E-bikes are technology for the 15-minute city

The Atlantic, a leading U.S. intellectual publication since the mid-19th centuryth Century recently released what can only be described as an e-bike hit track. Given that electric bikes are environmentally friendly, this was unexpected. Writer Ian Bagost, an academic and game designer, argues that e-bikes are an over-hyped hybrid of bicycles and motorcycles that are in some ways doomed to fail.

“Something is ontologically wrong with e-bikes that time and acceptance alone cannot solve. Whether as bicycles being pursued by motorcycles or as mopeds being bridled by bicycles, e-bikes are not the fusion of two modes of transportation, but rather a conflict between them.

“The result is less an evolution of a two-wheeled machine and more an emulation of the many things such a machine stands for. It’s a monster of bikes and motorbikes.”

If e-bikes are Frankenstein on wheels, the Monster is undoubtedly popular today.

“The pandemic has resulted in a 240 percent increase in e-bike sales from 2020 to 2021,” notes Bagost. The increase in market share has continued in 2022 as e-bikes outstrip electric car sales.

Bagost hints that the increase in sales could be temporary. He compares e-bikes to the Segway, a much-hyped failure, and electric scooters — which haven’t proven themselves for investors in recent years.

Bagost, who owns an e-bike, offers a list of complaints, most of which boil down to this: They’re not as cool as motorcycles or high-end bikes.

“Right now, e-bikes are caught in that weird mix between pathetic loser bikes and pathetic low-end motorcycles,” he comments. I’m similar to the “loser bike” comment because I ride a low-end bike with fenders that, believe it or not, I bought from LL Bean. I never worry about my bike’s lack of cool, although my fenders are pretty awesome. It gets me around town on errands, carries groceries, and works for pleasure cruises of up to 20 miles. That’s all I want

It strikes me that the success of regular bikes as a technology has little to do with coolness. I agree that a bike is pretty cool when you’re about seven years old. Even the light, high-end bikes of serious riders are cool. But the bike hasn’t evolved well over the last 150+ years in the face of unprecedented advances in technology because it’s cool. Basically, the bicycle is the most energy-efficient form of human-powered transportation ever invented. The energy you expend on a bike makes you stronger physically and emotionally. It’s just so damn useful, and that’s why it’s not going away.

However, bicycles have physical limitations that reduce their usefulness. For my part, I will not ride up steep hills, nor will I use my bike for errands that require riding in traffic or riding more than a mile or two. Also, I’m a Baby Boomer. I just can’t zip around like I’m 25 anymore.

This is where the e-bike comes into play. It extends the range of human-powered locomotion. For Steve Price, an urbanist in hilly Berkeley, California, the e-bike was transformative. “My wife and I were car-free in the Bay Area,” he says. “We have been dependent on e-bikes for almost all local transport for over three years. We find this author’s criticism of e-bikes puzzling and frankly childish.”

Ellen Dunham-Jones, an urbanist and author who’s good at spotting trends, observes that e-bikes are popular with many demographics: “I see them all over Atlanta,” she reports on an urbanistic listserv. “We’re hilly and I see mostly younger parents with a few kids on e-bikes in tow. I first became aware of their popularity with seniors in Carmel, Indiana, which is a very flat area. I checked out the high-end Dutch e-bikes at a shop there on the Monon Trail and the owner told me that most of his customers are over 65 and ride 100 miles a week. I was skeptical but within 5 minutes such a gentleman rolled in just to show the owner he had just hit 500 on his odometer in just 2 weeks!”

The 15-minute city, a popular planning idea that fits into new urban principles, proposes that all daily and weekly household needs are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. In many areas, cycling several miles for errands, work, or entertainment can be difficult—especially for the elderly, those who don’t break a sweat (like employees commuting to work), or those with children. Such activities are strongly supported with an e-bike. In addition, as you move from place to place, you exercise and improve your health.

Bagost makes it clear that America’s cycling infrastructure is poor compared to many other countries. “The trails and roads themselves, perhaps already unsafe at bike speed due to uneven pavement and poor maintenance, feel even more dangerous on a not-quite-motorcycle,” he writes. Still, he doesn’t think very deeply about why these problems exist, Price notes. “He doesn’t think the design speeds of these roads could be the problem. It offers no serious critique of streets and city form.”

If the author wanted to target aspects of modern life that are weird mashups that combine the worst of both worlds, he might have mentioned stroads — dangerous thoroughfares that are part road, part street, and serve neither well. Or he may have taken the conventional suburb itself, which is neither urban nor rural, and tries to be both. Talk about an ontological problem.

Because e-bikes go faster than regular bikes, they can be more dangerous if the rider isn’t careful. But that speed and power also makes e-bikes useful. As price notes:

“One of the things I find most frustrating about his article, and even other voices’ advocacy of cycling, is the lack of consideration for using bicycles to access necessities of life: groceries, haircuts, medical care, meeting people Friends. It’s not just about movement, leisure, sports and commuting. E-bikes unlock so many more useful resources in the urban landscape.”

I personally think e-bikes are pretty cool. But even if they aren’t, they will continue to be popular. As more people, especially older adults, live in the 15-minute city, the e-bike will expand access to the necessities of daily life through human-powered modes of transport.

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