America's E-Bike Revolution Is in Trouble

Some are freaks. Some are e-things. Most aren't e-bikes.

Riding Gazelle C380 Bikes
Dutch e-bikes look like ... bikes.


Two disturbing articles were published recently by authors I respect. Both pieces complained about e-bikes. The first—Ian Bogost's article in The Atlantic titled "The E-Bike Is a Monstrosity"—received criticism from the bike crowd on Twitter. But Bogost made some very good points. He has an e-bike and had valid complaints.

"But I’ve been trying to live with one, and brother, I’ve got some bad news. These things are freaks," wrote Bogost. "Portraying e-bikes as a simple, obvious, and inevitable evolution of transportation (or even of bicycling) doesn’t fully explain these strange contraptions.... Strapping a motor to a bike turns out to alter more than just speed and exertion. It produces a chameleon that takes on, under various conditions, both the best and worst features of a variety of transportation technologies. The result is less an evolution of a two-wheeled machine than a pastiche of the many things such a device represents. It’s a monster made from bicycles and motorbikes."

Writing for Motherboard, Aaron Gordon, an experienced bike rider, picked up on Bogost's article and agreed that e-bikes have a problem, suggesting that it is the infrastructure. "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," wrote Gordon. "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."

He started with a disclaimer, "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." He then said the problems of the speed differential.

"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."

Bogost and Gordon are both right: We do have a problem. But I believe they are both wrong about the source of the problem, which is American exceptionalism, where if something isn't invented here then they have to do it "better."

Gordon said the problem is not the electric devices themselves and also not that "15 mph is a pretty good clip" for a bike. In Europe, the e-bikes that can go in bike infrastructure are limited to 25 km/hr or 15.5 mph. They are not going twice as fast. But that's not fast enough for Americans—it's a big country. So the Type 1 e-bikes can go 20 mph and the Type 3 bikes can go a ridiculous 28 mph.

Chris Bruntlett and family
Chris Bruntlett and his family.


Chris Bruntlett, the co-founder of Modacity, who now lives in the Netherlands and consults about cycling, tells Treehugger that if you want to go faster than 25 km/hr (15.5 mph) you have to get out of the bike lane. Bruntlett says: "The two categories of e-bike (<25kph and >25kph; with the latter requiring a helmet, insurance, and not being allowed to use the cycling infrastructure) in the Netherlands ensure that these speed differences between normal and electric bikes are kept to a minimum."

Dutch e-bike rules
The minimum bike lane widths in the Netherlands.

Chris Bruntlett

Gordon wrote that "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." Bruntlett concurred that better bike infrastructure is a must, and sends along a photo of the latest standards showing that a high-capacity one-way bike lane should be 3.5 meters (11.48 feet) to 4 meters (13.12 feet) which would give plenty of room for faster riders to pass. I am often on Toronto's busiest lanes, and they are barely four feet wide when separated. Bidirectional lanes should be 4.5 meters (14.76 feet) which is bigger than most car driving lanes.

My Gazelle E-bike
My Gazelle E-bike looks like a bike.

Lloyd Alter

Then there are the bikes themselves. Bogost called them freaks. Gordon called the plethora of different devices e-things, a term I was going to use to describe an e-bike I am testing now.

My regular ride, a Gazelle, is based on Dutch bikes that they have been building since 1892. It looks like a bike and rides like a bike. When I ride among other bikes, it doesn't stand out and doesn't go much faster, either. It is what e-bikes were intended to be when they were invented: a bike with a boost rather than a different form of transportation, which is what American e-bikes have turned into. A bike with a boost is perfect for older riders, those who want to go further or have to deal with more hills. There is no throttle; one pedal. It picks up the cadence and adds a little power; you don't even feel it. It's a bike ... with a boost!

But I am also testing an American design now, which I am not going to name here because I have not come to a conclusion about it and its role in the e-bike world. I have always said that what we need for the e-bike revolution is good affordable bikes, a safe place to ride and a secure place to park, and at $900, a third the price of my bike. I thought this might fill the first need.

But it is not really an e-bike; it is an e-thing. Because it is designed from the ground up to be electric-first, it has small wheels with fat soft tires, great for city streets and maneuverability. But with lots of rolling resistance, which makes it a terrible bicycle.

It doesn't have multiple gears, so when you are riding at 15 mph you have to spin those pedals fast. But hey, it is a Type 2 e-bike, it has a throttle, and you quickly learn how much easier it is just to sit there and not spin the pedals. And, pretty soon, you are just sitting there with your hands on the throttle, going 20 mph, and are no longer on a bike. You are on a scooter and you are going too fast because it is too easy.

It's a beautifully made e-thing at a great price but it is not a bike—it is a different machine.

California bike rules

Every time I wrote about this issue about American rules that allow e-bikes that are too heavy, too powerful, and too fast—and I do it a lot—I get yelled at. I'm told this isn't Europe, that the distances are longer or the hills are bigger or the loads are heavier and they need more power and speed. That's fine. If you need more power, call it a "speedelec," get a helmet and insurance, and get out there with the cars like they do in Europe.

Gordon said the problem isn't the electric devices themselves, but it is. They are designed around regulations that seem to have been written by people who never got on an e-bike and rode in a city where they co-exist with regular bikes; if they had they would have never written them this way.

I know that the genie is out of the bottle, that nobody is going to roll back the rules to Euro pedelec style with 250-watt motors and 15.5 mph speed limits and no throttles. But that is what it should be if people are going to play nice in the bike lanes. Otherwise, the only real answer is what Gordon suggests: "More ambitiously, perhaps we need e-lanes separate from traditional bike infrastructure." Because these e-things are not e-bikes and they shouldn't be in the bike lanes.