Towpath Trail

The Magic Electric Bike


By Pete Medek - 2/26/16

Bike advocates are always looking for the next big thing that will get more people out of their cars and riding bikes.

Not long ago, complete streets design was thought to be the answer. And while including bikes in the transportation mix is critical, and does bring more bikes to the street, it alone was not the ultimate solution.

Protected Bike Lanes

Surveys revealed that most people preferred a degree of protection with their place on the road, thank you very much. Hence, the protected bike lane (or cycle track) is currently thought to be the next big thing. And for good reason. Without good infrastructure for cyclists to use, you cannot have mass participation.

While cycle tracks and complete streets do get more people out of their cars, the dream of mass two-wheeled participation seems safe as a dream, for now.

Trail Networks - Another Game Changer

Even before these concepts began appearing on Ohio roads, trail building was well underway. It began, humbly enough, with a few recreation trails along former rail corridors. In recent years these bikeways have been expanded and connected to form some rather large multi-use trail networks.

As these trails continued to expand, so did their purpose. Now, many provide real transportation options. So much so, that connecting trails across a city or county is considered fundamental by trail builders. This connectivity pertains directly to a community's walkability, quality of life, and options for moving around a given area, large or small.

Today, the happy coincidence of bike infrastructure development on both road and trail is the foundation for getting people moving around without cars. Without it, concepts like eco-friendly alternative transportation corridors are just that: concepts.

Admittedly, bike infrastructure in Ohio has a long way to go. Will we have it made when it gets there?

I think we'll see a steady increase in cycling numbers as more bike-friendly infrastructure is created - which is nothing to scoff at. But for mass participation we'll need something special. Like a little magic.

The Magic Puzzle Piece?

No doubt that having the proper infrastructure is the foundation for any large scale movement to better health and a move away from car dependency. But infrastructure alone is not the ultimate solution.

There is another factor at play that does what the best infrastructure can never do.

Provided you haven't forgotten that obesity is a problem in this country, you know that many people are sedentary and/or have health issues and may not be able to ride a bike. Or, may only manage a short distance on one. If there was a solution that would get many of these people out of their cars, well, then you'd have something. A BIG something.

The Magic Bike

I'll call it the magic bike, but in fact it can be any small, powered personal transportation conveyance. Let's talk about the e-bike, since that form is being rapidly developed and is familiar to most everyone.

(See the video below for one example that looks nothing like a bike.)

Whether trail users like it or not, the e-bike (or some form of it) is the next big thing in personal transportation. Just as powered wheelchairs expanded mobility options for many, the e-bike has already begun to show up on trails in the U.S. And with it, a fair amount of controversy, given that multi-use trails have traditionally been known as "non-motorized" zones.

The e-bike offers many advantages that traditional bikes can't, hence the "magic."

  • Encourages those to ride who normally find pedaling too physically demanding
  • You are not limited to how far you can pedal on any given ride or commute (provided your battery has enough range)
  • No more showing up sweaty at work (when you don't want to) from your bike commute
  • Provides a failsafe if you've pedaled too far or bonk on a ride
  • Can open up route options or commutes for those who dread hills or distance
  • Allows riders with differing abilities to ride together
  • Electric assist cargo bikes can relieve the burden of trying to haul large items or your kids on a heavy bike
  • No more whining about losing a bike race :) (I couldn't resist adding that one.)

An e-bike is a bike that's useful to more people. So if the idea is to get more people out of their cars, you need a bike that will work for more of those folks. It's that simple.

In Part 2, we'll look at how different e-bikes work, and consider where they fit in. Then we'll look to the future of personal alternative transportation, and what that means for trail corridors.

See Part 2 below.

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The Magic Bike - Part 2

By Pete Medek - 4/24/16

Before we continue, here's a video that does a good job of explaining e-bike basics, and the advantages they provide commuters.

Blurred Lines

As mentioned in the video, there are different types of e-bikes. Some have a throttle and require no pedaling, like an electric scooter. Others have "pedal-assist" that only kicks in when you're pedaling, requiring you to operate the cranks in order for the power to stay on. And the amount of power or range can vary from model to model.

So you may have a bike with a throttle that goes quite fast. Or, you may have to pedal on a bike that provides a little boost and moves you along more slowly. These varieties are great for consumers, as they can choose the configuration they like best. But it can be maddening for trail managers in terms of regulation and safety.

Is an E-Bike a Bike or a Moped?

Many law-makers and law enforcement officers are also confounded as to where e-bikes fit in. Are they motorized vehicles that belong on the road with cars -- or still bikes?

Here's a piece on NYC's struggle with this issue, as well as a mention of new laws states are drafting to address this matter.

What About Trails & E-Bikes?

If you start with the premis of an e-assist that only works when one pedals, and limit that assist to low speeds and wattages (power), I believe that integrating these bikes with other users along multi-use trails would be fairly painless and safe. But as you know, there are different types of e-bikes that can produce very different levels of power and speed.

And that's the problem trail managers face. If they allow all e-bikes, they will be allowing the high-speed throttle designs as well.

As to where they'll be allowed to operate -- on road, trail or both -- California's new law may be the template for other states to follow, by classifying the machines.

Once classes are established, it's easier to get everyone on the same page regarding where and how each class should be used. Here's how California does it.

E-Bike Converts

As e-bike technology becomes more pervasive, many bike purists are moving over to the dark side. Mountain bikers are among the most hard-line advocates of good ole pedal-power. But their ranks are softening as more of them are being seduced by the advantages of the technology. (See how this product reviewer became an e-bike convert.)

I think the technology will continue to grow and the advantages will become so apparent over time, that most everyone will embrace the e-bike.

More Trail Traffic?

Could the use of e-bikes result in a new wave of congestion along trails? Possibly. That would also lead to trails becoming even more popular than they are now, and further their importance as vital mobility corridors, which in turn should lead to more funding as usage increases. So, in the end, a properly managed corridor should be able to adjust to changing needs by widening congested segments, for example.

California already allows two types of e-bikes on their class 1 trails. And some of those bikes are not required to be pedal-operated. In other words, they allow motorized personal transport vehicles. So in a sense, the days of the true "non-motorized" multi-use trail are likely numbered.

Because ultimately, it's not how your bike is propelled that matters most -- it's whether your device is compatible with others that share the trail.

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