An electric powered bicycle designed to carry a small child in back. Source: Steve Price

E-bikes are technology for the 15-minute city

Electric powered bicycles may or may not be cool, but they expand access to the daily and weekly necessities of life while avoiding the many costs of driving.

The Atlantic, a premier US intellectual publication since the middle of the 19th Century, recently published what can be only described as a hit piece on e-bikes. Given that electric-powered bicycles are environmentally beneficial, it was unexpected. Writer Ian Bogost, an academic and game designer, argues that e-bikes are an overhyped mash-up between bicycles and motorcycles that are doomed to fail on some level.

“Something is ontologically off with e-bikes, which time and adoption alone can’t resolve. Whether as bicycles haunted by motorbikes or as mopeds reined in by bikes, e-bikes represent not the fusion of two modes of transit, but a conflict between them.

“The result is less an evolution of a two-wheeled machine than a pastiche of the many things such a device represents. It’s a monster made from bicycles and motorbikes.”

If e-bikes are a Frankenstein on wheels, as Bogost implies, the monster is undoubtedly popular today. 

“The pandemic drove a 240 percent surge in e-bike sales from 2020 to 2021,” Bogost notes. The rise in market share has continued in 2022, as e-bikes are outpacing the sales of electric cars

The article indicates the sales surge may be temporary. Bogost compares e-bikes to the Segway, a much-hyped failure, and electric scooters—which haven’t panned out for investors in the last few years.

The author, who owns an e-bike, offers a list of complaints—most of which boil down to this: They are not as cool as motorcycles or high-end bicycles. 

“Currently, e-bikes are trapped in the weird smear between pathetic, loser bicycles and pitiable, low-end motorbikes,” he comments. I resemble the “loser bicycle” remark, as I ride an inexpensive bike with fenders that I purchased from, believe it or not, LL Bean. I never give my bike’s low cool factor a thought, although my fenders are pretty awesome. It gets me around town for errands, carries groceries, and works for pleasure rides of up to 20 miles. That’s all I want. 

It strikes me that the success of regular bicycles, as a technology, has little to do with coolness. I agree that when you are about seven, a bike is pretty cool. The high-end lightweight bikes of serious riders, also, are cool. But the bicycle has not thrived for the last 150-plus years, in the face of unprecedented technology advances, because it is cool. Fundamentally, the bike 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 is just so damn useful, and that’s why it won’t go away.

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

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

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

The 15-minute city, a popular planning idea that fits in with new urban principles, proposes that all daily and weekly household needs be located within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride. In many areas, riding a bicycle for several miles for errands, work, or entertainment may be difficult—especially for older people, those who can’t get sweaty (like employees on the way to work), or those with children. Such activities are greatly assisted with an e-bike. Moreover, while you are getting from place to place, you are getting exercise and improving your health. 

Bogost makes a good point that American bicycle infrastructure is poor compared to many countries. “The pathways 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. Yet he doesn’t think very deeply about why those problems exist, notes Price. “He doesn't consider that the problem might be the design speeds of those streets. He offers no serious criticism of streets and urban form.”

If the writer wanted to take aim at aspects of modern life that are weird mashups combining the worst of both worlds, he might have mentioned stroads—dangerous arterial thoroughfares that are part street, part road, and serve neither function well. Stroads are not designed well for bikes, or e-bikes, and are all too common in the American landscape. Or he might have brought up conventional suburbia itself, which is neither urban nor rural, and tries to be both. Talk about an ontological problem.

Because e-bikes go faster than regular bicycles, they may well be more dangerous if the rider is not 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 advocacy for bicycling from other voices, is the lack of consideration of the use of bicycles for accessing the things necessary for daily living: Groceries, haircuts, medical care, meeting friends. It's not just about exercise, leisure, sport, and commuting. E-bikes open up so many more useful resources found in the urban landscape.”

Partly because of that, I personally think that e-bikes are pretty cool. But even if they are not, I expect 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 via human-powered transportation.

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