The wild popularity of e-bikes means people are getting out of cars and onto two-wheels. It’s an environmental plus, but safety issues – including potholes – need to be addressed.
There is a new user of asphalt in American cities and towns, and it’s not just electric cars. Even as the 4-wheeled EVs are growing exponentially in popularity and use, the 2-wheel version of electrified travel is making its own mark on streets and roads: it’s the e-bike.
According to PeoplePoweredMovement.org, electric bicycles usage has increase by a factor of NINE since 2020, the year when COVID-19 turned the world upside down. As measured by bike share systems in major cities that provide e-bikes, the number of trips of these easy- and no-peddle “micro-mobility” conveyances kicked off the first pandemic summer and continued to grow ever since.
In New York City, monthly e-bike usage surpassed 1 million rides in April 2021; in Chicago, it was close to 200,000 trips that same month; in the San Francisco Bay Area about 120,000 trips, while places like Austin, Texas and Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), Florida the number of trips continue to climb as well. As a share of all bikers, all cities with bike-share programs report e-bike trips accounted for 11 percent of the total in 2020, then 38 percent of the total in 2021. The growth was even more pronounced in certain cities: e-bikes accounted for about 50 percent of total bike trips in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, and 70 percent of all trips in the Bay Area.
The National Bicycle Dealers Association reports that American electric bike sales in 2022 surpasses $1.3 billion, up 33 percent from 2021, and those sales are projected to reach $1.6 billion in 2023. Environmentalism, a desire simply for outdoor recreation, and the relative affordability of e-bikes are thought to be drivers of this trend.
Another factor is how easy they are to ride for newcomers to cycling: one type of e-bikes (Class 1) requires some pedal assist and are governed at 20 mph, while others (Classes 2 and 3) require no peddling (i.e., very little exertion) to go faster (20 mph and 28 mph, respectively).
More e-bike riders, more command of pavement, more injuries
This e-bike revolution coincides with, and to some degree prompts, greater development of bicycling infrastructure in cities and suburbs. Where streets and roads once were solely the province of cars, buses, and trucks, dedicated spaces for cyclists are becoming more common. Ranging from painted lanes to protected corridors (by concrete curbs) and even entirely new pedestrian- and bike-only venues (such as Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile linear park constructed on an abandoned elevated rail line), municipalities are encouraging healthier, low-carbon transportation and recreation.
Of the cities installing protected lanes, not all have figured out ways to keep them free of debris. Even though these lanes handle much lighter (by weight) traffic, paved areas that drain poorly develop potholes that are, in many cases, overlooked. Potholes are seriously hazardous to cyclists of all types, more so to e-bikes traveling at higher rates of speed.
Which brings up how all these bikes on all this new infrastructure come with a problem: E-bikes are associated with an increase in injuries and deaths to riders. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) finds that e-bike riders are subject to different and worse kinds of accidents and injuries as compared to traditional cyclists. They include a higher likelihood of suffering internal injuries and concussions, they are more likely to crash into pedestrians (by a multiple of three), and riders are more likely to suffer from a concussion.
The likelihood of these worse outcomes is believed to be due to e-bikes traveling at a higher rate of speed. For example, when a car is making a left turn, the motorist might see a bike approaching from the opposite direction but assume, incorrectly, that he or she can execute the turn before the bike crosses their path. Because the e-bike travels faster, that assumption often proves to be fatal for the cyclist.
Just as fatal to e-cyclists are road debris, potholes, and failed brakes (as happened to a 12-year-old girl in San Francisco in 2021). These are hazards to any cyclist, but with higher speeds the basic physics means the outcomes from those accidents can be much worse.
What municipalities can do to make e-biking safer
As counties, towns, and cities add to their biking infrastructure, they should do so with the understanding that the e-bikes of today change the dynamic. And, that safety should be paramount – long after the protected lanes are installed:
- Engage road engineers in designing for speed. Alternatively, establish a maximum speed allowed of e-bikes more in line with those of peddle bikes (which is slower than 20 mph).
- Maintain the bike infrastructure as much as that of the pavement serving cars, trucks, and buses. This means clearing debris, repainting markers and symbols, and fixing potholes (particularly around storm drain grates, which are almost always located in the bike lanes).
- Keep lines-of-sight open, particularly approaching intersections. This means trimming vegetation and prohibiting parking within close range of those intersections.
- Encourage cyclist training, such as that provided by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s Bicycle Safety Kit or summer biking camps for kids ages 2-12 through Pedalheads. Because e-bike users tend to be older, the instructions there should be shared with, if not explicitly written for, adults.
Potholes are dangerous to all cyclists, to scooter users, to pedestrians, and to motorists. As urban areas in particular recognized the many modes of transportation, better maintained pavement is a benefit to all.