The pandemic has come with many disruptions — not all of them bad. One example is the spike in popularity of electric bicycles, which are like regular bicycles in every way but one: They are equipped with a battery and motor that allow riders to pedal with less effort. In the first half of 2021, sales of e-bikes were up 64 percent compared to the same period in 2020.
According to Megan Hottman, a.k.a. the Cyclist Lawyer, “E-bikes really are the future of transportation in so many ways.” They increase access to cycling, offer an environmentally friendly alternative to driving and provide mental and physical health benefits. Plus, “they’re so fun,” says Ash Lovell, electric bicycle policy and campaign director at People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo., based nonprofit.
But there are some serious safety drawbacks as well, and it’s important to be aware of them. E-bikes are much heavier and can travel faster than regular bikes, which can increase the potential for serious injury to the rider, as well as to anyone he or she might collide with. As Peter Flucke, a Green Bay, Wis., pedestrian- and bike-safety expert and president of We Bike, etc., points out, the traditional paved trails shared by conventional cyclists and pedestrians weren’t designed with e-bikes in mind.
Riding on roads also has safety implications, however. According to Hottman, accidents can occur when drivers don’t expect e-bikes to travel as fast as they do. Consider what often happens when she finds herself in a bike lane next to a vehicle at a red light. When the light turns green, “The car next to me anticipates that I’m going to drop behind them as they accelerate, like someone on a normal bike would, and instead I stay side-by-side with them for longer than they expect,” she says. In that situation, a turning vehicle can spell disaster for the cyclist.
Recent research suggests that e-bike riders are not only more likely than traditional cyclists to collide with pedestrians, they are also more likely to sustain serious injuries. Here’s what you need to know to make your next e-bike ride as safe and enjoyable as possible, both for yourself and those around you.
Being a safe and courteous e-bike rider begins before you roll out of your driveway, says Lovell. She suggests a quick safety check before every ride, which includes making sure your tires are adequately inflated, testing your brakes and checking your battery charge. Hottman notes that one of the perks of an e-bike is that as long as your battery has juice, your headlight and taillight will stay lit.
According to Lovell, you need to know what class of bike you have. “That’s a huge part of knowing where you can ride.” Class 1 bikes can go up to 20 miles per hour; Class 2 bikes can go up to 20 miles per hour and have throttle assistance; and Class 3 bikes can go up to 28 miles per hour.
E-bikes are regulated at the state level, not by the federal government. “In most states, they’re considered bicycles and not motorized vehicles,” says Lovell, adding that the three-class definition is written into the state code in 36 states. That means that states and localities mandate where you can ride.
If you’re planning to hit a multiuse path or off-road trail, do your homework before you go. While all classes of e-bikes are generally allowed on roads, the classes of bike that are allowed on trails and paths varies widely across municipalities. People for Bikes has a database of state regulations, but Lovell suggests visiting the website of the jurisdiction you’ll be riding in for up-to-date local rules.
Being in compliance with the rules of the road “is like the holy grail,” says Flucke, who adds that violating basic safety principles is more likely to cause trouble than any idiosyncrasies of riding an e-bike.
That means you should always make a right turn from the right lane, check behind you for traffic before changing lanes, observe traffic lights and be predictable. Flucke’s general advice: “If you don’t do it in your car, don’t do it on your bike.” He suggests taking bicycle safety classes from organizations such as the League of American Bicyclists or Cycle-Smart.
“We know that many collisions occur in intersections,” says Hottman. E-bike riders may be particularly vulnerable because of their higher speed. The solution is simple: Slow down.
Often, a bike path ends at an intersection, which you cross via a cross walk before the bike path resumes on the other side. According to Hottman, whether local law requires it, “It’s always a really good practice to slow down when you’re proceeding.” Drivers making a right turn on a red light are looking for traffic traveling at walking speed, she explains. “So, if you come flying through the intersection at 20 miles an hour, if they look to their right and they don’t see anyone walking or crossing, they start to make the right turn on red,” before realizing you’re directly in their path.
E-bike riders sailing through intersections at higher speed can also become vulnerable to drivers who fail to yield at a left turn, says Hottman. A driver may see a cyclist approaching from the opposite direction and think they have plenty of time to make their left turn before the cyclist reaches their path. They “may turn directly in the line of the oncoming cyclist who, unbeknownst to them, is doing close to 30 miles an hour.”
Kindness is always a good idea, but it’s particularly important on multiuse paths, where fast-moving, heavy e-bikes can do serious harm. According to Hottman, this includes following the speed limit and announcing your presence with a friendly, “On your left!” or ringing your bell with plenty of warning. She emphasizes the importance of slowing down as you pass. Why? It’s “human instinct [to] look over our left shoulder and we actually veer to the left when someone says that.”
Inevitably, you’ll find yourself stuck behind a parent whose face is buried in their phone while their little one toddles along aimlessly or another cyclist who can’t hear you over their ear buds. “The more unpredictable that the situation looks, the more incumbent it is on the cyclists to slow their speed way down,” says Hottman. Pedestrians should always have the right of way.
Make sure you’re not the one causing problems by staying as alert as possible yourself, rather than fiddling with a cellphone or a drink. Hottman notes that each state’s distracted driving laws also apply to cyclists. Also, she says e-bike riders already contend with increased wind noise that comes with riding at higher speeds; ear buds make it even harder to hear your surroundings.
Hottman has one final suggestion for e-bike riders: Be an ambassador. She says a common misconception is that e-bikes are similar to mopeds and scooters, requiring zero user effort. “If [people] think that you’re basically driving a moped on a bike path, they are justifiably going to be [irritated].”
Because of the misconception that the bikes don’t require any effort, other cyclists may look at e-bike riders as cheaters. “When I’m on my e-bike and I pass a very serious-looking male cyclist, I can tell that it irks them,” says Hottman, who is a former professional cyclist. “I try to say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I try to be friendly and have a little bit of fun with it, knowing that they are sort of judging me for being on an e-bike in that moment.”
Other times, when Hottman is stopped at an intersection, particularly if she’s carrying a lot of bulky cargo (such as the huge FedEx box she was recently toting), people want to ask questions. “It’s really fun to pique their interest and to have a really informative conversation and maybe dismantle some of their beliefs,” she says.
And as any enthusiast will tell you, spreading the word about e-bikes comes easily. “E-bikes are wonderful because they make you feel superhuman,” says Lovell. “In a world that’s dark . . . the more joy we can all experience after this crappy couple of years we’ve had, the better.”
Pam Moore is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., and is both an e-bike rider and road cyclist. She hosts the Real Fit podcast, featuring conversations with female athletes on body image, confidence and other topics.