Are E-Bikes Bicycles?

This summer, the region’s first Electric-Bike-Sharing program will be launched by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.  Starting with 500 pedal-assist e-bikes and 50 stations (plus some “pop-up” sites for events) in Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley – with Chicopee, West Springfield, and Easthampton eager to join –the system will be operated under a five-year contract by Bewegan, a Canadian vendor formerly known as Bixi, which is also responsible for negotiating the needed business sponsorships.  Recharging of the 70-pound e-bikes will occur at the stations and during redistribution, a task to be subcontracted out to Corps Logistics which hires veterans.  The stations will require direct grid connections; the original plan was developed before solar-powered station recharging seemed feasible – and would still cost $7,000 to $10,000 more per station.

Nationwide, e-bikes – both individually owned and as part of bike-share programs – are a growing component of the bicycle world.  And bicycle advocacy continues to be a key component of current transportation reform efforts, including demands for improvements to pedestrian facilities, bus and transit systems, and road safety.  There is little doubt that the spread of e-bikes will significantly expand the range of people to get out of their cars, and allows them (and all cyclists) to go longer distances in less time – strengthening the “safety in numbers” dynamic and the advocates’ potential constituency.  But the emergence of e-bikes also requires a re-examination of the four value-based rationales that underlie bicycle advocacy: improved public transportation and personal mobility, personal and public health, climate-environmental protection, and changing urban lifestyles.


Long-term studies show that regularly riding a bike, even at slow speeds for short distances, is one of the healthiest things a person can do to prevent illness and prolong life – even healthier than regular high-intensity exercise or regular walking.  It’s not merely the physical exercise, it’s also the social connections and the mental health – not to mention the stress-reducing pleasure of it all.

But even though pedal-assist bikes require some leg motion, neither they nor fully-motorized e-bikes provide the same degree of “active transportation” as manualbicycles and walking. Still, recently, 20 sedentary adults in Boulder, Colorado were allowed to use pedal-assist bikes for a month. At the end, as reported in the New York Times, they had “significantly greater aerobic fitness, better blood sugar control, and, as a group, a trend towards less body fat.”

However, at 50 to 90 pounds moving at 20mph, e-bikes can be more dangerous to ride, to fall off, and to be hit by than ordinary bicycles. If pedestrians are upset about having to look both ways twice – once for the cars and again for the bike lane – and nervous about the number of cyclists who speed by too close to them, they’re going to get really freaked out by e-bikes.

Still, health researchers are clear that the more time people spend sitting in a car the worse their physical and mental health. Overall, if for no other reason than their potential to reduce car use, e-bikes are probably a positive net addition to the transportation mix.



Like manual bicycles, e-bikes do not pollute, although they can drip grease and do leave metal and rubber particulates even if at lower levels than fossil-fueled vehicles.  If the source of their power is a renewal resource, they avoid the enormous waste and despoliation of oil production and transmission – as well as the huge amount of emissions and fuel-inefficiency of the two-stroke engines often used on mini-vehicles.  As an alternative to cars, they prevent the tail-pipe poisoning of those machines – especially to the extent that they make it possible for older, less fit, and more timid people to ride.  Usually, they are much quieter than gasoline-powered machines.  E-bikes are just as helpful to the environment as their manual cousins.



Although it’s damagingly entwined with the displacement of current working class and non-white city dwellers, the creation of walkable, bikeable, culturally and recreational rich neighborhoods has become competitive requirements for continued urban economic growth.  This is partly because it is exactly these kinds of resources that attract both returning empty-nest baby boomers and the young professionals that new businesses want to hire.

Revitalizing downtowns, fixing parks, making streets more “complete” and bike friendly, improving sidewalks and off-road paths – all these also make cities more livable, healthier, more attractive, and prosperous.  While equity remains a major issue, the addition of e-bikes, especially as part of the enormously popular bike-share systems, are an important addition to the mix.



Traffic congestion is terrible and getting worse, spreading from downtowns and obvious commuter-route pinch-points (on both limited-access and arterial roads) to mid-size streets and intersections even in suburban towns.  As urban employment and populations grow, as non-urban commuters are forced to move further out to find affordable housing, and the number of cars per household increases, congestion will get worse.  It may be spatially, financially, and politically possible to increase road capacity by building more highways in some parts of this country, but not in cities and not in most of Massachusetts.  Smaller cars and retimed intersections can help – although the much-discussed impact of driverless cars is likely to be minimal if not negative. 

It’s no secret that the only solution is a combination of the expansion of regional rail (including small-van point-to-point modes) and mass transit, smart growth land use zoning reform and transportation-oriented development, and the greater attractiveness of non-motorized travel – particularly bikes, and even more particularly bike-share programs which can be seen as an extension of a region’s public transit system.

E-bikes are obviously part of the solution.  In addition to giving a lot of people another choice of mode they will help keep some of the growing number of local travelers out of cars, helping slow the increase of congestion.  But e-bikes, even the pedal assist variety whose motor only runs in response to pedaling (some dial-up the engine based on the speed of pedaling, some simply have one electric speed), are not the same as standard bicycles. Should they be allowed to use bike lanes and park in bike racks?  As motorized vehicles, should their riders be required to wear helmets?  Should the machines or their riders be required to be registered or get licenses?  Or insurance?  Should there be different rules for fully motorized models whose engines drive the vehicle without any leg motion?  Does it matter if the engine is electric or gas/diesel fueled?  Is this a slippery slope where rules created for e-bikes end up being imposed on every bicyclist?



Current state law is a hodge-podge of inadequate, contradictory, and probably dangerous rules.  A growing consensus is that e-bikes, both pedal-assisted and fully motorized, should be treated like ordinary bicycles so long as they are inherently not able to go faster than 15-to-20mph (a maximum locked in because of the power or size of their motors), do not weigh over a certain limit or exceed a certain size.  Any e-bike that is capable of going over 20mph, and any small vehicle whose motor emits fumes, should be treated like a motor scooter, requiring registration and inspection, driver testing and licensure, brakes able to stop a fully-loaded full-speed vehicle in a certain distance, insurance and user helmets, night lights and brake lights, etc. – and should not be allowed in bike lanes or on off-road paths.  But all this needs to be written into state regulation and law, something the RMV, Legislature, and Governor have not yet begun.



A final reason that we have to clarify our thinking and laws about eBikes is that they seem to be the wave of the future.  Friends in the bike business tell me that sales of “road bikes” – the dropped handlebar kind used for racing and multi-mile recreational rides – has drastically declined in recent years.  Mountain bike sales are on the rebound after a long hiatus. Beach cruisers and city-oriented hybrids continue moving at a steady pace.  And the new e-bikes are both evolving and selling quickly.  Why not road bikes? 

Two theories.  One: the disgracing of Lance Armstrong and the entire drug-infused endurance-racing world has decimated public interest in professional bike racing. Two: an ironic byproduct of the push for improved bicycling facilities is increasing sensitivity to the dangerousness of cycling on the road.  

Professional racing, for all the good people involved, now struggles with a public image of being corrupt without much compensating entertainment value.  A big hope among people in the business is that the expansion of protected bike facilities will bring additional people into the fold who will eventual desire the joy of open-road riding.

I love the light, fast feel of my road bike.  I use it for long rides and supported week-long cycle camping trips.  (Self-supported trips require a heavier bike with panniers -- as you read this I’m on a two-week, 600-or-so mile ride across the southern mid-west.)  But, to be honest, except for the bike touring companies whose audience is primarily on-road recreational riders on multi-day trips, who cares if dropped-handlebar bikes decline?  Bicycling, and mass transit, are the key to the future vitality of our congested cities.  But that doesn’t require racing bikes.  Still, it’s a shame to see them go.



Related previous posts:

> Better Bike Lanes: Improving on What Got Us Here (10/7/16)

> E-Bikes Are Coming: Improving Our Dangerously Incoherent Policies (1/23/17)

> A Good Walk Unspoiled: A Few Ways To Improve Foot Traffic (12/5/16)

> Non-Motorized Highways: A Regional Green Routes System to Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks (1/22/13)

> Why Bicycling is the Healthiest Move (5/5/10)

> Stabilizing Equitable Communities: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets (8/13/14)



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