E-bikes are a Climate Solution – Not a Menace

News stories that frame the rise of e-bikes as one big safety risk are not only short-sighted, they could lead to bad policy.

A bike land sign

There’s a dangerous new mobility trend on American streets that’s captured the attention of the New York Times: e-bikes. Or so the Times, and some other media outlets, are suggesting with their editorial choices.

“The e-bike industry is booming, but the summer of 2023 has brought sharp questions about how safe e-bikes are, especially for teenagers,” writes Matt Richtel in a long 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 turn left on a 55-mile-per-hour road. The cyclist was treated at a nearby hospital but died of his injuries. A few days later the same hospital treated a second teenager injured while riding an e-bike. The small town declared a “state of emergency for e-bike safety.”

The New 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 safety issues around electric bikes. Fueling the media interest is AB 530, a state bill in California that would 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 online written test and a state-issued photo identification for those persons without a valid driver’s license.”

Obviously, these incidents–and all serious injuries caused by cars colliding with bicyclists–are tragic. There’s a real public interest in exposing safety deficiencies, pursuing ways to protect cyclists (especially kids), and exploring policy ideas for how to widen access to safe cycling. Instead, the NYT has framed the growing pains of e-bikes as one more shady technology like vape cartridges or hoverboards. There are many reasons why this framing is faulty and does a disservice to public discourse. Here are three:

E-bikes are a powerful climate solution.

For decades, Americans have searched unsuccessfully for ways to replace 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 people who want to abandon 4-wheels but are unable to physically ride several miles daily. Cargo bikes meanwhile allow people who would otherwise drive to lug groceries or transport children to opt for a bike instead. These car trips are a significant source of emissions that can and should be erased. Cities across the country have realized this climate solution and are starting to offer rebate programs for removing one of the big barriers to these bikes: cost. Would requiring people to take a written exam to obtain a photo ID place a brand-new barrier on uptake? All of this is important context for any story about e-bikes even if it’s not the paper’s desired angle, because 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 in the NYT coverage. (“As a transportation solution, e-bikes seem promising.”) The one bicycle advocate quoted in the piece is from Colorado, not California and they are not asked to weigh in on the possible state bill in Sacramento. A cyclist should have been given space to make these and other points. 

All e-bikes are not the same.

Manufacturers separate e-bikes by class for a reason: They function very differently, and these distinctions should be made clear. 

  • Class 1 are electric-assist bikes that have to be pedaled to move.
  • Class 2 can be motor-powered without pedaling thanks to a throttle. 
  • Class 3 are electric-assist, reach speeds up to 28 mph, but motor capacity less than 750W.
  • Class 4 have a motor over 750W and are classified as offroad, motorized vehicles.

Any serious news coverage that’s going to touch on possible regulations should distinguish between these various classes of e-bikes, as should policymakers. The NYT story fails to do this, instead opting to publish a separate (search-engine friendly) explainer story titled “What is an e-bike and how safe are they?”  In fact, the distinctions between these bikes are blurred throughout the story because the main “experts” quoted are law enforcement. A San Diego sheriff’s deputy is quoted high up saying, “It’s not like a bicycle. But the laws are treating it like any bicycle.” This statement is so overly broad it is inaccurate. An electric-assist bicycle that has to be pedaled to move and rarely goes above 15 mph is absolutely, 100% a bicycle. It would be a mistake to pass new laws that make this same error in logic. 

Cars and car-centric design are often the problem. 

Injuries and fatalities of cyclists almost always involve drivers and car-centric infrastructure.

The main anecdote in the NYT story about the Encinitas teenager is apt: he was stopping to turn left and was hit by a van. “He did everything right, including signaling to make a left turn,” witnesses said. So, the problem was almost certainly the one-ton van going 55 miles per hour, or the van’s driver, or the lack of protected bike infrastructure–not the e-bike. In fact, all of the incidents mentioned in the story involved a car.  If city officials were serious about addressing the uptick in cyclist injuries and fatalities, they would raise questions about the safety of driving next to a growing number 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? According to 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 number of preventable nonfatal injuries to cyclists was 325,173 in 2020. The growing number of e-bike injuries and deaths is troubling, but it’s part of an even more troubling epidemic on American roadways. How are other countries regulating e-bikes? A true attempt at solutions journalism could examine how cities like Madrid, Brussels, Toronto, or Amsterdam are handling the explosion of e-bikes and balancing the benefits and the risks. How is New York? Even if you’re going to chase a ‘man bites dog’ story to examine the risks of an emerging technology over an existing technology (cars kill is not breaking news, sadly), it is important to include the context of just how frequently drivers kill cyclists. If policymakers are going to consider new requirements of cyclists, they should consider updating drivers tests to include new lessons about sharing the road with bicycles, including e-bikes, and the dangers of road rage.  Instead, as Electrek notes, this kind of story attacks e-bikes while ignoring the dangers whizzing all around us.

Come to think of it, maybe the “dangerous combination” mentioned in the NYT story’s headline is actually vehicle drivers and cyclists. Or maybe the dangerous combination is New York Times writers and e-bikes. 

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Reader Comments

11 Replies to “E-bikes are a Climate Solution – Not a Menace”

  1. Like all bicycle fanatics, you avoid the reality of e-bike safety hazards and e-bikers’ arrogant, lawless behavior. E-bikes are expensive toys that do nothing to benefit the environment. Many working people commute miles by car to jobs in affluent cities where they can’t afford to live.
    In San Francisco, e-bikes recklessly bomb through stop signs and traffic signals, speed down the middle of car lanes on city streets, and drive on sidewalks, endangering pedestrians and other street users with injury-collisions. You cite no data for your claim that car-drivers and the roads they pay for are at fault.
    You conveniently ignore the environmental impacts and hazards of manufacturing, storing, charging, and disposing of lithium batteries. At least two apartment buildings have burned in SF in 2023 from storing e-bikes inside, including one with critical burn injuries to residents.
    At minimum, e-bicyclists should be required to have motorcycle driver licenses, insurance, and mandatory helmets.

  2. Ebikes have created problems, but these are minor in comparison to the extreme weather events killing people and destroying cities and towns. Due to hurricanes and extreme heat home insurance markets have collapsed in Louisiana and Florida. Recently two large insurers have announced they will no longer provide new policies in California. There is a heat dome creating over 100 degree weather for weeks in the southern states. If we don’t stop driving gas powered cars it is game over. Ebikes mean the parade of SUVs driving kids to and from schools are no longer spewing carbon that will stay in the air for hundreds of years. What we need are parents educated about the different classes of ebikes so their teenagers only get Class 1. We need parents to tell their Ebike riders if they are caught without a helmet or riding recklessly they lose their
    Ebike. We need cars to slow down and better Ebike, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure. We need cops to ticket speeding Ebike riders or unsafe behavior just like they do speeding road bike riders. Ebikes are an alternative to people who cannot afford an Electric Vehicle, but don’t want to pollute our air and contribute to the climate EMERGENCY. Ebikes are a big solution to climate change and if you haven’t been hit by a major weather disaster fasten your seatbelt. It is no longer hyperbole to say we are standing at the precipice of an unstoppable destruction to the planet and our way of life. Ebikes are a vital solution and we need to make it work.

  3. Interesting perspective. But try this–cap ebikes at 12 mph, period. Don’t encourage speed and going faster or about the same speed as a common bicyclist. They have become a device to exceed regular bicyclists speed. I am a long-time daily bicyclist in Wash DC. And yes they break the law as do all the other bicyclists. Cycling is a growing, unregulated and popular means of travel. Encourage it with better infrastructure or stand by and watch for the deaths to roll in. Oh and about those electric scooters…talk about problems and injuries.

  4. Thanks, Jeff. While I agree that there is a legit discussion to be had re: safe speeds of the variety of e-bikes, I just need to underline again that this media moment and this particular NYT story was NOT about speed. A teen hit by a vehicle while stopped and signaling to turn – that is not at all an example of the dangers of fast bikes. It’s part of what’s problematic with this story.

    That said, local governments should be crafting policies that make it easy, accessible, comfortable and beneficial for people to get on a bike — and allowing faster-than-manual speeds is part of that.

    Consider this: You are new to biking and just getting familiar with biking around the Washington D.C. area, and the bike routes from Virginia into the district. You have an e-bike that goes up to 15-20 mph with a pedal assist. It’s helping you get comfortable with crossing bridges, or going up big hills, or bringing one of your kids to school or summer camp without having to drive in DC traffic. It’s making your commute FASTER rather than slower than it would be in a car. These are all benefits of e-bikes. These are all ways to help folks be welcomed into cycling and lowering the barrier to entry.

  5. Good luck with this argument. Like several others commenting here, I’ve already seen multiple instances of minors using these vehicles unsafely. Are you going to argue that they should all get motorcycles next? You can probably get an electric motorbike too.

    And we don’t know who was at fault in that accident – as you may already know from driving a car, putting on your turn signal is the *beginning* of making a safe turn. A person who hasn’t driven a car will generally have less experience at judging the speed of an oncoming car, and s/he also may not know how long it takes to stop.

    If there’s anything kids don’t need, isn’t it less exercise?

    I don’t think any bicyclists should be on the same road as cars. It just isn’t safe at the speeds that cars use.

  6. Thank you Evan George for this commentary and sorry it has brought out the bike haters. I think you do a good job of centering the problem of car-centric design and inadequate biking infratsructure. We should be focused on making streets safer for people – including pedestrians and cyclists – not on making it harder for people to reduce emissions as they get where they need to go.

    N – As a cyclist I would love to never have to bike on the same road as cars — can we start by banning car use on 10% of our roads?

    Also, why do we sell cars that have the capacity to exceed the speed limit? Capping car speeds would save thousands of lives.

    E-bikes may have their issues, but the far far bigger issue is cars.

  7. E bikes are not a safety problem. Its inconsiderate or foolish or negligent riders that may be unsafe. A bike a horse a skate board or roller skates are safe if used with due care. But I wonder, Is the minng, manufacturing, and disposal of E car and E bike batteries of all make safe environmentally?

  8. E-bikes truly are a remarkable climate solution, not a menace! Their eco-friendly nature and low carbon footprint make them an excellent choice for sustainable transportation. However, let’s not forget the importance of maintaining traditional dirt bikes too. For those interested in keeping their dirt bikes in top-notch condition, I highly recommend checking out ‘How to Clean Dirt Bike Air Filters at Home’ on https://wheelrank.com/how-to-clean-dirt-bike-air-filters/. It’s a valuable resource that promotes responsible practices for both e-bikes and traditional bikes alike.”

  9. Tony Sirna, thanks – but that’s not necessary. Bicyclists are able to use the sidewalks to ride separately from cars. This does require them to slow down and walk around pedestrians, of course. But that is a minor inconvenience in exchange for having miles of safe pathways, without further expense.

    I don’t know who you think is a bike “hater” – but of course you can’t have meant me, since I’m not one.

    I do agree that it was a mistake to allow SUVs to be created – they are unsafe and, unlike pickups, totally unnecessary.

    Further, probably about 95% of accidents could be prevented if people – all of them, whether on a bike or in a car – simply followed the rules. Accidents happen because somebody made an error (usually). In this case, we don’t know who – so let’s not assume.

    What if we just didn’t let children use them? I haven’t heard about adult commuters getting killed on these things.

  10. This article is an excellent update and critique of the NYT article. Like so many people, including some of the commenters here, people often have a myopic view of bikes and resist any attempts to see car-based culture as anything but normal and essential. Yet car-based culture is dangerous and ecologically costly in the extreme.

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About Evan

Evan George is the Communications Director for the UCLA Emmett Institute. He was previously the News Director at KCRW, where he led the newsroom’s broadcast and digital…

READ more

About Evan

Evan George is the Communications Director for the UCLA Emmett Institute. He was previously the News Director at KCRW, where he led the newsroom’s broadcast and digital…

READ more