We Should Worry About Boomers on E-Bikes

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The perfect boomer e-bike? I don't think so. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

We’ve noted before that e-bikes are a hit with boomers; sales were up 15 percent in the United States last year. A study by John MacArthur of Portland State University recently found that "e-bikes are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle, many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so." They've become hugely popular with older riders in the Netherlands, which is the country to watch when you want to learn about trends in the bike world.

The latest trend is very worrisome: the number of deaths among male e-bike riders has dramatically increased. Last year, for the first time, more cyclists were killed than people in cars, and a quarter of them were on e-bikes. And the increase was almost entirely due to men over 65 years old.

This is not entirely unexpected. Mikael Colville-Andersen has been talking about it for years, noting that "11% of cyclist fatalities were caused by the fact that the cyclist was on an e-bike. Going too fast, losing control, motorists surprised by a speed faster than the average cyclist." Now, according to Bicycle Dutch,

Two-thirds of the cycle deaths are people over 65 years of age, while they only ride 3% of the total distance and the number of casualties on e-bikes almost doubled in one year, making the deaths on the e-bike a quarter of the total cycle fatalities. But the figure only increased for men, fewer women died on an e-bike. The death toll for men on an e-bike went from 20 in 2016 to 38 in 2017. Furthermore, a staggering 31 of these 38 men were over the age of 65.

Meanwhile, the rate of deaths among older woman cyclists actually went down. Peter van der Knaap of the Dutch Road Safety Research Foundation believes older men are overconfident. He's quoted in the Guardian:

"We should not underestimate how many accidents happen among the elderly when getting on and off an e-bike. Such a bicycle is heavier than a regular one. Sometimes the problem starts because some older people do not take into account that their own physical possibilities are reduced."

The rest of the world should pay attention

Specialized ebike
A nice bike: step-through design, built-in battery. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I believe this is going to become a huge problem in North America. The Dutch experts note that cycling is great exercise for older people, and that overall, there are fewer deaths simply because of this. But European e-bikes are pedelecs with limited speed and power. (Pedelec is short for pedal electric bicycle — meaning you have to pedal for the motor to kick in.) In Europe, there are plenty of safe places to ride. In North America, people are buying higher-powered, faster bikes with throttles so they don’t have to pedal to go fast; in fact, it's hard to find a European-style bike limited to 250 watts.

But older riders injure more easily and are more likely to die from injuries (which is also why they are so much more likely to die when hit by cars). They don’t see as well and might hit potholes or other things in the road. Their balance, reaction times, hearing, all are not as good as they used to be.

Lloyd Alter in Copenhagen
In Copenhagen, a lot of people ride e-bikes, including me. It's a mode of transportation many seniors should consider. (Photo: With permission to Lloyd Alter)

In the Netherlands, people have been riding all their lives; 17 percent of people over 65 years old still ride every day, just a bit less than the 24 percent of the whole population who ride that often. So perhaps it's understandable that they're overconfident.

But they also have the world’s best bike infrastructure with separated lanes almost everywhere. Drivers try not to hit them, and under Dutch law, drivers are almost always at fault.

I suspect there are going to be a lot of stories in the next few years about baby boomers getting killed on e-bikes. Most will die for the usual reasons North Americans on bikes do: bad infrastructure and cars. But going faster on a heavier bike will be a contributing factor.

A design solution: Twente is plenty

bike for older riders
Here's a bike designed for an older rider. (Photo: University of Twente)

Perhaps the industry and regulators should think about this and offer a step-through (no top tube), light pedelec design that doesn’t go too fast. Vera Bulsink, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, worked with a consortium to develop the SOFIE, an e-bike for older riders.

The combination of the steeper head angle at the steering axis, the smaller wheels and a shorter wheelbase makes the bicycle more stable at low speeds ... The low entry of the SOFIE bicycle improves the ease of getting on and off the bike, and an automatic saddle adjusts its height to the speed while driving. Also, a drive off assistance helps to get speed and avoids slow cycling, and the limitation of maximum speed to 18 km/hour prevents falling.

It’s low, it’s slow, and it would probably be safer for everyone.