Phil McNeil slowed down as he approached the traffic signal on Eastwood Road across from the Lidl supermarket.
“I love my e-bike. It gives me that little boost when I need it. Plus, I don’t slow down my wife anymore,” he said smiling as several other e-bike cyclists whizzed by him on the multi-use path adjacent to the busy Wilmington road.
“It gives me the best of both worlds − exercise and power when the legs just aren’t enough.”
Whether for recreation, mobility or both, e-bike sales are booming. According to the Light Electric Vehicle Association, 880,000 e-bikes were imported into the U.S. in 2021 − a market that could grow to several million later this decade.
Proponents see e-bikes as a “green” transportation alternative that offers mobility at a low price with a light environmental footprint. Opponents, on the other hand, see them as low-grade mopeds that degrade the purpose and relaxation of riding a bike in the first place.
But the bigger question might be are people ready to embrace the bikes, and what that could mean for how we travel around and what our transportation infrastructure needs to look like.
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What is an e-bike?
In the simplest terms, an e-bike is a bicycle equipped with an electric motor to assist you when pedaling. The motor gets its power from a rechargeable battery mounted on the bike.
To technically be classified as an e-bike, the motor has to help a rider rather than propel the rider on its own, so pedaling is required. How much power the motor delivers is regulated based on how hard the rider pedals and the level of support the rider has selected. Many bikes offer different levels of motorized support, such as a low boost for flat areas and increased power for tackling hills. Some bikes also offer electric help when walking the bikes, which can be heavier than a traditional two-wheel cycle.
The selection of the power mode allows the rider to extend the life of the bike’s battery. Range on electric bikes can vary from 20 to 100 miles or more on a full charge, depending on its capacity. In general, an e-bike with a longer range will cost more.
Almost all major bicycle companies offer a range of e-bike models with top-end bikes costing several thousand dollars, although there are a range of bicycles for all price ranges, skill levels and needs.
So everyone likes them, right?
Well, not really. Some traditional bicyclists consider them to be a “Frankenization” of a bicycle and its purpose to provide human-powered transportation and exercise.
Kits also are available that allow riders to circumvent the top speed of the bike motors, which generally max out at around 25 mph. That can lead a “hot-rod” e-bike to be closer to being a moped than a two-wheel vehicle powered mostly by muscle energy. While there are strict rules governing e-bike speeds in Europe, laws in the U.S. are laxer, leading to some e-bikes that can travel at speeds more in tune with motorcycles or cars.
Local officials also have raised concerns about e-bikes, or more precisely the cycle’s power source.
Like cell phones, laptops and many other small and mobile consumer goods, e-bikes are powered by lithium-ion batteries. The batteries are the power source of choice for many small electronics and motors because they can pack a big charge in a small package. They’re also rechargeable, reducing waste and allowing them to be easily portable.
But if charged with the wrong charger or if the lithium battery is from an uncertified or shoddy manufacturer, fires can occur. According to the New York Times, lithium-ion batteries have caused 200 fires and six deaths in New York City so far in 2022.
That’s led to some apartment complex owners banning the charging of e-bikes in buildings. Local officials also have stepped up outreach efforts to educate e-bike owners, especially young people and college students, on the right ways to charge and store their bikes.
Are e-bikes good for the environment?
Again, the answer can depend on who you talk to.
Bill Coleman, riding down the Military Cutoff multi-use path in Wilmington on his e-bike on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, said he rarely used his car now for his 3-mile commute from his apartment to his job.
“I save gas, get exercise, avoid the traffic and don’t pollute,” he said as he wiped his sweaty brow. “What’s not to like?”
Research has shown that most vehicle trips are short, meaning e-bikes offer increased “micromobility” for those who don’t want to drive, don’t own a vehicle, or don’t have the option of taking public transportation.
“A lot of people we run into tell us they use their e-bike because they just don’t want to get into their car to do everything,” said Greg Skelton, who has set up a Facebook group for e-bike enthusiasts in the Port City.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key to battling climate change, and like most areas the top polluter in North Carolina are vehicle tailpipes. In 2018, transportation accounted for 36% of the state’s gross greenhouse gas emissions and is projected to drop at a much lower rate than other sectors in the coming years. Emissions from the transportation sector decreased by a relatively paltry 3% from 2005 to 2018, according to the state’s latest “environmental report card.”
While e-bikes are responsible for some pollution when they are produced, when they charge and when it comes time to dispose of their lithium batteries and the bikes themselves, it is still a fraction of the emissions from electric vehicles or other motorized forms of transportation.
Sharing the space
Yet as e-bikes have proliferated, so has the pushback against them.
The National Park Service originally banned e-bikes from its parks, although it has walked that back in recent years. Motorized vehicles, which e-bikes technically are, are often banned from backcountry trails in many areas. Some also worry the quiet, fast-moving bikes can startle wildlife and conflict with more traditional and slower users − including hikers, horses and traditional bikes − on the trails.
But proponents argue e-bikes would open more of the country’s great outdoors to those who are elderly, handicapped or uncomfortable walking or using a standard bike. Currently, low-speed e-bikes are allowed in many federal parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In more urban areas, similar questions have emerged as to just what e-bikes are and where should they be allowed to go. Since they aren’t quite traditional bikes and they aren’t motorized vehicles, that’s created a gray area. If they travel on traditional bike lanes and multi-use paths, their faster speeds can frustrate slower pedal-powered bicyclists. But on roads, they’re often too slow to flow with vehicular traffic, equally frustrating car drivers.
Safety is also a major concern. Although e-bikes are still fairly new to the market, many studies point to an increased risk of injury for e-bike riders, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The agency found that e-bike riders are three times more likely to be involved in a crash with a pedestrian and more likely to suffer a concussion than a traditional bicyclist.
“Concerningly, e-bike accident victims have a 17% risk of internal injury. Pedal-bike accident victims, on the other hand, have a 7.5% risk of the same type of injury,” states the commission’s study based on findings from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
“It’s imperative that people at a minimum wear a helmet and close-toed shoes,” Skelton said, noting the inherent danger associated with traveling on a bike at higher speeds. “That really goes without saying.”
So can all bicyclists share the road, or in this case the bike lane?
Skelton said e-bike owners need to understand the concerns officials and traditional bicyclists have about the emerging technology or else they could face the threat of onerous regulations – similar to what’s happened to electric scooters in recent years after they proliferated in downtown areas, clogging sidewalks and endangering pedestrians.
“When we ride on bike paths, we ride at their speeds,” said the co-owner of Euro-TEK, which services British-made vehicles. “That’s just being respectful.”
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But if e-bikes are here to stay, and the sheer number of shops selling them and delivery and tour businesses that have embraced them shows they have found an important commercial niche, officials stress that everyone needs to adapt.
That includes building infrastructure to safely accommodate more bicyclists − although New Hanover County voters on Election Day rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded, among other things, additional bike and pedestrian paths.
Still, Skelton said he is hopeful that everyone is riding in the right direction, even if the learning curve might seem a tough hill at times.
“Everything has to be done within reason,” he said. “I think we can do that with e-bikes, too.”
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at [email protected] or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network maintains full editorial control of the work.