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To Bike or to E-bike: These are some questions

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Before I begin: The disclaimer above is for real. My comments do not pretend to represent the position of BikeABQ. They are mine. BikeABQ is allowing me to post them here in large part because they believe discussion is crucial if we are to find a sound way forward building a bicycle-happy city environment. Besides, BikeABQ is simply made of good people who love riding bikes.

by Susan Hering

E-bikes. They are on our streets, our multi-use pathways, our legislative agenda, and our minds. Every time I ride my old-fashioned, person-powered, ponderously pedaled two wheeler city bicycle, I am reminded that time does not stand still; science propels us into our future. The trick, and our constant, critical responsibility, is to ensure that the advances of science serve this precious planet to its betterment.

There are many questions about how we as bicyclists, concerned citizens, and New Mexicans are going to make room for e-bikes on our city streets. There are also questions about how they fit into a more rural or suburban place, but we’re talking about Albuquerque on this blog! That said, the first question I propose to bring up is posed by an example of a news story that broke across national media several weeks ago. Not exactly a headline grabbing story, but among those of us who care about traffic safety, a provocative and sad story about a young man, a boy really, who was killed while riding his e-bike on a road in Encinitas, California. Three days later, another boy in the same city was hit by a car while riding an e-bike. More happily, he survived. As the story of this tragedy was reported by the New York Times, without any substantiated proof that either bicyclist did anything wrong, it was strongly implied that these “collisions” make it clear that e-bikes require special regulation. (An aside here: Kudos to our Albuquerque Journal for calling a crash a “crash,” not an “accident” nor a “collision,” which both imply “Oops!” Words matter. Calling a fatal crash a “collision” is like calling Covid a “cold.” They’re both true, yet they belittle.)

The original reportage is linked, above. The following statement, from a sergeant in the sheriff’s office charged with these investigations, makes clear the prejudice against the bike rider. “The speed they (e-bikes) are going is too fast for sidewalks, but it’s too slow to be in traffic.” The e-bike the boy who was killed was riding had a maximum speed of 20mph. He was riding on a road with a speed limit of 55mph, a road on which he had a perfect right to ride. If his bike, even at its max speed, is too slow to be on that road, what would investigators conclude if a person-powered bicycle was hit by a car?! We are allowed on most city roads. If we have a right to be riding on our roads, don’t we have a right to be safe on our roads? As a BikeABQ post on social media put the matter, “An unbiased telling of the events would not pin the blame for teenage cyclists being hit by cars on the cyclists.” In Encinitas, a “state of emergency” was called to re-evaluate e-bike regulation. In California’s neighboring state and ostensible bicycling haven of Oregon, one needs to be 16 to ride an e-bike. As of this year, New Mexico too has an age restriction of 16, though it only applies to bicyclists on Class 3 e-bikes. More on the complexities of e-bike classes follows.

As active transportation advocates and vulnerable road users in a city built around the concept that getting places fast is more important than getting there safely, we are wrestling with several issues around the increased presence of e-bikes on our commuter and recreational routes. In the last, all-too-brief legislative session, our state representatives in the Roundhouse grappled with designing a class system to e-bikes in an effort to begin regulating their presence. At adjournment and as it stands at this writing, we have 3 classes. Class 1 and 2 e-bikes have a maximum speed of 20mph, with Class 2 bikes having a throttle. Class 3 bikes can go a little faster. All three classes are allowed on our city streets, whether the street has a bike lane or not, whether a bike lane is protected or not. (Oh. Wait. We don’t have many protected bike lanes. But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?) At present, Class 1 e-bikes are allowed on all the great multi-use recreational pathways across our state, including those here in our city. It’s been left to local jurisdictions to permit Class 2 and 3. Our multi-use paths came under increasing use during our Covid changes, and so did e-bikes. Now, city leaders are mulling a proposal to impose flat out speed limits on those pathways. This may be a fine idea, but given that we haven’t yet managed to enforce speed limits on our roads, it makes me scratch my helmet to ponder who’s going to be the traffic cop on the Bosque trail! Frankly, I’d much rather our speed enforcement efforts focus more sharply on our deadly motor vehicle traffic, wouldn’t you?

We need to figure out how to add e-bikes harmoniously to our traffic streams. This isn’t going to be a cake walk, or should we say a cake ride, since we haven’t made a lot of progress adding any kind of bicycles to our traffic streams. The sad, sad case of the bicyclist killed by a hit and run driver a few weeks ago is just one case in point. A dedicated bicyclist, she didn’t even own a car and volunteered at our city’s Esperanza bike shop. Whomever killed her and whatever excuse they may offer eventually, they were not so impaired that they didn’t think clearly about their own defense; removing the cyclist’s body and bicycle from the scene as they did, returning her body to her home, shows they were cognizant. And removing the bicycle clearly prevents gathering evidence of driver culpability. You need the mangled bike to establish speed and direction of the crash.

Are e-bikes really the urgent problem on our roads? In a ranking of dangerous driving, a recent study by Consumer Affairs placed Albuquerque in the inglorious, scary position of third worst city in the US. I’d say, emphatically, the problem we have is not bikes, not even e-bikes. E-bikes are here to stay, and they should be. They allow more people to get places without a car. Getting places without a car is important even an e-car, in that it can eventually allow our wide roads to be narrowed, to gain tree-lined boulevard medians, to make frontage roads obsolete as traffic dwindles and slows. Yes. It’s all possible. Sure. Bicyclists on our multi-use pathways need to go slowly. This goes for those of us without battery power, too. If we want respect for our means of transportation or recreation, we need to show respect for those who are equally or more vulnerable. Or maybe, as our great multi-use paths become congested, as this Strong Towns article shows us can happen with the prettiest and best of urban intentions, just maybe we get back to making our roadways themselves into streets that are safe for all of us, streets with lowered vehicle speeds, protected bike lanes, and sidewalks that even a wheelchair user can safely use. We are not the problem. Our infrastructure is the concrete base of the problem. Our tendency to blame the victim for just being there on our roads and paths is a problem, too. The boy on his e-bike in California had a right to ride there. The woman killed here in Albuquerque recently had a right to be bicycling, whether or not it was night.

Let’s get this figured out. It doesn’t begin with e-bikes; it begins with slowing down cars and trucks and, until that’s accomplished, protecting those of us on two wheels, no matter how much our pedaling may sometimes need a little power boost. And in an article that just came out, our friends in the California Bike Coalition provide a nice overview of why we should all embrace, not protest, e-bikes on our roads and pathways.

(Disclosure: BikeABQ’s Board President, Susan Gautsch, is the owner of an e-bike shop here in Albuquerque. She did not contribute to this blog in conception or execution.)

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