eBikes and a Controversial Metaphor
I was out riding with my buddy Mike. It was a casual one. We rode side-by-side and chatted. At some point, he asked for my take on eBikes, and I said something like, “My take has evolved. Initially, I was just against them. I’m inclined to believe that once people don’t have to pedal, they won’t, and so eBikes looked to me like the beginning of the end of cycling.”
This was, of course, a narrow and uninformed view, and over time I learned better (although, I’m still actively evolving).
What I see now is that eBikes represent an entry point for people who weren’t riding bikes and weren’t going to for all the reasons people don’t like to work hard and get sweaty. eBikes also provide people of uneven abilities a good way to enjoy riding together. And eBikes are useful for dyed-in-the-wool types like me too, giving us a way to do errands without martyring ourselves to the process of retrieving groceries.
So now I see eBikes as net positive, but there are still some issues to figure out, and this is where Mike chimed in with a useful (if controversial) metaphor.
He said (and I paraphrase), “eBikes are like guns. You can trust most people to use them correctly, but the few who choose not to, ruin it for everyone else, and the question then is, how do you regulate them effectively enough to get all the benefits while limiting the damage.”
This seemed pretty brilliant to me, but I’m not a gun guy.
I grew up around guns. A lot of my friends growing up were hunters. They’d been through safety courses. Their parents kept the guns under lock and key. Common sense mostly reigned. I knew a kid who shot himself in the leg with a .22, because his parents let him wander around in the woods with it, unsupervised. And I had a friend who killed himself with a gun that didn’t belong to him, which was not under lock and key.
As a not-gun-guy, this all seemed clear to me. Accidents and tragedies will happen when we don’t follow common sense rules.
eBikes are not as dangerous as guns certainly, but an out-of-control eBiker can be pretty dangerous to themselves and others. As a society, we need to decide if eBikes capable of speeds over 20mph belong in bike lanes. We need to decide where they get trail access. We need to decide how they safely interact with other cyclists and how they interact with traffic.
As we can see with the current state of gun violence, common sense will not save us from people who don’t have it.
So we need to make decisions and codify them, not to limit people’s freedom, but to increase everyone’s safety. The common good supersedes the individual’s right to wreak mayhem. And this has been true since Hammurabi said “If a man has a debt lodged against him, and the storm-god Adad devastates his field or a flood sweeps away the crops, or there is no grain grown in the field due to insufficient water—in that year he will not repay grain to his creditor; he shall suspend performance of his contract [literally “wet his clay tablet”] and he will not give interest payments for that year.”