A Genie With No Bottle

The advent of ebikes has been a terrific boon to the bicycle industry. Ebikes are bringing people into bike shops who last visited one wearing polyester bell bottoms and humming Debbie Boone. Selling bikes to people who haven’t been cyclists since before big hair does a good deal more for a bike company’s bottom line than selling a new disc-brake-equipped road bike to an existing cyclist.

Converting non-cyclists into cyclists is a net good. Of the many benefits, my favorites are the individual’s improved health, reduced congestion on city streets and the fact that people who ride bikes are more likely to notice cyclists when they climb back in their 6000-lb. SUV.

Getting to the point of ebikes being reliable enough and fun enough to be worthwhile has taken ages. I remember seeing one in 1997 that had more wires zip-tied to the frame than are behind my TV. It was a mess. Where once they were a laughable curiosity, they are an increasingly popular form of transportation and recreation.

Today, there are more than 200 companies producing ebikes, which is to say that there are companies making ebikes that didn’t formerly have anything to do with bikes, like GM, Harley Davidson and Jeep.

Unlike non-motorized bikes which are legal on all roads and, with very few exceptions, state parks, there are a number of circumstances where ebikes aren’t legal. The laws across the U.S. vary widely. In some places all Class 3 ebikes (which can assist up to 28 mph) are illegal. In six states Class 3 ebikes are considered motorized vehicles and owners are required to hold a license; some require registration and even insurance. In many places they aren’t allowed on bike paths, sidewalks or park trails.

The last time I bought a car the dealer didn’t hand me the keys until they’d verified I had a valid driver’s license and insurance, and my registration for the vehicle was set in motion. Not only are bike shops not charged with verifying that the new owner is complying with state law, to date I’ve seen no effort by manufacturers or dealers to educate buyers about where they can and can’t ride them. For that reason, I’m not surprised that there has been zero effort to educate buyers on the basics of etiquette.

I’ve heard friends complain of having ebike riders pass them with inches to spare and sometimes at speeds considerably faster than they were riding. I’ve also had friends report that they’ve been on singletrack only to have a rider on an eMTB come up behind them and either try to pass where there isn’t enough room or yelled at them to make room so they can pass. I can attest that being passed on a bike path by someone thumbing a button rather than pedaling at 28 mph and who gave me maybe two feet of space did not fill me with a sense of camaraderie or even polite regard.

That dealers are selling eMTBs and encouraging riders to explore trails in state parks causes me concern much like watching my son climb progressively higher into a tree. I can do little more than hope nothing goes wrong. What really alarms me is that I don’t see much of a push on the part of these companies to support local advocacy organizations be they road or off-road, and the advocacy organizations are likely to be instrumental in increasing access for these bikes.

The conclusion I’ve been forced to draw is that with the genie out of its bottle, the the industry decided the best way to keep the genie from being put back in the bottle is to simply toss the bottle. Based on what I see, the strategy is to get so many ebikes into the hands of riders that governments will simply have to accept them. It’s a variation on the might-makes-right strategy, and in an increasingly fractured society, that’s as responsible as training cats to shoot guns.

Where does this lead? I’m hoping we can avoid the bike path or singletrack analog to road rage, but based on some of the social media posts I’ve seen, that may be inevitable. The only entities I see with any incentive to take action are the advocacy organizations, but I don’t see them capable of much of a sales pitch to ebike riders until they begin to sense that advocacy might improve their experience. And where advocacy is concerned we actually need those riders more than they need us. Without major enforcement actions on the part of police and park rangers, ebike riders don’t have a reason to align themselves with any organizations.

What it comes down to is this: each of us—every cyclist out there—needs to find a way to build a bridge with these non-cyclist bike riders. Unless we make friends with them they’ll never understand our sense of etiquette and our attitude toward that lack of understanding will otherwise just alienate them. It’s difficult to fault someone for not knowing something they didn’t know they needed to know. We also need to invite them into our world because when it comes to advocacy, numbers are king. We need to show a larger population of cyclists if we want politicians to take us more seriously as a constituency. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—invariably the answer always seems to be: act nice, be kind, treat others as you’d want to be treated. I’ll try to remember that the next time someone whips by me at 28 mph. 


Image courtesy Pedego

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