Cities Want Ebikes to Stay in Their Lane—but Which One?

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it’s hard to Find anything that unites Nashville, Tennessee; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York City. But all those communities, and many others, are grappling with what to do with electric bicycles.

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No matter where you are in the US, ebikes are there in an instant. Market Research Company NPD They say Sales of ebikes grew by 240 percent in the 12 months ending July 2021, surpassing sales of traditional road bikes. This was the second year in a row that ebike sales had at least doubled.

Experts attribute the rise to the pandemic, which has left locked-down Americans hungry for new and COVID-safe ways to get out and exercise. Ebike models designed for families and new riders have seen significant successHowever, there is also a growing community of e-mountain bikers. The change has excited active transportation advocates, who believe ebikes, even more than electric vehicles, can help reduce emissions from transportation and fight climate change. Meanwhile, bike-share companies Motivate and BC Cycles have added pedal-assist ebikes, which use small motors to propel riders to their systems.


In Nashville, the local BC Cycles bike-share system relaunched as all-electric last summer, sparking debate about what types of vehicles should be able to make the trip. Controversy has focused on the city’s greenways, a system of linear parks and trails that spans nearly 100 miles throughout the city. Tennessee law allows ebikes traveling below 28 mph to be operated in most places, but local jurisdictions can make their own rules. “Motorized vehicles” have long been banned from the greenway – though ebike riders say enforcement has been low. Some Nashvillians are also haunted by memories of scooter-share companies that blanketed roads Without permission for the first time in 2018. For those in the know, ebikes can feel like a more corporate, tech-driven move. “There are as few post-traumatic stress syndromes as the city,” says Metro Council member Bob Mendes.

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Ebike sales have more than doubled in the past two years.

Photo: Irrfan Khan/Getty Images

So last summer, the council passed a resolution directing city agencies to study whether new rules were needed. A report is due in weeks, says Cindy Harrison, director of the city’s Parks Department’s Greenways and Open Spaces division.

Like many other places across the country, the new popularity of ebikes in Nashville pits traditional cyclists against dog walkers as commuters against recreational exercisers seeking space on limited smooth paths where cars are banned. has given. “It’s a car-heavy city that’s been trying to fight back for years,” says Mendes, who has had an ebike since 2018. He says banning ebikes from greenways where riders can travel safely would be prohibited.

But Kathleen Murphy, another council member, says she’s heard from constituents—often walkers—who worry about the speed of the ebike. “With the eBike, you don’t hear it from behind,” she says. “They’re fast and heavy, and that’s what really worried people.”

The debate has divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free places. The non-profit Greenway for Nashville has urged caution, arguing that greenways are not actually meant to be part of the city’s cycling—or transportation—network. “It’s like you’re juggling a sidewalk and a bike lane together,” said group executive director Amy Crownover, of plans to allow ebikes on the greenway. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocacy group with an emphasis on alternative means of transportation, wants to ride ebikes. Its executive director, Lindsey Ganson, urges locals to think of greenways not only for leisure walking or biking, but as green transportation routes.

“The idea that a speeding bike is going to ruin anyone’s experience on the greenway — I understand that,” Ganson says. “But it’s hard for me to reconcile the number of people I’ve talked to who say that riding their bikes on the Greenway has really made their lives so rich and fulfilling.”

A similar debate is underway in New York, which legalized e-bikes in 2020. However, the city’s parks department says it can set its own rules and treat ebikes as “motorized” vehicles, which are not allowed on its popular paths and trails. “These rules on motorized vehicles have been in the books for decades,” department spokeswoman Crystal Howard said in a statement.

Lyft, which owns Motivate and runs New York’s popular Citi Bike bike-share service, has launched electric pedal-assist bikes over the years and wants them to be allowed in parks. So do local advocacy groups Transportation Options. “New York City can’t reach its goals for climate, health, or Vision Zero”—a city-backed initiative to eliminate all road deaths—”without policies that can be safely implemented,” says executive director Danny Harris. to and equally transfer more people to the bike.”

An obstacle for officials in Nashville, New York and elsewhere: a lack of data about ebike-related injuries. Among other things, there is no agreed way of showing such injuries in medical records, which stuns researchers. That’s why some ebike injuries are classified with motorcycle accidents, says Chris Cherry, an engineer and professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. (A new code for ebikes is making its way through the organization that makes them.) a team In Washington, DC sent research assistants to stake emergency rooms and asked people to hurl on ebikes or scooters to outline their routes.

The limited research available leads to conflict: some suggests that introducing ebikes to an area causes more accidents, and some suggests that it does not. Cheri says her research has found that “ebike riders don’t actually ride much faster than other cyclists—it just allows them to maintain speed.”

The ebike question takes on a different flavor in tourist cities. Grand County, Utah, which includes Moab’s hiking-and-biking hub, allowed ebikes that use a motor on a paved biking trail, despite some objections. “Moab is an old bike town,” says Jacques Hadler, a county commissioner who used to be the general manager of the local Moab bike shop. “There are some locals who are absolutely not in favor of ebikes.”

Colorado Springs last summer canceled at the last minute A controversial annual trial that would have allowed e-bikes on city-managed bike lanes amid fears it would have violated state law, officials said. In both places, local debate continues about the effect of ebikes on unpaved mountain biking trails and whether it is safe to operate them around other high-speed bicycles.

What will help is more space – especially if Americans keep snapping up ebikes. “In my opinion, we really need more recreational infrastructure and more commuting infrastructure to keep up with this incredible boom of outdoor activity,” says Ash Lowell, electric bicycle policy and campaign director for PeopleForBike, a nationwide cycling advocacy group. could.” , The bike lobby clearly thinks ebikes are here to stay: The group created Lowell’s job last summer.

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