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On Wednesday, The Atlantic published an article by Ian Bogost (a writer, game designer, and Director of Film and Media Studies at Washington University of St. Louis) about e-bikes. The gist of Bogost’s take is that he bought an e-bike, which is a bigger, heavier bicycle with a motor and battery, and feels weird about it. He says e-bikes have an “identity crisis” because they do not fit within any neatly defined buckets in American transportation and therefore don’t pass on any identity to their users.
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The article was widely panned on Twitter, mostly by the usual pro-bike, pro-active streets, anti-car constituency. To be clear, I am a member of that constituency; I bike and walk and take public transportation everywhere (I do not tweet, though). However, I broadly agree with Bogost’s general point about e-bikes, but for entirely different reasons.E-bikes do have a big problem in the U.S., one that I have been increasingly concerned about as someone who very much advocates for e-bikes and wants to see them take off in this country. It is related to Bogost’s point that e-bikes don’t quite fit with any American identity, but in a much more—literally—concrete way. E-bikes don’t belong anywhere in particular on American infrastructure, which makes them both more frustrating, more dangerous, and more annoying than they otherwise could be. And it’s unnecessarily generating friction between traditional cyclists and e-bikers despite their obvious shared interests in repurposing street space from automobiles.
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Before I go any further, I want to be abundantly clear that the problem is not the electric devices themselves or the riders who use them. Electric bikes are good and e-riders are no better or worse than anyone else. But, to Bogost’s point, e-bikes are new and different and (mostly) cannot be shoehorned into our existing and already inadequate infrastructure. The problem is complex and multifaceted, just like electric mobility devices themselves. There are many different types of e-things, from the cheap shared scooters that travel at a maximum of 12 miles per hour to more souped up e-scooters that allow you to either stand or sit and can go around 20 mph to e-bikes that look like bikes but have motors to big, honking cargo e-bikes that cost several thousands of dollars to e-mopeds that look a lot like Vespas or other motorized scooters but have batteries and motors instead. We have all of these things and more in New York City. And you will find all of them riding in the bike lanes. The problem is especially pronounced in New York City for various complex socioeconomic reasons. But suffice it to say, we have the most e-bikes and widest variety of them, and I am not the only cyclist getting increasingly frustrated with electric-things in NYC. There has been a noted uptick in the number of posts on the NYCbike subreddit on the issue over the last year or so. I have personally come within inches of being cleaned out by a rider on electric-conveyance of nearly all varieties within the last six months, in varying situations and circumstances. In fact, on my particular routes, electric devices have become a greater safety hazard than cars; I am still more likely to die from being hit by a car, but I have more regular close calls and potential injuries from conflicts with electric devices. To this end, I agree with the “middle aged biking lady” with 15 years of riding experience in NYC who said “it’s never been this bad.”
Perhaps “never” is a bit strong, but I’ve been riding a bike as my main source of transportation for the last decade. In years past, there were fewer protected bike lanes, but those lanes felt safer before electric-things zoomed everywhere. Now, there is no respite from the chaos. I still ride, but I am sympathetic to the people who no longer do.There are several elements to the problem here that combine to make it one big problem. First is the speed difference. Most urban cyclists ride somewhere between eight and 12 mph; 15 mph is a pretty good clip if you’re riding for exercise, 18 mph is a fast Spandex person road bike pace on flat ground. E-bikes can, as a matter of course, do 18 mph with almost no effort on the part of the rider. Most can go even faster. That may not sound like a big difference, but it means in practice e-bikes are going twice as fast as bicycles. The whole point of e-bikes is the effortless speed, so it is natural to get impatient when temporarily relegated to the speed of a regular bike. In effect, there are two different traffic flows occurring within the same lane, an obvious recipe for conflict. People who design roads for cars figured this out a long time ago and put in passing lanes and multi-lane highways to eliminate that conflict.But bike infrastructure typically has nothing like this. It is designed for a mode of transportation where everyone is going the same speed. In NYC, bike lanes are generally not wide enough for passing, especially the protected bike lanes that form the core of our bike network, unless the passer veers into the oncoming lane or into traffic or rides so their handlebars extend over the sidewalk. Visibility is often poor on these bike paths, especially the parking-protected ones where large SUVs are parked at the edge of intersections blocking the view of any obstructions beyond. But, if you can ride at twice the speed of the person in front of you, passing is going to seem like the thing to do. Traveling at 20 mph or faster, riders can think the coast is clear when it is very much not.
On top of that, despite being too fast for bike lanes as currently constructed, e-bikes and their ilk are obviously not fit for riding on the road with cars in the city. The city’s speed limit is, officially, 25 mph, but practically cars go 30 or faster with regularity, a speed e-bikers cannot keep up with. It is obvious why e-bikers would rather take their chances on biking infrastructure than mixing with multi-ton vehicles.All of this leaves electric riders with nowhere to go that actually fits their capabilities; the roads are literally not designed for vehicles of this size traveling at these speeds. It is, in fact, a similar problem to the one cars had in the early 20th century when roads were designed for horses, streetcars, walking, and commerce. As historian Peter Norton documented in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, it took a concerted lobby effort from the auto industry and its advocates to turn motorists from villains of rampant traffic violence to the dominant users of city streets.The answer, of course, is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, anoint a dominant transportation mode, and design everything from our legal system to our roads around that mode. It is to maintain an open mind about what the future could be and design a flexible infrastructure to accommodate options. he prevalence of exciting, fun, convenient, and environmentally friendly electric mobility devices demands a re-think of what a bike lane should be. At the very least, the standard width bike lanes are no longer adequate when a sizable minority of people riding in them are going at speeds previously attainable only by extremely fit riders. More ambitiously, perhaps we need e-lanes separate from traditional bike infrastructure. This is a big ask. Cycling advocates have spent decades fighting for the meager infrastructure we have now. To demand a whole new dimension to the street space battle just as cycling is becoming somewhat mainstream may feel counterintuitive. The temptation is to position this conflict as a zero-sum game using clumsy enforcement mechanisms like bans or speed limits that are doomed to fail. The better path is to recognize that on every road with a bike lane there are still many car lanes and expand the possibilities of what that car lane could be aside from green paint and bollards. Until then, the lack of adequate infrastructure to accommodate what ought to be a game-changing mobility device will not only make it harder to adopt it, but may discourage people from enjoying the humble bicycle, too, despite all the progress we have made. Sign up for Motherboard’s daily newsletter for a regular dose of our original reporting, plus behind-the-scenes content about our biggest stories.