E-bikes are a Climate Solution – Not a Menace
News stories that frame the rise of e-bikes as one big safety risk aren’t only short-sighted, they may lead to bad policy.
There’s a dangerous recent mobility trend on American streets that’s captured the eye of the Recent York Times: e-bikes. Or so the Times, and another media outlets, are suggesting with their editorial decisions.
“The e-bike industry is booming, however the summer of 2023 has brought sharp questions on how secure e-bikes are, especially for teenagers,” writes Matt Richtel in an extended feature titled “A Dangerous Combination’: Teenagers’ Accidents Expose E-Bike Risks.” The story centers largely on one anecdote from the town of Encinitas, California in June when a 15-year-old riding an e-bike was clipped by a van and thrown violently while waiting to show left on a 55-mile-per-hour road. The cyclist was treated at a close-by hospital but died of his injuries. Just a few days later the identical hospital treated a second teenager injured while riding an e-bike. The small town declared a “state of emergency for e-bike safety.”
The Recent York Times–with its international reach–used these incidents in Encinitas, a beach town north of San Diego with a population of about 60,000, to explore questions of safety around electric bikes. Fueling the media interest is AB 530, a state bill in California that might prohibit people under 12 from using e-bikes “of any class” and “state the intent of the Legislature to create an e-bike license program with an internet written test and a state-issued photo identification for those individuals with no valid driver’s license.”
Obviously, these incidents–and all serious injuries brought on by cars colliding with bicyclists–are tragic. There’s an actual public interest in exposing safety deficiencies, pursuing ways to guard cyclists (especially kids), and exploring policy ideas for the best way to widen access to secure cycling. As an alternative, the NYT has framed the growing pains of e-bikes as another shady technology like vape cartridges or hoverboards. There are numerous the reason why this framing is faulty and does a disservice to public discourse. Listed below are three:
E-bikes are a strong climate solution.
For many years, Americans have searched unsuccessfully for methods to interchange gas guzzlers in cities and towns. Electric bikes are proving to be a viable alternative for commuting and making short and medium trips, as NPR reported in January.
Electric-assist bikes open a world of possibilities for individuals who wish to abandon 4-wheels but are unable to physically ride several miles every day. Cargo bikes meanwhile allow individuals who would otherwise drive to lug groceries or transport children to go for a motorbike as a substitute. These automobile trips are a major source of emissions that may and must be erased. Cities across the country have realized this climate solution and are beginning to offer rebate programs for removing one among the large barriers to those bikes: cost. Would requiring people to take a written exam to acquire a photograph ID place a brand-new barrier on uptake? All of this is very important context for any story about e-bikes even when it’s not the paper’s desired angle, since it tells you what’s at stake if access to e-bikes is further limited. But there’s no mention of “climate change” and only a passing mention of emissions reductions within the NYT coverage. (“As a transportation solution, e-bikes seem promising.”) The one bicycle advocate quoted within the piece is from Colorado, not California and so they aren’t asked to weigh in on the possible state bill in Sacramento. A cyclist must have been given space to make these and other points.
All e-bikes aren’t the same.
Manufacturers separate e-bikes by class for a reason: They function very in a different way, and these distinctions must be made clear.
- Class 1 are electric-assist bikes that must be pedaled to maneuver.
- Class 2 will be motor-powered without pedaling due to a throttle.
- Class 3 are electric-assist, reach accelerates to twenty-eight mph, but motor capability lower than 750W.
- Class 4 have a motor over 750W and are classified as offroad, motorcars.
Any serious news coverage that’s going to the touch on possible regulations should distinguish between these various classes of e-bikes, as should policymakers. The NYT story fails to do that, as a substitute opting to publish a separate (search-engine friendly) explainer story titled “What’s an e-bike and the way secure are they?” In actual fact, the distinctions between these bikes are blurred throughout the story since the important “experts” quoted are law enforcement. A San Diego sheriff’s deputy is quoted high up saying, “It’s not like a bicycle. However the laws are treating it like every bicycle.” This statement is so overly broad it’s inaccurate. An electrical-assist bicycle that must be pedaled to maneuver and barely goes above 15 mph is completely, 100% a bicycle. It might be a mistake to pass recent laws that make this same error in logic.
Cars and car-centric design are sometimes the issue.
Injuries and fatalities of cyclists almost all the time involve drivers and car-centric infrastructure.
The important anecdote within the NYT story in regards to the Encinitas teenager is apt: he was stopping to show left and was hit by a van. “He did every thing right, including signaling to make a left turn,” witnesses said. So, the issue was almost actually the one-ton van going 55 miles per hour, or the van’s driver, or the dearth of protected bike infrastructure–not the e-bike. In actual fact, the entire incidents mentioned within the story involved a automobile. If city officials were serious about addressing the uptick in cyclist injuries and fatalities, they might raise questions on the protection of driving next to a growing variety of cyclists. Journalists should too.
How do teen injuries on e-bikes compare to teen injuries in cars? How often are cyclists killed by drivers? Based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 932 bicyclists were killed in motor-vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, an 8.9% increase from 856 in 2019. The variety of preventable nonfatal injuries to cyclists was 325,173 in 2020. The growing variety of e-bike injuries and deaths is troubling, nevertheless it’s a part of a fair more troubling epidemic on American roadways. How are other countries regulating e-bikes? A real attempt at solutions journalism could examine how cities like Madrid, Brussels, Toronto, or Amsterdam are handling the explosion of e-bikes and balancing the advantages and the risks. How is Recent York? Even for those who’re going to chase a ‘man bites dog’ story to look at the risks of an emerging technology over an existing technology (cars kill shouldn’t be breaking news, sadly), it is crucial to incorporate the context of just how ceaselessly drivers kill cyclists. If policymakers are going to contemplate recent requirements of cyclists, they need to consider updating drivers tests to incorporate recent lessons about sharing the road with bicycles, including e-bikes, and the hazards of road rage. As an alternative, as Electrek notes, this type of story attacks e-bikes while ignoring the hazards whizzing throughout us.
Come to consider it, perhaps the “dangerous combination” mentioned within the NYT story’s headline is definitely vehicle drivers and cyclists. Or perhaps the harmful combination is Recent York Times writers and e-bikes.