The War on E-Bikes
Reader Michael recently sent me a link to a rather spectacular e-bike, a high performance, low production European model capable of 40+ MPH. This e-bike by Trifecta boasts 4,000 watts, an 85-pound weight despite plenty of aluminum and carbon fiber (it’s mainly the battery), a 14-speed automatic transmission, and a price tag starting at $25,000 smackers. Yep, you read that right. Many one-off e-bikes have been built with even more power and even higher top speeds, but the Trifecta differs in that it’s no one-trick pony. Seeing this Lamborgini on two wheels prompted some thought, which in my case is always an invitation to mental chaos.
Federal law here defines e-bikes as common bicycles, as long as they have electric motors no bigger than 750 watts and top speeds of no more than 20 MPH on flat ground. And Federal law trumps all state and local laws. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at laws and ordinances that have been passed in some jurisdictions.
Look at New York, for example. New York State has banned all e-bikes, period. In that state, their motors disqualify them as bicycles, and because there is no provision to register them as motor vehicles, they are legally out as a form of human transport. E-bike commuters and oldsters like myself are criminalized. One proposed “correction” seeks to mimic Federal law. Another would temper the state law to prohibit anyone under sixteen years of age to either operate one or ride as a passenger – which rules out a parent taking their child out for a ride in either a seat carrier or a trailer. A helmet is also required, which is okay except that traditional cyclists, able to exceed regulated e-bike speeds, are not also required to wear one. That’s the next step after this proposed law passes, but its sponsor envisions that as a tougher row to hoe.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has led the charge against one form of them: e-bikes having the capability of operating on throttle only, without pedaling. It’s illegal to ride one, own one or sell one in that burg. As a result, many such e-bikes have been confiscated. Technically, if I were to drive through the city in the Mighty Furd, with the Mighty Evelo Aurora perched on its front carrier, I’d be risking a citation and confiscation. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Apart from the law, merely mentioning e-bikes in the mountain bike advocacy forum MTBR is likely to bring out that e-bikes of any type or power level are banned from many groomed mountain bike trails, and that fact is returned with epithets and personal insults from both bike riders and forum moderators.
What happened? As with any new technology, it’s the bad actors that have spawned such hostility. Backyard builders have shown up at volunteer-maintained urban trails with their uber-power creations and ripped up the turf. Speed-crazed food delivery people in New York City have flaunted traffic laws and basic safety to terrorize pedestrians and even hardened taxi drivers with their e-bikes. It’s not as if they weren’t already doing so with their traditional bikes, but e-bikes upped the ante a notch in how many antics they could pull off per day. Thus the e-bike has gained a notoriety for silent mayhem, and the call to “protect our children” from this two-wheeled hazard. I’ve found over the years that this phrase is invoked whenever a restrictive new law either makes no practical sense, or would otherwise be seen as encroaching too many basic rights as citizens. Even the discontinuation of daylight savings time in Illinois years ago was turned back with the only appeal remaining – children waiting for their school buses in the dark. It worked.
Caught in the crossfire are mundane e-cyclists like myself, wanting to be able to keep biking for exercise, exploration and more economical transport. More importantly, it puts the crimp on commuters who want to either make longer commutes possible, or to avoid showing up at work dripping in sweat-stained clothing. Bad actors in any field of activity inspire over-regulation in an attempt to shut down the whole thing, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The effect on law-abiding citizens is to make life worse, more expensive, and sometimes more dangerous, not better and safer. And in the meantime, myopic special interest groups and legislators purr and think that they’re done good and benefitted society. So, the good majority suffer a little more than the bad minority, who flaunt whatever laws are in place anyway. In this particular case, commuters and recreational riders are criminalized, instead of those who feel that the existing laws of conduct do not apply to them in the first place. The end result in the larger scope is that personal freedoms are lost, and markets are choked off. When existing laws are not enforced, creating new, more restrictive ones have little effect – except on those who have no intention of breaking the existing ones in the first place. That doesn’t seem to stop the flow of new legislation that removes longstanding basic rights.
So, are e-bikes bad? Hardly. They provide a measurable benefit to society. Are high-performance e-bikes bad? Of course not, but since they fall outside the Federal definition of a bicycle, anything goes as to how they should be treated in state and local law. Like the conflicting hodgepodge of local laws surrounding mopeds, they are open to being viewed as motor-driven cycles, and treated as such. That they possess drive pedals and a chain merely places them squarely back into the realm of the first motorcycles that evolved from the so-called safety bicycle more than a century ago.
It’s no secret that the purpose of “Share the Road” signage is to reduce the incidents of automobile drivers indignantly running bicyclists, equestrians, and even pedestrians off “their” tarmac. I’ve heard about it, and I’ve watched it take place. I’ve heard otherwise kindly drivers opine that it should be illegal for anything other than cars to be on the roadways. The use of public roads was in conflict from the start. When pedestrians, horse riders, and horse-drawn coaches, wagons, and street cars smoothly handled the local stuff and railroads the inter-city transport, the introduction of silent and swift bicycles caused much alarm. They also quickly came to represent a personal and affordable freedom to reach locales outside the city where mass transit had no reach. Despite the tension, they were viewed at the time as revolutionary because they filled a need answerable in no other existing way.
Once that vision of mayhem, the horseless carriage, came into existence as a pleasure craft for young gentlemen of means, they were quickly regulated to walking speed, with a flagman preceding them to warn of the impending doom. They were both disruptive, and a resented reminder of the idle rich. Unlike bicycles, they became a symbol of class warfare of sorts. In town, they were pelted with rocks by children, and outside of town, farmers strewed tacks along the dirt roads and charged plenty to haul them out of mud bogs. Once the technology became more affordable and reliable than horses, their potential utility was more accepted, and the call for improved roadways to withstand the wear of automobiles and trucks began. What we have now is the legacy – roads designed for and completely dominated by cars. The mindset of the typical driver today has largely been reined back from absolute rule by laws needed to protect all other users from them, but the attitude has not gone extinct.
Our thinking today tends to stay planted with cars on roads and pedestrians on sidewalks. In general, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and equestrians are perceived as a nuisance that must be grudgingly tolerated. It’s understandable that, in our highly regulated culture of today, the concept of a power-assisted bicycle might be perceived as a threat to the welfare of society, and that the same knee-jerk tendencies toward panicked legislation that un-welcomed the horseless carriage might descend on the e-bike. After all, both the bicycle and the e-bike seek to reverse some of the damage already done by the automobile to cities, neighborhoods, trade deficit and atmosphere alike. In a society where fame no longer has any linkage to actual accomplishment, the right to peaceably assemble is pretty much gone, and losing one’s home or apartment is an illegal act in many towns, they are symbols of non-conformity. We drive past some guy pedaling to work with the dark suspicion that he must be some kind of tree-hugging, do-gooder socialist, which today is seen as being a subversive Commie Pinko who lacks access to a molotov cocktail. This perception needs some work.
Despite this, the lowly e-bike is hardly a threat to the public welfare. As defined by Federal law, it is no faster than an ordinary bicycle and, as such, is no more hazardous. The same folks who have led to its perception as an evil in need of extermination are the same folks who caused all the same problems with bicycles. Hint: it’s not the equipment that’s causing the problem. It’s the user. If traffic laws which restrict dangerous behavior are difficult to enforce in practice, piling on additional laws against equipment will not help, and will only hurt law-abiding citizens. My advice to the legislators in New York State and City: get bright, and start considering the end effects of thoughtless quick “fixes”.