Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Paris, Madrid, and Lisbon are making it easier than ever for residents to get a boost as they pedal around town. New York says that’s simply not allowed.
There’s a radical disconnect between the way electric bikes are perceived on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. This October we got further confirmation of New York City’s bitter opposition to the mode, when Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to push harder on the city’s enforcement of its e-bike ban. Citing public concerns about reckless riding, de Blasio promised not just to stop and fine e-bike riders, but also to punish businesses who employ them for deliveries—all this just a fortnight after the NYPD publicized its latest round of confiscations of a vehicle the city deems unsafe and intrusive.
Over in Europe, it’s a different matter entirely. It’s not just that e-bikes are tolerated, it’s that cities are actively encouraging more people to use them. In a bid to attract more riders, bike-share schemes across Western Europe are boosting their e-bike offering this season, turning what were initially cautious, partial experiments with sharing assisted bikes into a genuinely viable, large-scale alternative to exclusively pedal-powered bikes across entire cities.
E-bikes have been gaining traction in Europe for some time, of course. Madrid first introduced them into its bike-share fleet in 2014, while Norway actually gives some citizens grants to buy one. The numbers of e-bikes that cities will make available for hire will nonetheless mushroom over the next six months. First off (and most modestly), Lisbon is six weeks into a limited bike-share trial that includes e-bikes, centered on a city park well sited for visitors who want to bike down the waterfront. Madrid, meanwhile, has just announced a major expansion of its e-bike-share network, creating 42 new stations with 486 extra e-bikes (25 percent more than are currently available) this February. And across the French border, Paris will make 30 percent of its newly revamped bike-share fleet electronically assisted in January 2018. The contrast with New York is striking. So why are these cities considerably more enthusiastic?
It’s arguably New York’s hostility, not Europe’s enthusiasm, that’s the kink in the machine there. In a city where the NYPD seized 687 bikes in 2017 alone, the vehicle has become associated with reckless riding, often synonymous in the public mind with low-wage delivery workers who use the e-bike motor’s extra push to manage the physical pressure of long, poorly rewarded shifts. E-bike riders have thus become a perversely prominent target for enforcement of New York’s Vision Zero initiative for ending all traffic deaths. Reckless driving of such vehicles, as of any vehicle, could indeed pose a threat, but in a city where every street is filled with cars—those lethal, oil-fueled metal bone crushers capable of speeds cyclists can only dream of—the emphasis seems misplaced to say the least.
Were New York’s e-bikes the preserve of well-connected, well-heeled cycling advocates, there might well be more sustained challenges to perverse city laws that make it legal to buy an e-bike but impossible to register one for legal use. As the workers being targeted in anti-e-bike sweeps are often recent arrivals to the U.S., sometimes with limited English, any complaints they might have are less likely to reverberate along the corridors of power.
Europe’s acceptance of the mode is partly due to a degree of familiarity. While e-bikes are a relatively new type of vehicle, scooters of under 50cc have long been very common in Europe, especially around the Mediterranean. For rural teenagers in particular, getting a scooter at 16 was once an equivalent rite of passage to an American getting their first car, something that was beyond most people’s pockets in Europe, and only an option after the age of 18. Scooter regulations have since tightened (you now need a license), but while e-bikes are considerably less powerful, the cultural place for motor-assisted, low-horsepower two-wheelers is long established.
There’s also the issue of topography. For Lisbon and Madrid, getting more e-bikes on the road makes perfect sense—indeed, they can be seen as a catalyst to spreading the wider popularity of cycling. Unlike Copenhagen or Amsterdam (or Manhattan, for that matter), both cities are far from flat. Steep roads in central Lisbon might well be enough to put off the less sporty from trying to scale a slope powered only by their own pedaling, even if local cycling advocates point out that many flat routes are available and have even started mapping the easier gradients for riders’ benefit. And while much of Madrid is located on a gently rolling plateau, the banks of the River Manzanares slope sharply down just south of the city’s heart, making many local cyclists long for a bit of help getting up the hill. These are cities where cyclists could do with a literal and metaphorical push to get on the road.
Paris, by contrast, is only steep enough in a few places to put off half-hearted cyclists, but despite major attempts to reduce car traffic and make space for bikes, it remains a city where cyclists and drivers frequently mix in the same road space. As CityLab’s recent article on European commuting habits discovered, Parisians’ fondness for getting around on foot is by no means matched by their enthusiasm for cycling. Something needs to shift to get more people to cycle and getting cyclists onto bikes with a little help for speed and hills might help.
It’s not that the introduction of power-assisted bikes is entirely frictionless. In Amsterdam, scooters’ current right to use bike lanes has led to a debate over whether or not anything with a motor needs to be pushed off the cycle network and onto the roads. That debate, however, is largely the product of cycling being so popular that riders are now fighting for space even on a world class lane network. It’s understandable that the public gets frustrated when e-bikes are misused by riders that speed or mount sidewalks. But when assisted bikes are essentially a non-issue across the continent, you have to ask yourself if it’s time for New York to stop banning and start educating.