Debby Nieberg was cycling home from the dentist last October, when she was knocked to the pavement and broke her shoulder.
According to her police report, the youngster on an e-bike – overtaking Nieberg on Amsterdam’s narrow cycling lanes – got up and cycled off, a crime in itself. “This unfortunately has become a big part of my life because of the ‘need for speed’ of those on e-bikes,” says the 56-year-old freelance translator, who has just started cycling again. “The bike situation is definitely unsafe.”
The Netherlands, once famed for being cycle-friendly, is facing a surprising threat: souped-up electric bikes speeding at up to 42kph (26mph). Nieberg is one of a growing number involved in traffic accidents, to the concern of councillors, MPs, the police, cycling advocates and many of your everyday, cycling Netherlanders.
Nieberg flagged her accident to the Fietsersbond, a cyclists’ union that is campaigning to crack down on speedy e-bikes and “fat bikes” – those with extremely wide tyres. These should only use cycle paths with a maximum speed of 25kph – but some of the bikes are designed to go faster or are being altered by the user to allow them to do so. Last June, Dutch MPs voted to ban people from boosting factory-programmed e-bike speeds, and cycling experts warn that nations rapidly adopting them, such as the UK, will soon face the same issues.
Recent Dutch government research found e-bikes typically travel at almost 24kph, 3kph faster than normal bicycles, but a quarter of e-bikers exceed the limit – especially young adults. Mopeds and racers might be worse, but the Netherlands has an estimated 5m e-bikes, for a population of 17.8 million, and users include primary school children.
Esther van Garderen, director of the Fietsersbond, is campaigning for quick enforcement of the speed-boost ban and prohibiting fast e-bikes in bike lanes. “The problem is not normal e-bikes, but ever more souped-up bikes that are basically illegal mopeds,” she said. “In the Netherlands, since January, moped users must wear a helmet and young people don’t like this. They also need to be 16 and have a driving licence, but illegal ‘fat’ bikes are just sold, youngsters under 16 use them on the roads going at 40kph, without a helmet. This isn’t allowed, but there is no enforcement.”
She added that a plan by Amsterdam-Zuid district council to research whether child cyclists should be obliged to attach a flag to their bikes to improve road safety made her blood boil: “To think that the solution is that children need to have a flag is blaming the victim to the max.”
Her concerns are shared by Amsterdam D66, a liberal democratic party. “Research from the police showed that traffic accidents have increased and as we suspected, e-bikes play a role,” said Elise Moeskops, a D66 councillor. “On the one hand, they are great for the city: more people can cycle to work and that’s fantastic, but we see the speeds are a problem in our infrastructure. We want to look at obligatory helmets for people on e-bikes, manufacturer geofencing so you can’t go faster than 15kph, a maximum speed on the cycling lanes, and for e-bikes to go on the roads.”
This autumn, Amsterdam will reduce speed limits from 50 to 30kph on 500 roads and the city is also researching “intelligent speed adaptation” systems to warn speeding cyclists or even force e-bikes to slow down. “Traffic safety and safe biking are areas where I really want to break ground in the coming years,” said Melanie van der Horst, deputy mayor for traffic. “Two-thirds of Amsterdammers tell us they don’t feel safe in the traffic. So more than 80% of roads will become a 30kph zone and we are researching a speed limit on the bike lanes. The growth of electric vehicles means there are huge speed differences on bike lanes and studies show that this creates risks.”
Helmets are a bugbear, however. Dutch cyclists are notoriously resistant to wearing helmets, despite recommendations by the country’s road safety research foundation based on a global meta-analysis showing they reduce head injury by 48%. Patrick Beerepoot, a counsellor at a medical rehabilitation centre in Amsterdam working with people with brain injuries, said: “We noticed in the last year more and more e-bike accidents. It’s not only the people on the bike but people on the bike path who are hit by the bikes that are just going too fast.”
E-bike manufacturers, meanwhile, have started to adapt their software to limit speeds, sometimes to the annoyance of users. VanMoof, a popular brand, said that in 2022 it changed its app to stop clients setting a higher speed limit. “Of course, our rider, and the safety of the rider come first,” a spokeswoman told the Observer. “We are aware of developments around speed limits for e-bikes, so VanMoof e-bikes can no longer be set to a higher speed from the VanMoof app. We cannot speak for third-party apps.”
A spokesperson from Rad Power Bikes said its European fat-tyred bikes could not be ridden motorbike-style, had rigorous testing and EU certification. “The wide tyres do not accelerate the speed of the bike but slow it down due to increased friction,” the brand pointed out.
The international cycling advocacy foundation BYCS believes that slightly slower cities might be better ones. “Technology is praised as progress, but it’s not about progress,” said Maud de Vries, the chief executive. “It’s about urban health and a system where people are more active, healthy and cross each other’s paths, in a good way.”