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Cities Want Ebikes to Stay in Their Lane—but Which One?

It’s hard to find anything that unites Nashville, Tennessee; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York City. But all of those communities, and many others, are grappling with what to do about electric bicycles.

No matter where you are in the US, ebikes are having a moment. Market research company NPD says ebike sales grew 240 percent in the 12 months ended July 2021, surpassing sales of traditional road bikes. It was the second year in a row that ebike sales had at least doubled.

Experts attribute the surge to the pandemic, which left locked-down Americans hungering for new and Covid-safe ways to get out of the house and exercise. Ebike models geared toward families and new riders have seen special success, though there’s also a burgeoning community of e-mountain bikers. The shift has heartened advocates of active transportation, who believe that ebikes—even more than electric vehicles—can help reduce emissions from transportation and fight climate change. Meanwhile, bike-share companies Motivate and BCycle have added pedal-assist ebikes, which use small motors to give riders boosts, to their systems.

In Nashville, the relaunch last summer of the local BCycle bike-share system as all-electric sparked debate about what sorts of vehicles should be able to travel where. The controversy has focused on the city’s greenways, a system of linear parks and trails that stretch nearly 100 miles throughout the city. Tennessee law allows ebikes traveling below 28 mph to operate in most places, but local jurisdictions can create their own rules. “Motorized vehicles” have long been banned from the greenways—though ebike riders say enforcement has been scant. Some Nashvillians are also haunted by memories of the scooter-share companies that blanketed streets in 2018 without first seeking permission. For those people, ebikes can feel like another corporate, tech-driven trick. “There’s some post-traumatic stress syndrome, as a city,” says Bob Mendes, a member of the Metro Council.

So last summer, the council passed a resolution directing city agencies to study whether new rules are needed. A report is due in weeks, says Cindy Harrison, director of the greenways and open space division of the city’s Parks Department.

As in many other places across the country, ebikes’ new popularity in Nashville has pitted conventional cyclists against commuters against dog walkers against recreational exercisers for space on the limited smooth pathways where cars are banned. “This is a car-heavy town that’s been trying to fight from behind for years,” says Mendes, who’s owned an ebike since 2018. Banning ebikes from the greenways, he says, will restrict where riders can safely travel.

But Kathleen Murphy, another council member, says she’s heard from constituents—often walkers—who worry about ebikes’ speeds. “With the ebike, you don't hear it coming up from behind,” she says. “They’re faster and heavier, and that really concerned people.”

The debate has divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free spaces. The nonprofit Greenways for Nashville has urged caution and argued that greenways aren’t solely for cycling. “It’s like you’re mushing a sidewalk and a bike lane together,” Amy Crownover, the group’s executive director, says of the plan to allow ebikes on the greenways. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocacy group pushing for alternative modes of transportation, wants to let ebikes ride. Its advocacy and communications director, Lindsey Ganson, has urged locals to think about greenways as not only spaces for leisure walking or biking, but as greener transportation routes.

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“This idea that a speeding ebike is going to ruin someone's experience on the greenway—I understand it,” Ganson says. “But it's hard for me to reconcile with the number of people I've spoken to who say that riding their ebikes on the greenway has really made their lives so much richer and fuller.”

A similar debate is playing out in New York, which legalized ebikes in 2020. The city’s Parks Department, however, says it can set its own rules and views ebikes as “motorized” vehicles that aren’t allowed on its popular paths and trails. “These rules on motorized vehicles have been on the books for decades,” Crystal Howard, a spokesperson for the department, said in a statement.

Lyft, which owns Motivate and runs New York’s popular Citi Bike bike-share service, has rolled out electric pedal-assist bikes over the past few years and wants them allowed in the parks. So does local advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “New York City cannot reach its goals for climate, health, or Vision Zero”—a city-endorsed initiative to eliminate all road deaths—“without policies that safely and equitably shift more people to bikes,” says executive director Danny Harris.

One hurdle for officials in Nashville, New York, and elsewhere: a paucity of data about ebike-related injuries. Among other things, there’s no agreed-upon way to denote such injuries in medical records, which hampers researchers. So some ebike injuries are categorized with motorcycle crashes, says Chris Cherry, an engineer and professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. (A new code for ebikes is making its way through the organization that creates them.) One team in Washington, DC sent research assistants to stake out emergency rooms and ask people hurt on ebikes or scooters to outline their routes.

The limited research available tends to conflict: Some shows that introducing ebikes in an area leads to more crashes, and some shows it doesn’t. Cherry says his research has found that “ebike riders don't actually ride much faster than other cyclists—it just allows them to maintain speed.”

The ebike question takes on a different flavor in tourist towns. Grand County, Utah, which contains the hiking-and-biking hub of Moab, allowed ebikes that use a motor on one paved biking trail, despite some objections. “Moab is an old bike town,” says Jacques Hadler, a county commissioner who used to be the general manager of a local Moab bike shop. “There are some locals who are not in favor of ebikes at all.”

Colorado Springs last summer canceled at the last minute a controversial yearlong trial that would have allowed ebikes on city-managed bike lanes amid fears, officials said, that it would have run afoul of state law. In both places, local debates continue about the effect of ebikes on unpaved mountain biking trails and whether it’s safe to operate them around other fast-moving bicycles.

What would help is more space—especially if Americans keep snapping up ebikes. “What we really need, in my opinion, is more recreational infrastructure and more commuting infrastructure so that this incredible boom of outdoor activity can be sustained,” says Ash Lovell, the electric bicycle policy and campaign director for PeopleForBikes, a nationwide cycling advocacy group. The bike lobby clearly thinks ebikes are here to stay: The group created Lovell’s job just last summer.

Updated, 1-17-22, 3:30pm ET: This article has been updated to clarify Greenways for Nashville’s position.

Updated, 1-15-22, 7pm ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Lindsey Ganson as the executive director of Walk Bike Nashville.

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