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).

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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.”

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  1. khal spencer says

    “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.”

    Same can be said for cars–get the benefits and limit the carnage. We just had a family (mom and two daughters) lives snuffed out by a drunk driver in his early twenties. I would say on the hierarchy of dangerous implements, cars and firearms both are an order of magnitude or three worse than e-bikes. Difference is usually people don’t deliberately kill with cars or bikes. Most gun deaths are intentional–homicide or suicide.

    That said, of course e-bikes can hurt both the user and other people. For that matter, a friend of mine had an elderly lady glance off of him and fall when she stepped in front of his traditional bicycle; he was riding downhill and she was walking in the road with her back to traffic. She hit her head on the road and died a few days later.

    No technology is completely safe. And as you say, the knuckleheads ruin it for the rest of us.

    I’m on the Santa Fe, NM bicycle advisory committee (and on my gun club’s board of directorss). Since NM is one of the few states that has not addressed e-bikes in its traffic law, we city bike advisory geeks just sent a text of a change in our municipal traffic ordinance to the city attorney to proof before sending to council. We worked with People for Bikes. The draft mostly gives e-bike users same rights and privileges as traditional bikes but a few restrictions for Class III and limits an e-bike to the CPSC et al definition of 750 watts, 20 (class I, II) or 28 mph (class III). Given there are now e-mopeds and e-motorcycles, the other issue besides knuckleheads is defining an e-bike so it doesn’t evolve into an e-motorcycle.

    Emlyn, you folks have my email. Give a holler if you want to discuss this more but you did a fine job with this article.Not much to add except these e-bikes are breeding like rabbits, so we need to absorb them into our fold safely.

  2. eborling says

    I will start this off by saying that I am not anti-e-bike. I don’t have one and I don’t have any plans to get one soon. That being said, I do see myself having one someday, maybe. For commuting, or hauling tools for trail-building I can’t think of a better tool. I see many of the often stated pros of e-bikes, such as those articulated in Robot’s article. I see some of the cons too, such as future access issues due to idiots out there doing the same things that make all mtn bikers look bad, just in larger numbers, further out, at higher speeds. We’ve all heard the arguments.

    My concern with e-bikes has to do with motorcycles. I have been a mtn biker since 1990. I have been a dirt bike rider since 2010. When e-bikes first started hitting the scene, one of my least favorite things was hearing people, that have NOT advocated for sharing the trails with motos or that have actively campaigned to get motos kicked off trails that they are allowed on, complaining that they cannot ride their e-bikes on non-motorized trails thus forcing them to only ride the trails that allow motos. Well, your cycle is motorized, so….

    I see the future getting sticky because as some on this site may not know, electric dirt bikes are coming and when the range thing gets figured out, they will be awesome. Some electric motos are starting to look like mtn bikes. Some e-bikes are starting to look pretty moto. When the 2 of those things meet, we’ll have some issue deciding what is what and regs won’t keep up with the technology. We all know (and yes, we do) that people will hop up their e-bikes beyond what is “allowed” on the trails, just as humans have done with every mode of transport we have ever utilized. Faster horses, faster cars, faster bikes….you get the idea. There won’t be LEOs at the trailheads making sure your e-bike doesn’t have a throttle or testing your output.

    Once the “non-motorized” trails are full of hopped up e-bikes that don’t even need to be pedaled, it won’t be a far stretch for me to feel pretty comfortable poaching said trail with my electric dirt-bike. After all, I have been told over and over and over by anti-moto, pro e-bike people that the difference between an e-bike and a moto is that e-bikes don’t make noise.

  3. jlaudolff says

    Our local government seems far too busy to get around to regulating ebikes and things seem to be working out ok. My prediction is ebikes will turn out to be maintenance headaches as the batteries wear out. Many will be headed to the landfill even faster than Walmart bikes. But again ebike waste will be less than automobile waste so yeah for us.

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