Heavier, faster e-bikes worry me

High speeds, more weight are recipe for more accidents

AS A PEDESTRIAN, I am worried city streets will get more dangerous now that faster, heavier electric bicycles or e-bikes have been officially recognized by state officials. This year’s state infrastructure bill, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in August, designates two classes of e-bikes that can travel up to 20 mph and puts them in the same category as conventional bikes. It makes no determination about the status of a third class of e-bike that can travel up to 28 miles per hour. It also gives regulatory authority over e-bikes to individual cities and towns.

Before this recent legislation, e-bikes were in a gray area between conventional bikes and mopeds. E-bikes look like conventional bicycles, but an electric motor gives the rider a boost while pedaling or even powers the bike all on its own.

An average pedal bike cyclist on flat terrain travels at about 10 to 14 miles per hour. Many e-bikes can easily reach speeds up to or even over 20 mph. This is a significant and dangerous difference in speed in all circumstances. Further, while the average conventional bike weighs less than 20 pounds, the presence of a motor and battery means e-bikes can weigh in anywhere from 40- 80 pounds.

Heavier bikes moving faster means e-bikes pose an increased injury risk to pedestrians and other cyclists in collisions.

Reuters reported e-bike injuries were more than three times as likely to involve a collision with a pedestrian than  either a scooter or conventional bike  based on research reported in the journal Injury Prevention.

A spate of injuries involving electric Citibikes in New York City, prompted Lyft, the parent company of Citibikes, to temporarily pull all of the approximately 1,000 electric bicycles from the city’s streets amid safety concerns about the brakes. According to New York City Department of Transportation data, e-bike fatalities jumped from just six in 2019 to 20 in 2020.  Even in the Netherlands,  a country with a decades-long cycling culture, a Dutch study found that e-bike riders were 1.6 times more likely than an ordinary bicyclist to end up in the emergency room.

But this increase in injuries does not need to be everyone’s experience. The legislation gives cities control over regulating the operation of e-bikes—including speed limits and where they can be ridden. Right now, in the absence of explicit city regulations, e-bikes can travel at any speed and anywhere a conventional bike can be operated (except sidewalks). The new legislation will boost the already increasing number of e-bikes on city streets. Bikeshare systems will include e-bikes in their rental fleets.

Local governments should immediately begin a public process to explore new rules focused on e-bike operation to ensure the streets are safe and accessible for all. Cities should also modify their data collection approach so that e-bike crashes and accidents are tracked separately from conventional bike incidents to ensure cities have appropriate data to help make future decisions.

E-bikes, along with e-scooters, Onewheels, and other electric personal mobility devices are here to stay. Cities need to figure out how to help make their operation as safe and efficient as possible for everyone.

Joan Pickett is a resident of Cambridge and a member of Cambridge Streets for All.