Cities want e-bikes to stay in their way – but which one?

It is hard to find something that unites Nashville, Tennessee; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York City. But all of these communities, and many others, are struggling with what to do with electric bikes.

Wherever you are in the United States, e-bikes have a moment. Market research firm NPD says sales of e-bikes grew by 240 percent in the 12 months ending July 2021, surpassing sales of traditional road bikes. This was the second year in a row that ebike sales had at least doubled.

Experts attribute the rise to the pandemic, which left locked Americans hungry for new and Covid-safe ways to get out of the house and exercise. Ebike models aimed at families and new riders have experienced particular success, although there is also a burgeoning community of e-mountain bikers. The shift has encouraged advocates of active transport, who believe that e-bikes – even more so than electric vehicles – can help reduce emissions from transport and combat climate change. Meanwhile, bike sharing companies Motivate and BCycle have added pedal-assist ebikes, which use small engines to give riders boosts to their systems.

In Nashville, the relaunch last summer of the local BCycle bike sharing system, as it is all electric, sparked debate over what kind of vehicles should be able to drive where. The controversy has focused on the city’s green roads, a system of linear parks and trails that stretch nearly 100 miles through the entire city. Tennessee law allows e-bikes running below 28 mph to operate in most locations, but local jurisdictions can create their own rules. “Motor vehicles” have long been banned on the green roads – although ebike riders say enforcement has been poor. Some Nashvillians are also haunted by memories of the scooter sharing companies that covered the streets in 2018 without first seeking permission. For these people, e-bikes can feel like another technically driven company trick. “There’s some post-traumatic stress disorder, like a city,” says Bob Mendes, a member of the Metro Council.

Sales of e-bikes have more than doubled each of the past two years.

Photo: Irfan Khan / Getty Images

So last summer, the council adopted a resolution instructing city councils to investigate whether new rules are needed. A report will come in weeks, says Cindy Harrison, director of the greenways and open space division in the city’s Parks Department.

Like many other places across the country, ebikes’ new popularity in Nashville has put conventional cyclists against commuters against dog aerators against recreational exercisers for space on the restricted slippery trails where cars are banned. “This is a car-heavy city that has been trying to fight from behind for years,” said Mendes, who has owned an ebike since 2018. Banning ebikes from greenways, he says, will limit where riders can safely travel.

But Kathleen Murphy, another councilor, says she has heard from voters – often walkers – who care about ebike speeds. “With the e-bike, you don’t hear it coming up from behind,” she says. “They’re faster and heavier, and that really worried people.”

The debate has divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free seats. The nonprofit organization Greenways for Nashville has called for caution, arguing that greenways are not really meant to be part of a cycling or transportation network in the city. “It’s like driving a sidewalk and a bike path together,” said Amy Crownover, the group’s chief executive, about the plan to allow electric bikes on the green roads. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocate group pushing for alternative modes of transportation, wants to let electric bikes ride. Its CEO, Lindsey Ganson, has urged locals to think of green roads as not just recreational hiking or biking areas, but as greener transportation routes.

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