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E-biking has made me rethink things about my city, cities in general, and mobility as a human need and right. Here are things that have struck me while learning to use (e)bikes for transportation.
It's counterintuitive, but having access to more speed (and acceleration) can make biking safer. Starting from a stop at lights, holding a lane on shared roads, minimizing the number of cars that close on and overtake you (and the speed they overtake you at)… you are much more in control of your relationship to traffic on an ebike. This is one of new e-bikers' biggest "💡"/"🤯" realizations.
It's also surprising how a little boost makes a big difference in your control and safety. Increasing your top speed from 15mph to 20mph means a car going 25mph passes you half as quickly and has twice as much time to "see you coming" as it comes up behind you.
In more typical urban settings where cars might be averaging 15mph (between 0 and 20mph due to mild congestion and lights), it means you can find one driver who: 1. sees you 2. is not telegraphing their desire to murder you
and draft them for a while (until the next light, when you must bid them "🙏", glide up to the front, and find a new host).
Previously, you had to be a serious cyclist to access this speed (and corresponding ability to simply exist on car-dominated roads), but now almost everyone can.
The "Speed ⟹ Safety" effect is particularly true for people who are not stereotypic young/fit men (women, children of all ages, older people, differently abled people, …). I was brave enough – some of the time – to bike around NYC before e-bikes, but it was not feasible for my wife (though she is in her 30's and reasonably athletic) due to the high baseline level of bullying from drivers (both inadvertent and intentional) as well as specific vitriol and threats she received as a woman taking space that some men motorists feel is theirs.
- My 70yo in-laws have been ebike-pilled in their hilly town in Westchester; it's a wonderful way to allow people to get around, get to know their own neighborhoods, get fresh air / exercise, and accomplish daily tasks.
The most obvious benefit of speed is that it lets you get from A to B faster (or for less work, at a given speed). You can worry less about getting sweaty or feeling like getting home is daunting or you're not up for it, and it's generally easier to go places and do things.
Class 1 e-bikes provide a pedal-assist up to 20mph; this lets casual riders (who normally top out at 12-15mph) play in the 15-20mph range and, as with the "safety" angle, that ≈30% difference actually makes for a qualitatively different experience. I consistently pass more cars than pass me. It's pretty hard to go 15-20mph in a car for very long in urban environments, so ebikes are faster for a large class of trips (not even counting time parking).
This is a brand new, developing mode of transportation that changes the basic math of transportation in cities.
Lots of the US effectively levies a $40k tax to participate in society, which hits the least well off the hardest. We had a vicious political battle over one-off $1200 COVID relief checks, but enabling people to live car-free is like an $800/mo stimulus in perpetuity.
When I am passing cars stuck in traffic, a sad realization is that each car could have paid for 10 families' e-bike mobility solutions™️.
Some of the darkest images of the failed state of American governance as well as transportation culture were the long lines of cars at food banks during COVID lockdowns:
overhead shot of cars in line at a San Antonio food bank in April 2020, from Reuters
overhead shot of cars in line at a San Diego food bank in April 2020, from ABC News
E-bikes take up very little space for the mobility they provide. Mode shift from private cars to e-bikes directly improves a large class of congestion and parking issues in cities.
A critical area where American cities fail in enabling biking – and especially e-biking – is providing secure bike parking infrastructure.
Oonee (pronounced "uni") is an NYC-based startup I love, that operates phone-unlocked pods near transit where a dozen bikes can be stored, and is piloting "mini" pods that replace single-car parking spots w/ secure storage of 6-10 (e-)bikes.
For comparison, here are some examples of bike parking in other countries that would be a nightmare if replaced with car-parking:
car vs. bike parking at Eindhoven station
picture of bike-parking outside a school in the Netherlands
old picture of bike parking (in the Netherlands?)
Bike vs. car parking space comparison
Picture of a bike rack in the shape of the outline of a car, with 9 bikes locked to it
Picture of 4 parked cars taking more space than 30 parked bikes
Compare to car-centric North American analogs:
Supermarket parking sprawl in Vaughan, Canada
Satellite picture of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, with huge amounts of parking
Satellite picture of AT&T Stadium, Arlington, surrounded by parking 2-3x the sqft of the structure
Satellite image of Newark, NJ, with areas dedicated to surface parking highlighted
E-bikes can replace cars for a surprising variety of cargo-hauling tasks:
There is a small (but growing), dedicated group of people that love to show off the things they haul on their (e-)bikes, that I recommend checking out (images link to tweets):
Tern GSD with a huge amount of groceries on the front and back
Costco shopping cart full of groceries to be loaded onto a Tern GSD
cargo bike loaded with potting soil and a roll of chain-link fence
Bullitt bakfiet with bulky carpentry tools in the front "box"
VanMoof X3 with a child seat on the back
Larger bikes can fit 2 on the back easily:
Woman biking in heels with two children facing each other and playing "patty cake" on the back of the bike
There are also front-loading options ("bakfiets" or "box bikes"):
Woman cargo-biking in NYC with 2 children in a bakfiet
Cargo bike carrying four children and their bikes
Urban Arrow bakfiet with 2 kids in the front
Of course, it's possible to do even more with less:
Woman biking with 4 children on a bicycle – 2 in front, 2 in back
but luckily, new and evolving e-bike technology is making all configurations much, much easier.
Farmer's market runs 🙏🙏
Groceries on counter-top: bread, soup, sauce, vegetables, cheeses
and it folds!
Tern Vektron Q9 laden with groceries in front basket, rear basket, and 2 panniers
going for the "La Croix + Juice" record
Groceries on counter-top: 3 12-packs of sparkling water, 3 half-gallons of juice, and a dozen random items
Sometimes you just have a craving… or 7
Groceries on counter-top: donuts, pumpkin pie, ice cream, bread
Recently, I moved to my brother's empty apartment for 9d (after a small-chance of COVID exposure, to avoid any risk of exposing my wife).
VanMoof X3 with two panniers, small tube bags, and tote bag in front rack
VanMoof at ferry dock with panniers, backpack, and fleece pogies on handlebars
Biking in cities makes you realize that roads are terrible places. They're noisy, dirty, and dangerous because they are dominated by cars. They're awful to be in or around (unless you're in a car).
Interacting with roads on a bike feels better in its own right (in at least medium-dense areas, say): it's easy to see how many more people could do so and, if they did, how everyone would get where they're going more quickly/pleasantly/safely (including those who still need to use private cars for one reason or another).
It also underscores how ill-suited private cars are to urban environments: watching one double-parked car or truck snarl blocks of traffic, hearing horn honks or mufflers that are obnoxious (if not dangerous) over a radius that typically includes 1000's of homes, watching parents+stroller bullied in crosswalks by turning SUVs w/ head-height grills, etc.… cars don't work very well in dense areas, and they ruin them for everyone outside them.
I'm sorry to speak so negatively but there is enormous, real, preventable harm happening every day because of the level of car-dependence in the US, and most Americans have never known any kind of modern or functional public transit, so it's important to talk both about how much better we can make things but also what is bad about the status quo that most people don't realize or fully appreciate. The War on Cars section discusses this with more detail and rigor.