As of July 1, 2018, the so-called Speed Pedelec electric bicycles with a maximum speed of 45 km/h (28 mph) will be allowed in bike lanes in Denmark. Until now, they had to be registered as a big moped (small motorbike) and were not allowed on bike lanes.
The controversial law
The new law is almost identical to the draft from the Danish Road Safety Agency released earlier this year, apart from one crucial detail that was changed just hours before deadline: The minister of transportation Ole Birk Olesen chose to listen to the massive warnings and changed the requirements of riding Speed Pedelecs to include the rider needing a driver’s license for either moped or car. This means it’s legal from the age of 15 years with a driver’s license for mopeds, and for 17 years and up with a driver’s license for cars.
The new law, which is to be evaluated after one year in effect, has been subject to heavy criticism in regard to safety. According to dr.dk many organizations, including The Danish National Police, The Council for Safer Traffic, The Accident Investigation Board Denmark, The Danish Cyclists’ Federation, and The Danish Pedestrian Federation, have warned that with higher speeds more injuries will follow. This should come as no surprise, since it’s basic physics. So, obviously, the design of the bike lanes should also be taken into consideration, but that’s expensive and hence not mentioned in the law.
The noble motivation
However, let’s not forget why this law was proposed in the first place: to get more people to choose a small electric vehicle as opposed to a large fossil fuel burning car. As a keen e-bike rider myself (in all speed categories), I can only applaud that. The energy use of an electric bike is very low compared to a car. According to my own crude calculations mixed with experience, this is how they compare:
Calculation example for the bike and e-bike:
If you ride your bike 20 km in one hour (12 mph), your feet have stomped approximately 0.1 kWh down into the pedals. That means your body has provided 0.4 kWh all metabolism included (yes, your body is about as efficient as an internal combustion engine!) This corresponds to the energy in 60 grams of good quality dark chocolate. If you ride your bike 25 km in one hour (15 mph), you double your energy consumption due to wind resistance, and leaves us with just over 30 Wh/km/person (48 Wh per mile per person) all metabolism included.
Take note that the very high frontal area to weight ratio on a bicycle means that speed increase has a much more profound effect than in a car. It takes 100 W onto the pedals to maintain 12 mph, and up to 750 W to maintain 30 mph. This is why you hate driving up wind!
This is where the electric motor makes a difference. Now, if you have an electric motor that helps with 250 W, you only need 0.25 kWh to drive 25 km (15 miles) in one hour, and that leaves the pure electric bike having spent 10 Wh/km/person (16 Wh per mile per person).
However, on a Pedelec, you have to pedal a bit to make it go, so your body adds approx. 0.2 kWh while the motor saves approx. 0.05 kWh (metabolism remember). In effect, this “hybrid/cyborg” e-bike system — that a Pedelec essentially is — has spent 16 Wh/km/person (26 Wh per mile per person).
On the e-bike you end up burning the energy equivalent to 30 grams of chocolate at 15 mph as opposed to 60 grams at 12 mph on the standard bike, but that’s still exercise! On the Speed Pedelec the total energy expenditure obviously rises as you get closer to the top speed of 28 mph due to wind resistance.
If you want to delve into more calculations like this I highly recommend reading the late David MacKay’s book: Sustainable Energy — Without The Hot Air, which is free online.
I have 30 km (20 miles) to travel to get to work, and every chance I get (reasonable weather, no need to car pool) I choose my e-bike, not only because it is cheaper, but also because it is more convenient in regard to congestion, parking, and even speed. On a 25 km/h (15 mph) e-bike, it is slower, but on a 45 km/h (28 mph) I am on par with the car at average speed.
But the thing is, we do not all live in the countryside, and even though the general law states that speed should be adjusted according to circumstance, we all know how that works out when you’re in a hurry… “Get out of the way! None of you can possibly be as late as I am!” Sigh…
The harsh reality
If I choose to ride a Speed Pedelec to work, more than half the route will not be congested, but as I close in on the dense traffic in the city, I have to make an active choice to slow down. Which I may or may not do. And this human factor is why the law gets a lot of heat.
As I quoted in my previous article on the subject, the director of The Danish Cyclists’ Federation, Klaus Bondam, thinks this is a deadly proposal: “It is thoughtless, irresponsible, and extremely dangerous to let [Speed Pedelecs] use the bike paths. It will pose a huge security risk. If this happens, it will cost lives and many will stop cycling due to increased risk of accidents on the bike paths.”
From my experience on comfortable and quiet e-bikes, one thing is for certain: others will misjudge you. Many, many times cars have moved out in front of me, bikers have swiveled unpredictably in front of me, and pedestrians stepped out in front of me because they misinterpret my speed by a factor of 2. And this is just on a normal Pedelec. Stepping up from 15 to 28 mph makes it much harder to judge the speed. On top of that, these bikes are heavier too. They can do serious damage at these speeds.
All in all, I think the use of Speed Pedelecs will only be a success if the design of the bike lanes are taken into consideration. So called bike-super-lanes are being established along main roads in and out of cities, which is great, but some serious work has to be done with the narrow lanes in city centers. Many dense areas are absolutely not designed for these speeds. Race bikes will not even use these lanes, they ride on the main streets among cars instead, but that’s another story.
When you ride in normal bike lanes, you are constantly reminded that this is not a political priority (I think Copenhagen is an exception, but I have no experience riding bikes there). The much too narrow lanes, the potholes, the steep ramps at curbs in crossings, the poor maintenance in general. I mean, car owners would not stand for these conditions in the streets.
I have reached out to the road sector design unit under the Ministry of Transportation, to get an idea of what can be done to ensure safety with Speed Pedelecs as they become more common, and will update this if I get a response.
Until then, at least let’s hope that this spells the end of the stinking, noisy, and extremely polluting 2-stroke mopeds we have in abundance in this country.