E-Bikes' Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Infrastructure, regulation struggles to keep pace with boom

E-BIKES MAY JUST help save the world, replacing cars for short trips while slashing greenhouse gases and providing another mobility option for those who really need it, such as seniors and low-income populations. On the other hand, those same e-bikes in some places are speeding along sidewalks, trails and bike lanes, raising the ire of pedestrians and traditional bicyclists and creating new safety hazards.

E-bikes have enjoyed a surge in popularity since the pandemic, driven by technological developments and mass production that made them cheaper and more reliable. There were 1.1 million e-bikes sold in the United States in 2022 – more than four times as many as were sold in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. According to one projection, by 2030 e-bike sales could top 17 million. Foot-powered conventional bicycles are still predominant, with an estimated 17.7 million sold in 2023 but e-bikes are attracting users who’d never considered the old-school alternative. 
Whether e-bikes are welcomed in an area depends on a host of factors: how fierce the competition is for space among cars, traditional bikes, and pedestrians;  how much local officials are committed to using e-bikes as part of efforts to expand “micromobility” or combat climate change; how accommodating local streets and destinations are to biking; how well organized and vocal advocates and opponents are; and more. The spate of fires around the country caused by uncertified or modified lithium-ion batteries powering the bikes have added new public safety concerns to the debates [See sidebar, Battery Fires, Deadly Crashes].
Attractive Alternative
The popularity of e-bikes reflects growing acceptance of them as a practical means of transportation. “We’re seeing that people are purchasing them and using them to replace car trips,” said John MacArthur, sustainable transportation program manager at the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. (Story continues below graphic)

E-bikes can change the calculus for people who feel like they must drive almost anywhere. “It makes you experience your community in a different way and that’s super appealing; a lot of younger people want that," said Paul Donsky, Atlanta Regional Commission’s senior manager of communications and marketing. He provides the example of younger people who have embraced living near Atlanta’s Belt Line, a 22-mile multi-use trail loop around the city, and already have one or no car. “This is just an extension of that.”

E-bikes are also making their way into the suburbs, giving people access to destinations too spread out for convenient walking or traditional biking. A March 2024 report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in New York City noted that the average e-bike trip was about 4.6 miles compared to 3.1 miles for conventional bike trips.

Propelling the e-bike trend, state and local governments are creating incentive programs to encourage e-bike purchases as a way to meet long standing transportation goals – reducing congestion, combating climate change and pollution, supplementing transit and giving people low-cost travel options.

Colorado launched a statewide incentive April 1, offering up to $450 in tax credits.  Minnesota will begin offering rebates of up to $1,500 on e-bikes starting July 1.

Many programs are being modeled after the City of Denver, which launched its popular incentive program in 2022. So far, more than 7,000 incentive vouchers have been redeemed ranging from $300 for a standard e-bike to $500 for a cargo e-bike (or $1,200 to $1,400 for low-income individuals). Some cities such as Tampa, Florida, are finding that demand for incentives greatly outstrips available funding [See sidebar, Tampa: Predictable Weather, Flat Topography Makes for Good E-bike Environment]. In Atlanta, more than 1,500 people signed up for a new incentive program within 48 hours of its launch [See sidebar, Appetite for Atlanta Incentive May Scale Program Regionally].

When it comes to designing effective e-bike incentives, the E-Bike Incentive Programs of North America Tracker by the TREC at Portland State University found three themes among  some 150 programs:

  • Point of purchase discounts are more effective than mail-in rebates and tax credits.
  • A flat incentive across income levels and e-bike types is highly cost effective.
  • Higher incentives for lower-income levels reduces adoption but improves equity.
In most places, regulations haven’t kept up with the soaring growth in e-bikes over the last half-decade. E-bikes are treated like traditional bikes in most states, without requirements for licensing or registration like autos or motorcycles. In many places they can be used by riders of any age without the required helmets or other safety gear.

"Many countries and cities have not yet clearly defined what e-bikes are, what quality standards they must meet, and/or where they can be used. This lack of clarity has led to safety concerns around conflicts between people on e-bikes and other street users, deadly e-bike battery fires, and other challenges," according to ITDP’s E-bikes: Charging Toward Compact Cycling Cities. (Story continues below graphic)

But the free-for-all in regulation is changing. About half of states, have followed the lead of California  in creating regulations based on a three-tier classification framework that considers differences in how e-bikes are used and their range of speeds and capabilities. [See graphic, E-bike Basics]
  • Class 1 e-bikes provide assistance only when pedaling, which stops at 20 MPH.
  • Class 2 e-bikes are equipped with a throttle motor that stops assistance at 20 MPH.
  • Class 3 e-bikes are equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when pedaling and stops when the e-bike reaches 28 MPH.
In California, there are no age restrictions on Class 1 and 2 e-bikes. Riders must be at least 16 to operate a Class 3 e-bike, and all Class 3 riders must wear helmets. Organizations such as PeopleForBikes are working around the country to promote uniform biking legislation using the tier classifications. Often the legislation addresses regulations for scooters and other micromobility devices.

Some towns like Hoboken, New Jersey, are taking matters into their own hands. In response to complaints about e-bikes on sidewalks – mostly ridden by food delivery workers – the City Council this year enacted a measure requiring e-bike delivery drivers to register, take a test, and wear bright, numbered vests.

Some localities restrict e-bikes from off-road trails along with other motorized vehicles. Yorktown, New York, for one, is considering banning e-bikes, trail bikes and ATVs from using the North-South County Trailway, a 36-mile multi-use trail in Putnam County that runs to the New York City border.

Regulations are one thing, enforcement is another. It’s difficult to educate police on e-bike laws, according to Carol Kachadoorian, executive director of dblTilde CORE, Inc., an Oxford, Maryland-based nonprofit, and former transit coordinator for Alexandria, Virginia. Some police departments may not have the resources to divert officers from other areas to enforce rules on local trails. E-bike batteries are becoming less obvious, she said, making it difficult to recognize e-bikes in restricted areas. Some owners are even creating “stealth” e-bikes using decorations to hide batteries.

In New Jersey, e-bikes are required to have a classification sticker on their frame, displaying the wattage, speed and power. Without that sticker, they can be impounded.

Along with regulation, there is a need to educate the public and users about safety and other issues. A “huge issue” in Southern California is parents buying e-bikes online that can go 40 MPH or faster for children younger than 15 – which in most states they are not legally allowed to drive, according to Ash Lovell, electric bicycle policy and campaign director at PeopleForBikes. In San Clemente, California, just south of Los Angeles schools, parents, law enforcement and bike retailers partnered on education programs about e-bikes and how to ride responsibly, she said.
Lack of Data
California continues to take the lead in addressing e-bike issues. Last year, the state legislature approved research to help policymakers develop effective laws and policy.  The report under development, ”Exploring E-Bike Safety Performance Data and Policy Options," will analyze data on crashes, injuries, emergency room visits, and deaths for human-powered and motorized bikes, and identify best practices for laws and policy to promote the safe use of e-bikes.
“Safety does dovetail into traffic policy,” said Kevin Fang, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Planning at Sonoma State University and a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose University working on the report. He says there is little available data on e-bikes, particularly e-bike safety, and there are few rules about device quality and manufacturing, and how products should be sold.

But creating effective policy is hampered by the fact that the public doesn’t really know the difference between e-bike classes or their implications, Fang said, and it can be hard to tell the three apart from a human-powered bike.

In studies on rider behavior, Fang said the average speed of human-powered bikes and e-bikes differs by only about 2 MPH. But safety issues increase with speed — for both e-bikes and human-powered bikes – and are compounded by the acceleration patterns and how people are riding, particularly in crowded facilities.

Their speed and ease of use can encourage reckless behavior that endangers e-bike riders themselves. According to the New York City Department of Transportation, crash data show that “76 percent of cycling fatalities in 2023 involved e-bikes, even as traditional bike fatalities reached an all-time low and protected bike lane miles hit an all-time high.” This has prompted an education campaign by the city as part of its Vision Zero program.

The infrastructure of an area makes all the difference in how well e-bikes can be integrated into the transportation system. A place where that integration is well on its way is the Twin Cities, according to Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, a transportation advocacy group.

Sam Rockwell with his kids, Teddy, Maggie, and Frankie, travel by e-bike in MinnesotaThe network of greenways there attracts thousands of riders daily because they’re “wide enough that it’s easy to pass folks,” Rockwell said. However, in a constrained corridor it can be a jarring when someone passes at 20 MPH, whether practicing for a race on a road bike or traveling on an e-bike, he said. “It’s important to try to find that space. It really opens up cycling to people who otherwise might not do it or not do it as much.”

For Rockwell and his wife, their e-bike serves as a second car. While both still use their regular bikes, the e-bike expands their range, whether it’s picking up kids or grocery shopping. “Being able to have options without having to own a car is really important,” he said.

Minnesota overall, he says, has relatively good bike infrastructure and continues to build in the core cities and suburbs, with new protected bike lanes and incorporating curb-separated bike lanes in street reconstruction. That, Rockwell said, is critical. “Every year, there’s more of a network and more of a connected network, which is really ultimately going to make a difference – having a truly connected network across cities.”

He suggests that e-bikes can work well in a suburban context but only if the infrastructure is there; “not if you’re stuck on the shoulder of a county highway where the speed limit is 55 MPH,” Rockwell said, speaking from experience.

What about conflicts among users of bike lanes and paths? “It’s not at all part of the conversation here. Places like the Twin Cities, the sidewalks just don’t get as crowded as downtown Brooklyn or wherever,” he said.

Those conflicts are mounting and getting greater attention as e-bikes, particularly ridden by restaurant delivery workers, proliferate. Local regulation, like that enacted in Hoboken, may be part of the answer. But Kachadoorian said infrastructure ultimately may need to be adapted to address conflicts. “If you’re not pedaling, you don’t belong in a bike lane. … If more people are on e-bikes, especially if they’re not pedaling, there needs to be a further division of that bicycle space,” she said.

Segregated lanes for e-bikes only have yet to appear in major cities but New York City has added double-wide bike lanes in heavily traveled locations. Planners designing new trails and walking/biking facilities are actively looking at options for addressing conflicts with e-bikes. “It’s an enormous issue. Certainly, it’s something that came up in public workshops,” said Gerry Bogacz, assistant director of planning and program management at the New York Metropolitan Transporation Council, during a recent presentation. The MPO for New York City and surrounding counties is leading a feasibility study of a shared use path on the west side of the Hudson River between the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey and the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in South Nyack, New York.

Climate Benefits
Getting cars off the road and powering travel with electricity has benefits for the climate. MacArthur, the Portland State researcher, said Denver’s popular e-bike incentive program which has estimated that 100,000 vehicle miles   are replaced every week, which is equal to 1,450 metric tons of carbon emissions per year, or 312 cars.

Surveys of Denver’s e-bike voucher program found users riding an average of 26 miles per week, with income-qualified recipients riding 32 miles per week. Seventy-one percent said they used their car less often, according to the ITDP report.