Phil McNeil slowed as he approached the traffic lights on Eastwood Road opposite the Lidl supermarket.
“I love my e-bike. It gives me that little boost when I need it. Also, I don’t brake my wife anymore,” he said, smiling as several other e-bike riders whizzed past him on the multi-purpose trail alongside the busy Wilmington Road.
“It gives me the best of both worlds – movement and strength when legs just aren’t enough.”
Whether leisure, mobility or both, sales of e-bikes are booming. According to the Light Electric Vehicle Association, 880,000 e-bikes were imported into the US in 2021 – a market that could grow to several millions later this decade.
Proponents see e-bikes as a “green” alternative to locomotion that offers mobility at a low price with a small ecological footprint. Opponents, on the other hand, see them as inferior mopeds that detract from the purpose and relaxation of cycling in the first place.
But the bigger question might be whether people are willing to embrace bikes and what that might mean for the way we get around and what our transport infrastructure needs to look like.
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What is an e-bike?
Simply put, an e-bike is a bicycle equipped with an electric motor that helps you pedal. The motor is powered by a battery mounted on the bike.
To be technically classified as an e-bike, the motor must assist a rider rather than propel themselves, so pedaling is required. How much power the motor delivers is regulated based on the rider’s pedal strength and the level of assistance selected by the rider. Many bikes offer different levels of motorized assistance, e.g. B. a small boost for flat routes and more power for tackling hills. Some bikes also offer electric assistance with walking the bikes, which can be heavier than a traditional two-wheeler.
Selecting the performance mode allows the rider to extend the life of the bike’s battery. Electric bike range can vary from 20 to 100 miles or more on a full charge, depending on capacity. In general, an e-bike with a longer range costs more.
Almost all major bike manufacturers offer a range of top-of-the-line e-bike models that cost thousands of dollars, although there are a range of bikes for all price points, skill levels, and needs.
So everyone likes them, right?
Not really. Some traditional cyclists view them as a “franchisation” of a bicycle and its purpose to enable human-powered transportation and movement.
Kits are also available to allow riders to bypass the top speeds of bike motors, which are generally around 40 km/h. This can make a “hot rod” e-bike look more like a moped than a two-wheeler powered primarily by human power. While Europe has strict e-bike speed rules, the US has more lax laws, resulting in some e-bikes being able to travel at speeds more in line with motorcycles or cars.
Local officials have also raised concerns about e-bikes, or more specifically, the bike’s power source.
Like cell phones, laptops and many other small and mobile consumer goods, e-bikes are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Batteries are the power source of choice for many small electronics and motors because they can pack a large charge in a small package. They are also rechargeable, reducing waste and making them easily portable.
But if charged with the wrong charger, or if the lithium battery is from an uncertified or inferior manufacturer, fires can result. According to the New York Times, lithium-ion batteries have caused 200 fires and six deaths in New York City so far in 2022.
This has led to some apartment owners banning the charging of e-bikes in buildings. Local officials have also increased outreach to educate e-bike owners, particularly young people and students, about the right ways to charge and store their bikes.
Are e-bikes good for the environment?
Again, the answer may depend on who you’re talking to.
Bill Coleman, who rode his e-bike down Wilmington’s Military Cutoff multi-use trail on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, said he now rarely uses his car for the three-mile commute from his home to work.
“I save fuel, move, avoid traffic and don’t get dirty,” he said, wiping his sweaty forehead. “What’s not to like?”
Research has shown that most vehicle journeys are short, meaning e-bikes offer increased “micro-mobility” for those who don’t want to drive, don’t own a vehicle, or don’t have the ability to use public transit.
“A lot of people we meet tell us they use their e-bikes because they just don’t want to get in their car to get everything done,” said Greg Skelton, who runs a Facebook group for e-bike enthusiasts set up the port city.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key to combating climate change, and like most areas in North Carolina, vehicle tailpipes are the primary polluters. In 2018, transportation accounted for 36% of the state’s gross greenhouse gas emissions and is projected to decline much less than other sectors in the coming years. Emissions from the transport sector fell by a relatively meager 3% from 2005 to 2018, according to the state’s latest “Environment Report”.
While e-bikes are responsible for some pollutants in the manufacture, charging, and disposal of their lithium batteries and the bikes themselves, it’s still a fraction of the emissions from electric vehicles or other powered modes of transportation.
share the space
But with the spread of e-bikes, opposition to them has also increased.
The National Park Service originally banned e-bikes from its parks, although it has backtracked in recent years. Motorized vehicles, which are technically e-bikes, are often prohibited from backcountry trails in many areas. Some also worry the quiet, fast-moving bikes could startle wildlife and clash with more traditional and slower users – including hikers, horses and traditional bikes – on the trails.
But proponents argue that e-bikes would open up more of the country’s great outdoors to the elderly, disabled, or those unable to walk or use a regular bike. Currently, low-speed e-bikes are permitted in many federal parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In more urban areas, similar questions have arisen about what e-bikes are and where they are allowed to ride. Since these are not traditional bicycles or motorized vehicles, a gray area arises. When traveling on traditional bike lanes and multi-purpose trails, their higher speeds can frustrate slower cyclists. But on roads, they’re often too slow to flow with vehicular traffic, frustrating motorists alike.
Security is also a big concern. Although e-bikes are still relatively new to the market, many studies indicate an increased risk of injury for e-bike riders, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The agency found that e-bike riders are three times more likely to be involved in an accident with a pedestrian and suffer a concussion than a conventional cyclist.
“Of concern, e-bike accident victims have a 17 percent risk of internal injury. Pedal bike accident victims, on the other hand, have a 7.5 percent risk of the same type of injury,” says the commission’s study, based on findings from the National Electronic Injury Monitoring System.
“It’s imperative that people wear at least a helmet and tight shoes,” Skelton said, noting the inherent danger of riding a bike at higher speeds. “That goes without saying.”
So can all cyclists share the road, or in this case the bike path?
Skelton said e-bike owners need to understand the concerns of officials and traditional cyclists about the emerging technology or they could face onerous regulations – much like what has happened to electric scooters in recent years after proliferating in inner cities and sidewalks have clogged and endangered pedestrians.
“When we ride on cycle lanes, we ride at their speed,” said the co-owner of Euro-TEK, which services British-made vehicles. “That’s just respectful.”
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But if e-bikes are here to stay, and the sheer number of shops selling them and delivery and tour companies that have embraced them shows they’ve found an important commercial niche, officials stress everyone needs to adapt.
That includes building infrastructure to safely accommodate more cyclists — although on Election Day voters in the New Hanover Borough would have rejected a sales tax hike that would have funded additional bike and pedestrian lanes, among other things.
Still, Skelton said he’s confident everyone is heading in the right direction, even if the learning curve seems like a hard hill at times.
“Everything has to be done within reason,” he said. “I think we can do that with e-bikes too.”
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at [email protected] or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network retains full editorial control of the work.