Urban Planners Should Ignore New York & Israel Regarding Electric Bikes

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In an earlier article, CleanTechnica highlighted the health, economic and environmental benefits of electric bikes in urban areas. These included about $2 million per 1,000 e-bikers in annual social benefits and about a million pounds of CO2 avoidance, as well as direct jobs. Clearly, cities and countries should be promoting electric bicycles. What should that look like, and what’s actually happening?

This article is part of the series leading to a major CleanTechnica report on disruption and innovation in the two-wheeled motorized vehicle space. Past articles have included the innovative disruption facing the space from electric-assist bicycles, the challenges facing major motorcycle firms such as BMW and Harley-Davidson, the different issues facing startups such as Zero and Alta, the unexpected impacts that are emerging, what’s driving the transition, and the prevalence of retro design in the space.

Have an insight that’s important or a portion of the space that the series hasn’t covered? Get in touch via comments or email.

New York made electric bike headlines a couple of times in 2017 and 2018. If electric bikes are so great for cities, then obviously this was due to New Yorkers’ unabashed embrace of them and new urban planning guidelines accelerating their adoption, right? No. First the 2017 headlines.

Then the half-hearted reversal came in 2018.

If this was the only set of headlines showing at best tepid acceptance of the obvious urban virtues of electric bikes, it would just make New York City an outlier in e-bikes, as it is in so many other ways.

But there are these Israel data points.

What’s going on? Is this appropriate?

Well, in New York there’s one underlying problem and in Israel another, and neither is actually the electric bicycles themselves.

In New York, it’s NIMBYs with a perhaps a dash of racism. As Citylab reported:

“… the speedy contraptions have angered some residents and block associations, who argue that they’re a safety hazard for pedestrians, drivers, and slower cyclists.”

That they are almost universally used by non-white immigrants to deliver food was conspicuously missing in the genteel complaints of residents’ groups who undoubtedly also complain about increased density and the loss of their local and completely unprofitable bookstores. Thankfully, sanity is prevailing in New York.

In Israel, it’s a different problem, as the articles above point out.

“Of the 208 people killed on Israel’s roads since the turn of the year, 16 were riding electric bicycles, and four of them were under the legally required age of 16.”

But as the recent CleanTechnica article on electric bike fatalities and injuries pointed out, it’s the lack of cycling infrastructure in Israel that’s the problem, not electric bikes. Build separated bike lanes, maximize the number of electric and unmotorized bicycles and fatalities per 100,000 cyclists would drop radically, as they have in every country in the world that treats cycling seriously.

This is reminiscent of Australia’s two-steps backward mandating of bicycle helmets in the early 1990s.

What happened? The completely obvious, which is that the very positive trend of increased cycling reversed radically. Cycling rates plummeted and have never recovered. Australia stands out globally as having managed to reverse the global trend to increased cycle commuting. Did Australia’s bicyclist safety and population health increase? No. Bicyclist head injuries decreased in absolute numbers but climbed relative to the number of cyclists. Meanwhile, almost no one was gaining the health benefits of cycling.

What increases cyclist safety and by extension electric biker safety is more bicycles on the roads and paths of cities. Car and truck drivers are the #1 cause of serious injuries to cyclists, and when they expect to see cyclists they pay attention for them. When there are insufficient cyclists on the roads, drivers don’t look for them.

“[Safety in numbers] has been demonstrated in cross sectional and longitudinal studies … Each individual cyclist experiences fewer occasions of being overlooked by cars and fewer safety critical situations (near-misses). Video observation data confirm this pattern.”

Anything which decreases the number of cyclists on roads decreases safety for cyclists, decreases the number of cyclists, and reduces the benefits of cycling, whether with an electric motor or not.

So what should regulators’ and planners’ response be to electric bicycles? As always, it’s worth looking around for pockets of the future, in this case Oslo, Norway. From Citylab again, Oslo Offers Citizens $1,200 to Buy an E-Bike. The program budget is only $600,000 and the funds are capped at 25% of purchase price, so that’s only 500 to 1,000 bikes. Norway is also investing a billion dollars in bicycling infrastructure, so those bikes will have a place to roam.

That’s a start. As the earlier CleanTechnica article pointed out, the easily quantified benefits per person easily could be in the range of $2,000 per cyclist per year with only half of their car commuting trips replaced with e-bikes. $1,200 is a cheap price to pay for years of higher benefits.

As was pointed out in the article on the mixed regulatory regimes around the world, the European limits on power are very low compared to other jurisdictions. The speed restrictions for pedal-assist appear to be completely reasonable given the physics, but limiting the power assist to get up steep hills with heavier loads of kids and groceries makes less sense. If power is restricted for some reason, then likely 400-500 Watts is more reasonable (while still being unenforceable). As a note, China is now limiting electric bikes to 25 kph, 400 Watts, 55 kg and requires that they have pedals, making them in line with current evidence.

Of course, bike paths and lanes need to be longer. A lot longer. As electric bike riders ride from 50% to 90% further, with 14.1 kilometer (9 mile) trips considered reasonable vs 7.5 kilometer (4.5 mile) trips for regular bikes on average, suburbs need to be connected to inner cities and each other by bicycle ways that are more than Sunday ride opportunities. The lack of separated bike paths is what is causing fatalities in Israel and what is a big inhibitor to more cyclists globally, so that’s the problem to address.

Should the bike paths be wider or differently regulated? Probably not, although this is an area of limited study yet. Let’s take guidance from the first principles mistakes of road safety planners. They thought that wider lanes with few roadside obstacles would be safer. So that’s what they did in the absence of any evidence either way. But they were exactly wrong. Wider lanes with no roadside obstacles induced higher driving speeds, and speed kills. Now there’s a global shift to narrower lanes to correct last century’s mistakes. That lesson should be internalized by bicycle lane planners.

Secondly, the 25 kph (15.5 mph) speed limit for electric bicycles that’s fairly common can lead to up to 3.7 times the impact in collisions over average bicycle speeds per the fatality physics assessment, but it’s easy for fit male cyclists to reach 25 kph without electric assist. The problems in Israel and Beijing aren’t with the velocity of the bicycle, but with cars and trucks hitting electric bicycles which are still slower.

As always with change comes reaction. In the case of electric bikes, the formerly privileged car owners they displace and the residents of the streets they ride through a bit more quickly are reacting negatively. But objectively, electric bikes are a strong net benefit and there is clear evidence about how to support them and regulate them. More bicycling infrastructure, sensible regulation on speed and power, safety outreach programs, and potentially subsidies for purchase of electric bicycles should be part of cities’ and countries’ policies.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

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