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The Future of E-Bikes in the Bay Area

If you’ve thought that it seems like e-bikes — pedal-assisted electric bicycles — are everywhere, you may be on to something. In metroplexes like the Bay Area, this mode of transportation is becoming ever popular. One estimate puts e-bike imports in the U.S. last year at 790,000, a 70% influx from 2020. 

Analytical trends project that we’ve only seen the beginning and what may seem like a trend now will be a regular part of life in just a few years with 17 million e-bikes being sold by 2030.

Surging demand comes in California and beyond as climate change intensifies, gas prices climb, commutes worsen and people look for an all-of-the-above solution. E-bikes tick almost all of the boxes by being more environmentally friendly and an easy way to traverse crowded cities. 

The California Bicycle Coalition found that e-bikes are up to 30 times more efficient than electric cars at fighting climate change and get as much as 100 times more miles per pound of battery than an electric car. It’s no wonder that e-bikes are becoming the go-to choice for cyclists with short-to-mid range commutes. 

They’re also becoming a go-to option for people who were once skeptical of cycling. 

“E-bikes are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle, many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so,” Portland State University researchers wrote in 2017. “With the help of the electric assist, e-bike users can take longer routes to avoid utilizing dangerous streets, they can accelerate quickly to get through wide intersections or away from a potential conflict, and they are able to keep up with the pace of traffic which minimizes the speed differential.”

Equitable Solutions

Because they’re good for the planet and a more popular choice in cities, local governments are also finding they are an equitable solution to transportation woes in large metropolitan areas. 

The city of Oakland wants to use $1 million in state grant money to fund an “e-bike library,” which will have the potential to reach people who might not otherwise have the ability to purchase one. The library, which is expected to consist of about 500 bikes, is slated to start operating this winter.

“This project very much goes in line with our vision for a rapid equitable transition to a world powered by renewable energy that benefits everyone,” Edgar Arellano, who is working to launch the “e-bike library,” told a local news reporter

The Oaklandside reports that bike shops, partnering with non-profit GRID Alternatives, will help rent out the bicycles, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Arellano said the program will focus on serving East Oakland, West Oakland, San Antonio, Chinatown, Fruitvale, and “other communities impacted by economic and environmental injustices.”

While many are excited about the project’s potential, there are still questions of how local officials will maintain it. One cyclery owner told The Oaklandside that bike shops operate on slim profit margins and it’s likely expenses for upkeep, especially for a government entity, will add up. 

“For any government agency that is getting into this sector, if they don’t have a plan on the customer service side or on the repair side of things, the plan will fail,” he said.

Questions of Access

Swelling popularity, however, comes with other growing pains. Debates over infrastructure and which trails e-bikes should be able to access have only intensified over the past few years. Most recently, disputes have come to a head in San Francisco in regards to unpaved trails.

Some regional officials have taken to banning e-bikes on off-road trails altogether. You won’t find access in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District or the Marin County Open Space District and access in state parks can be spotty.

The people pushing back against access also use the trails, and they say there are a variety of factors, ranging from noise to safety, for wanting e-bikes to steer clear of unpaved trails.

“In general, the comment that we got was generally in support of e-bike access,” Brian Malone, assistant general manager at Midpeninsula, told SF Gate. “But if you look just at hikers, that support was reduced. And then if you look just at equestrians, there was no support for e-bike access.”

Cities are also rethinking urban infrastructure to better accommodate e-bikes, especially because they can have such a powerful impact on cutting carbon emissions. The key to getting more people committed to e-bikes, one study found, isn’t economic incentives, but the guarantee of a safer ride.

Other cities around the country are already examining infrastructure in relation to e-bikes. Denver officials fear their roads might not be able to handle the influx and a new proposal in Washington D.C. would make right turns on a red light illegal for vehicle drivers in hopes of curbing bike accidents.

Depending on where you’re riding, there may be rules and restrictions that apply specifically to e-bikes. If you’re riding in California, our knowledgeable bicycle accident lawyers have put together a primer on the rules and restrictions that apply to you. Knowing the rules that apply to you helps you be a safer rider and avoid e-bike accidents.

Injuries are on the rise

One advantage of e-bikes is the speed, but it’s a variable that’s creating more concern among medical professionals. More speed means a potentially more serious injury in the event of a bicycle accident.

“We know that e-bikes can go faster than traditional pedal cycles,” Charles DiMaggio, an injury epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health, told the New York Times in 2020. “And we know that increased speed often results in more-severe injuries.”

In the last two decades, nearly 9 million people have sought medical attention in emergency rooms due to e-bikes. That number is only growing as more people hit the road on more powerful bicycles. 

California cities have seen that play out locally: Last year, Orange County reported a whopping 500% increase in e-bike accidents over the previous year, according to data obtained by CBS News.