Earlier this year, Stephen Kung was cycling through Vancouver’s scenic Stanley Park when a rider on an electric bicycle, commonly known as an e-bike, flew past him, hitting him on the shoulder and nearly knocking him off balance. It was a terrible moment; but for Kung, a medical device salesman, disturbingly close conversations with electric bikes and the sight of their riders making dangerous maneuvers have become commonplace. He often sees young electric bikers weaving in and out of traffic, ignoring normal traffic rules.
“If cities don’t address this issue of how to best accommodate electric bikes,” he says, “I think there will be a lot more accidents.”
The boom in e-bikes over the past few years has sparked intense debate about how and where riders use them. Critics want more restrictions because of what they describe as the greater danger the bikes pose to pedestrians and traditional cyclists.
No one specifically tracks the number of electric bike accidents. But in many communities, they are associated with increased conflict. The bikes can reach a top speed of more than 25 miles per hour, which is much faster than street bikes. Add to that reckless driving and inattentive passers-by, and the result is often bloody for all involved.
For example, officials in Carlsbad, California, near San Diego, recently declared a “state of emergency” after accidents involving bicycles of all kinds more than tripled since 2019. Residents blamed e-bikes for this growth.
In Boulder, the city’s proposal to allow electric bikes on outdoor trails has sparked a huge backlash, with some residents saying they worry about accidents and environmental damage.
Many e-bike advocates acknowledge the problems and suggest fixing them, including creating more bike lanes. But they also describe e-bikes as integral to reducing traffic and pollution, while opening up cycling to far more people than pedaling alone would allow.
Bicycles with electric motors debuted in the late 1800s. Originally bulky and underpowered, they only came into use in the last decade as their batteries and motors became more powerful and compact.
Then came the COVID pandemic, which catapulted e-bikes into the mainstream. The fear of infection has led citizens to buy bicycles, including e-bikes, rather than use buses and trains because “nobody can sneeze on you on a bike,” said Duncan Stewart, director of research at Deloitte Canada, which tracks e-bikes. At the same time, cities like Austin, Denver, and Pittsburgh began encouraging cycling by adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes. Many, as it turned out, were happy to give up their cars.
As a result, e-bike sales in the U.S. will nearly double from 290,000 in 2019 to 550,000 in 2021, according to Deloitte. During the same period, e-bike sales more than tripled from $240 million to $778 million, according to research firm NPD Group.
But the e-bike craze has also brought a new level of caution.
There have been 57 collisions involving e-bikes or bicycles in the seaside city of Carlsbad this year, two of which resulted in fatalities. The deaths, both in August, were the final straw. By the end of that month, city officials had ratified a state of emergency and earmarked an additional $2 million for bicycle safety initiatives, including traffic improvements and bicycle enforcement.
During a recent city council meeting, one resident recalled walking along the waterfront when an electric bicycle driver plowed right into him. He questioned the lax enforcement of traffic rules on electric bikes and called for the bikes of recalcitrant e-bikers to be confiscated.
A thousand miles away, the city of Boulder is considering public opinion on whether to open park trails to electric bikes. This sparked a heated debate. Local resident Zach White opposes electric bikes on park trails for safety and environmental reasons. E-bikes are “incredibly easy to modify to exceed their theoretical speed limits,” he wrote on the city’s online forum, adding that the multi-use lanes are more dangerous since electric bikers started using them.
Meanwhile, in the Canadian town of Banff in the Rocky Mountains, the gateway to the popular national park, people filed a flood of complaints after the government approved the use of e-bikes on certain park trails in December. Sara Elmelighi, national parks program coordinator for the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society, a conservation group, says the use of electric bikes should be limited to paved paths in parks. Allowing them on dirt trails means more people in the backcountry and more human-wildlife conflict. “Because e-bikes are so fast and so quiet, they have a higher chance of having a negative encounter with a bear,” Elmelighi notes.
But the demands of city dwellers, the desire of governments to encourage greener transportation and the incentives of e-bike manufacturers to make money point to even more e-bike use, experts say.
According to Edward Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, an industry trade group, e-bikes already account for nearly half of all new bikes sold in China and Germany. He expects U.S. sales to reach a similar milestone by the end of the decade.
These big sales of e-bikes in Germany and China are happening despite stricter regulations than in the US. In Germany, electric bikers must buy insurance and, in many states, be at least 16 years old, while riders in China must register their e-bikes with local authorities and limit their speed to 15.5 mph.
Currently, e-bike manufacturers are innovating faster than US officials can adapt. Austin Darling, a spokesman for Amsterdam-based VanMoof, whose most popular model costs $2,400, says Americans want faster, more powerful e-bikes because they tend to live in larger, more sprawling cities than Europeans. This year, the company plans to introduce a “hyperbike” with a top speed of 31 mph — faster than the 28 mph limit in many US states. Meanwhile, Phoenix-based Lectric eBikes is developing e-bikes with longer battery life that push the boundaries of what e-bikes can be used for. Currently, 60% of e-bike trips in the US are five miles or less, but more advanced batteries will allow riders to go further. “We want to turn our riders’ daily commutes into micro-adventures that wouldn’t be possible in a car,” says Lectric eBikes CEO Levi Conlove.
Courtesy of Vanmoof
One compelling use case for longer-range electric bikes is their adoption by delivery drivers. The city of San Francisco is planning a pilot program to give 35 employees of an app-based food delivery service free e-bikes to save couriers money and help them work more efficiently. The city, in turn, would benefit from reduced traffic and pollution, says Lowell Chu, program manager for the San Francisco Department of Environmental Protection.
Researchers at Portland State University and the University of Tennessee found that the average North American would only need to shift 15% of their personal car miles to an e-bike to reduce their carbon footprint by 500 pounds annually.
Despite the benefits of e-bikes, American cities are “completely unprepared” for continued ridership growth, says William Rattigan, director of advocacy for the San Diego County Coalition. Governments have some good options for dealing with them, he says. Forcing electric bike riders to ride on the roads is currently dangerous because the bikes are too slow to keep up with cars. At the same time, they are too fast to work on bike lanes next to cyclists and pedestrians, he says.
Rattigan argues that one solution is to lower car speed limits in urban areas to 30mph so that faster e-bikes can also travel safely on the roads.
A key question, Rattigan adds, is whether cities will build what’s needed to protect all e-bike riders, such as bike lanes separated from roads and police officers to slow down traffic. Otherwise, the rise in injuries and deaths will reach “crisis levels,” he says, and eventually force officials to act.
This article appears in the October/November 2022 issue Fortune with the title E-Bike Clearance.