of Porcupine Rim, among others.

This falls in line with the verdict of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), the world’s foremost trail advocacy group. IMBA has drawn a bold, black line between motorized and non-motorized transport. It has called for a ban on e-assist motors on trails designated for non-motorized access.

“Riding e-bikes on a natural surface is not mountain biking,” said Mike Van Abel, IMBA’s director, in 2011.

IMBA and other mountain-bike groups have for decades fought for access to trail systems, struggling against hikers and equestrians and land managers who see mountain bikes as fast, rude, destructive trail users. There have been great victories as well as sad losses. Through it all, the bicycle has been defined as a human-powered technology. That definition has proven invaluable in the fight for increased access.

The concern is that adding motor-assisted riding will upset the tenuous balance between cyclists and other trail users. It will put more riders, many of whom will be new to the sport and unlikely to be well-versed in trail etiquette, on trail systems that already see conflict. They will be riding faster than their skills would otherwise allow. They may injure themselves, or someone else. If complaints rise, land managers could shut out not just e-bikes, but all bikes.

The e-bike, in short, could undo everything that mountain bikers have worked so hard for. This is why organizations like IMBA have a sharp delineation between human-powered and motor-assisted bikes, for now.

It is also why e-bike advocates aren’t trying to open up Kokopelli and Porcupine Rim to e-assisted riders. Their sights are set quite a bit lower, at the realm of double track and semi-paved trails that already exists, but is largely under-utilized by today’s mountain bikers. These sorts of trails, rather than gnarly singletrack, are what most e-bike users will be attracted to, said Pizzi.

“Core enthusiasts only seem concerned about singletrack. Rightfully so — they’ve been fighting for access, they don’t want to upset the apple cart. But we have all these hundreds of thousands of miles of multi-track, and they are the perfect place to get more people riding bicycles,” Pizzi said. “The average American, the first thing they throw up as the reason they don’t ride more is they don’t feel safe mixing it up with cars. So this particular type of bicycle is the perfect device to get more people out there.”

IMBA has, in recent months, hinted that its strict definition of motorized use may be adjusted in the future. “We drew a real bright line, but I think we’re going to have to draw another line,” said Van Abel at last year’s IMBA summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

IMBA has a representative on the BPSA committee, and is looking at e-bikes as an education and culture issue. It has laid out a number of demands, from a strict ban on throttles to requests that the industry actively educate dealers and customers on access rules and etiquette.

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Define: Paved access

Despite concerns over trail access issues, it is use on roads, bike lanes, bike paths, and paved trails that is the primary focus of e-bikes today. Most e-bikes sold in the U.S. last year were utilitarian, cargo bikes or commuters. Though major brands like Trek have e-assist versions of some of their mountain bikes available in Europe, they have not yet been offered in the States. It is on pavement that the e-bike will first take hold here.

E-bikes are a potential safety issue in these areas. In China, where e-bikes have taken off in the last decade — and where regulations remain weak and full of loopholes — e-bike related fatalities increased from 34 in 2001 to 2,469 in 2007.

Many of China’s e-bikes are throttle-actuated, defined as bikes thanks only to a pair of pedals that are rarely used. But even assist models, like those that are gaining traction in the U.S., can send a rider up the road at speeds that far exceed all but the fittest road cyclist — speeds that drivers of cars aren’t expecting, and speeds that other riders in the bike lane certainly aren’t ready for.

Road cyclists know how dangerous cars can be. We live it, every minute of every ride, our survival skills carefully honed over years. We know how our own speed adds danger to the equation, how the driver making a left turn across our lane doesn’t expect a cyclist to be cruising at 20 miles per hour. We’re careful, and we still get hit.

Will the new e-bike rider, who is arguably less experienced at navigating the perils of the road, be as careful? Will cars become used to idly spinning cyclists rocketing down bike lanes?

Accidents will happen. They already do, without electronic assistance. But an increase in accidents has the potential to turn cities and states off of the concept entirely; poorly behaved cyclists have the potential to fuel the anger many drivers already feel towards those on two wheels.

Cities like Boulder, Colorado, are currently running test programs. Boulder is allowing e-bikes on its vast network of paved bike paths throughout the city, but could prohibit their use at any time. The results of such studies will determine whether city governments open the doors to e-bikes or shut them out of the one place where they seem most useful.

Define: Progress

The arguments against the e-bike’s inclusion in the cycling community are the same arguments that have been used for years against the pedal-powered cycling clique. We’re too fast, too dangerous, too reckless; we get in the way of cars, we buzz joggers on the bike path, we scare hikers and horses on singletrack. These characterizations are unfair, blossoming out of anecdotes and a handful of bad apples, yet we level the same at e-bikes without shame: They’ll be too fast, they’ll buzz us on the bike path, they’ll scare us on the singletrack, they’re not safe in traffic.

These concerns are, frankly, nonsense. Just as most mountain bikers are courteous trail users, most e-bike users will likely be courteous bike path riders. But that doesn’t mean e-bikes get a free pass.

The word of the moment, then, is patience. The e-bike is not evil, nor is it a savior for cycling and the cycling industry. As the movement progresses, our niche community must balance the desire to increase our ranks, and to support the industry, with responsible growth and an understanding that e-assisted riding and pedal-powered riding are, fundamentally, not the same activity. They may look similar, and take place in the same areas, but regulations and rules will need to be updated and adapted to cycling’s new look, and newfound speed.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we simply don’t like the idea of someone taking the easy way to the top. It doesn’t feel like cycling. But it doesn’t have to, and it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement, or a threat, to the sport we love. As the stewards of two wheels, cyclists are the only group that can make sure e-bikes arrive on their terms.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the April issue of Velo magazine.

Photos courtesy of Currie Technologies, Zach Dischner, and Bosch.