Cities want electric bikes to stay in their lane, but which one?


It is difficult find anything that connects Nashville, Tennessee; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York City. But all of these communities, and many more, are struggling with what to do with electric bikes.

No matter where you are in the United States, electric bikes are having a good time. Market research firm NPD says e-bike sales grew 240 percent in the 12 months ended July 2021, surpassing traditional road bike sales. It was the second year in a row that sales of electric bicycles had at least doubled.

Experts attribute the increase to the pandemic, which left Americans starving for new and safe ways for Covid-19 to leave home and exercise. E-bike models aimed at families and new riders have been especially successful, although there is also a growing community of e-mountain bikers. The change has encouraged proponents of active transportation, who believe that electric bicycles, even more so than electric vehicles, can help reduce transportation emissions and fight climate change. Meanwhile, shared bike companies Motivate and BCycle have added pedal-assisted bikes to their systems, which use small motors to boost drivers.

In Nashville, the relaunch last summer of the local BCycle shared bike system as fully electric sparked a debate over what types of vehicles should be able to travel where. The controversy has centered on the city’s greenways, a system of linear parks and trails that stretch about 100 miles across the city. Tennessee law allows electric bikes traveling below 28 mph to operate in most places, but local jurisdictions can create their own rules. “Motor vehicles” have long been banned from greenways, although e-bike users say the application has been sparse. Some Nashvillians are also being chased by memories of scooter-sharing companies that covered streets in 2018 without asking permission before. To these people, electric bikes may seem like another technology-driven corporate trick. “There’s a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder, as a city,” says Bob Mendes, a member of the Metro Council.

Electric bicycle sales have each doubled in the last two years.

Photography: Irfan Khan / Getty Images

Thus, last summer, the council passed a resolution ordering municipal agencies to study whether new rules are needed. Cindy Harrison, director of the city’s parks department’s greenways and open spaces division, is due to report in a few weeks.

Like many other places in the country, the new popularity of e-bikes in Nashville has pitted conventional cyclists against travelers and dog walkers and recreational athletes for space on the limited smooth roads where cars are prohibited. “This is a city full of cars that has been trying to fight back for years,” says Mendes, who has owned an electric bicycle since 2018. The ban on electric bicycles on greenways says it will restrict places where motorcyclists can travel safely.

But Kathleen Murphy, another board member, says she has heard voters, often walkers, worry about the speed of e-bikes. “With the electric bike, you don’t feel it going up behind you,” he says. “They’re faster and heavier, and that really worried people.”

The debate has divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free spaces. The nonprofit organization Greenways for Nashville has called for caution and argued that the greenways are not intended to be part of a city transportation or bicycle network. “It’s like you’re mixing a sidewalk and a bike lane,” says Amy Crownover, the group’s chief executive, about the plan to allow electric bikes on greenways. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocacy group that promotes alternative modes of transportation, wants to release e-bikes. Its executive director, Lindsey Ganson, has urged locals to think of greenways not only as spaces for leisure on foot or by bike, but also as greener transport routes.



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