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

It’s hard to find everything that unites Nashville, Tennessee; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York. But all these communities and many others are struggling with what to do with electric bicycles.

No matter where you are in the US, ebikes have a moment. Market research firm NPD says e-bike sales rose 240% in the 12 months ending July 2021, surpassing sales of traditional road bikes. This was the second year in a row that ebike sales at least doubled.

Experts attribute the jump to a pandemic that left incarcerated Americans hungry for new and safe ways for Covid to get out of the house and play sports. Ebike models aimed at families and new riders have been a special success, although there is also a thriving community of e-mountain bikers. The change has inspired proponents of active transport, who believe that electronic bicycles – even more so than electric vehicles – can help reduce transport emissions and fight climate change. Meanwhile, bike sharing companies Motivate and BCycle have added electronic bicycle pedal support systems to their systems that use small engines to boost riders.

In Nashville, the reboot last summer of the local BCycle all-electric bicycle sharing system sparked a debate over what types of vehicles should be able to travel. The controversy focuses on the city’s green roads, a system of linear parks and trails that stretch for nearly 100 miles across the city. Tennessee law allows e-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 green roads, although ebike riders say law enforcement is scarce. Some Nashville residents are also haunted by memories of scooter-sharing companies that covered the streets in 2018 without first seeking permission. For these people, e-bikes can feel like another corporate, technological gimmick. “There’s a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder like a city,” said Bob Mendes, a member of the Metro Council.

Sales of e-bikes have doubled each of the last two years.

Photo: Irfan Khan / Getty Images

So last summer, the council passed a resolution urging city agencies to examine whether new rules are needed. The report is due in weeks, says Cindy Harrison, director of the city’s green roads and open space department.

As in many other parts of the country, the new popularity of ebikes in Nashville has pitted conventional cyclists against travelers against dog walks versus recreational athletes for a place on restricted smooth trails where cars are banned. “This is a city with heavy cars that has been trying to fight in the back for years,” said Mendes, who has owned an electric bike since 2018. Banning e-bikes from green roads, he said, will limit where riders can travel safely.

But Kathleen Murphy, another council member, says she has heard from voters – often pedestrians – who are worried about the speed of electric motors. “With ebike, you don’t hear him coming from behind,” she says. “They’re faster and heavier and that really worries people.”

The debate divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free spaces. The NGO Greenways in Nashville has called for caution, arguing that green roads are not really meant to be part of an urban cycling or transport network. “It’s like walking down a sidewalk and a bike lane together,” said Amy Crownover, the group’s CEO, of the plan to launch e-bikes on green roads. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocacy group pushing for alternative modes of transport, wants to allow e-bikes to ride. Its CEO, Lindsay Hanson, urged locals to think of green roads not only as places for walking or cycling, but also as greener transport routes.

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