Bike riders have plenty of ideas on how to make cycling in cities more popular (trust me, just ask). But according to some planners, the most consequential shift in American cycling habits could come not from standard requests such as more safety features or expanded bike lanes, but from electrification.
“You can’t underestimate the joy factor of being able to push a button and zip down the street on a bicycle,” says Derek Chisholm, an urban planner in the New Orleans office of AECOM. “A lot of people don’t know how much they’d enjoy it.”
Chisholm is part of a small but growing number of planners and biking advocates who believes that opening up our bike lanes and roadways to electric bikes, or e-bikes, would be a boon for American cycling. Rules and enforcement around the motorized vehicles vary greatly from city to city and state to state based on helmet requirements, top speeds, and minimum age to ride. Some enforce outright bans on electric bikes, which is the main reason the market in the U.S is still small—fewer than 100,000 e-bikes were sold in 2014, according to Bike Retailer and Industry News.
But when you consider the wide variety of bikes available, from fully automated rides to pedal-assist systems that give a boost, and the growing international market—global sales should hit $24.4 billion by 2025, according to a Navigant Research study—Chisholm sees plenty of possibilities.
The introduction of e-bikes creates the challenge of “middle-modalism,” says Chisholm, a new space between standard cyclists and drivers. Despite the slow but steady growth of biking infrastructure and bike share systems in the United States, the percentage of commuters using cycling as the main means of getting to work still struggles to make a massive dent (while the number of Americans biking to work jumped 62 percent from 2000 to 2013, it’s still only used by 0.6 percent of daily commuters).
While Chisholm agrees that cities need to make a lot more investment in biking infrastructure, he believes that allowing e-bikes to share the road would change urban transit.
It’s all about reducing barriers. There will always be bikers who will ride no matter the weather, as well as a sizable part of the population wouldn’t dare use a bike for personal transportation. E-bikes target the wide crowd of commuters in-between, who perhaps ride occasionally, or would like to, but face physical limitations.
E-bikes, Chisholm believes, can help overcome many issues; they’re faster, able help those with disabilities or physical limitations ride longer and get up hills, and require less exertion, meaning everyday riders don’t get their business attire all sweaty and crumpled on their way to the office. And, despite the perceived hassle, cost, and environmental cost of charging, e-bikes are extremely efficient.
According to Christopher Cherry, a transportation researcher at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, e-bikes are 10 to 20 times more energy-efficient than a car. These vehicles can fill in a particular transit niche in denser areas—trips up to 3 to 4 miles—and can help replace journeys spent behind the wheel of a vehicle.
That feeling of increased freedom on an e-bike can be palpable. When I rode a Jetson Adventure E-Bike, a pedal-assist system that goes up to 18 miles per hour, the electric boost was a godsend. Speeding down Manhattan streets, and most noticeably, over the bridges spanning the East River, the bike provided a noticeable boost and resulted in a mostly sweat-free ride home from work. I wasn’t going much faster than a conventional bike, and since it only gave me an electric boost when I pedaled, it wasn’t immediately obvious to those around me that I was riding an electric bike (minus the very faint hum). But in comparison to my road bike, the trip felt effortless, like I was a video game character propelled by a permanent power-up.
If e-bikes were deemed acceptable modes of transport and more widely available, hundreds of thousands would become more regular bike riders, Chisholm predicts. The challenge will be fitting faster e-bikes, those that are faster than regular cyclists, yet still slower than cars, into the current transportation system in a way that keeps bikers safe. Although e-bikes are potentially disruptive to normal traffic patterns, if properly incorporated, their presence can multiply their impact.
Unlike other big cities, especially in Asia, municipalities in the U.S. tend to restrict e-bikes. Only a handful of states—North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, California, and Vermont—have reasonable ratings and rules, and some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, have done a good job of figuring out how to incorporate these vehicles into traditional traffic flows. Other cities, including Baltimore and Birmingham, Alabama, have incorporated e-bikes into their bikeshare programs. But without widespread adoption and flexible rules, a market won’t develop to sell and repair e-bikes.
Chisholm says the big issues in the U.S. today is regulation which is why he recommends cities set some standardized rules for the road. E-bikes that stay at 20 miles per hours or lower, roughly the speed at which an unassisted cyclists can attain, should be allowed to go wherever regular bikes can travel. Additional infrastructure and traffic rules could help faster bikes to travel safely alongside cars, more like scooters or mopeds.
“Most cities are having a hard time getting higher bike share numbers, and getting more people to commit to being bike commuters,” Chisholm says. “We need some big, needle-moving effort.”