• Tech
  • Gadgets

E-Bikes Are Taking Off—But We Need to Make Space for Them

7 minute read

This year has been a boon for bikes of all sorts. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many Americans to reconsider how they get around, it’s no surprise people turned to bikes—and e-bikes, which use electric motors to do all or most of the work for riders, have been a popular option for those looking to get into cycling without breaking a sweat. As someone who spent a few weeks this summer on VanMoof’s X3, weaving through obstructed bike lanes and past slower traditional cyclists, I learned something about the future of mobility here in New York: the city is far from ready for the e-bike revolution, and that’s true of most other cities, too.

In New York, the recently legalized battery-powered two wheelers were most often used by delivery workers. Now electric motors are available on consumer-facing bikes as well as shared options, like Citi Bikes. Folding bike manufacturer Gocycle says it sold out of its electric bikes it produced in 2020, while Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof announced the largest jump in sales it’s seen this past year. It makes sense: e-bikes are faster, more convenient, have better security features, and can give inexperienced riders the extra power they need to get over the next hill or avoid a nasty accident.

But urban biking, especially in New York, isn’t easy, as riders face roads blocked by delivery trucks and cop cars, unprotected lanes on narrow streets, bumbling tourists opening cab doors at the most inopportune times, and traffic laws that favor drivers. In order to encourage safer, more accessible biking, Dr. Brian Doucet, a professor of urban geography at the University of Waterloo, suggests building lanes with better protection for cyclists—putting the onus on designers rather than cyclists when it comes to rider safety.

“The real test should be if a six-year-old can ride side-by-side with their parents,” Doucet says. “Most bike lanes in North America don’t do that.” Wider, protected, continuous bike lanes and intersections would benefit all riders, not just those on e-bikes. Using car parking and more sturdy dividers as barriers, building bike parking corrals at intersections, and adjusting traffic light timing to give cyclists priority could all discourage the use of automobiles while accommodating cyclists.

Other cities are far ahead of New York and other American metropolises. In 2017, Beijing saw its first uptick in shared bike traffic, with an average of 6 million shared rides per day. In 2019, the Chinese capital opened its first cycling highway, an eight-mile protected bike lane designed to connect multiple cities. A major rollout of e-bike-friendly bike lanes is currently underway in Berlin, where leaders plan to build 10 new bicycle highways to spur commuter biking and reduce travel time by eliminating obstacles like stop signs and cars. The newly designed lanes will be wider for easier overtaking, illuminated at night, and protected from cars and pedestrians alike. Such lanes could be used not just by commuters but also delivery services using cargo bikes, as they are in famously bike-friendly Amsterdam.

Back in New York, city officials added 28 miles of bike lanes in 2020, bringing the total number to over 1,300 miles. But taken as a whole, much of the city’s cycling infrastructure can be seen as woefully incomplete when compared to the adjacent roads—over 6,000 miles of which criss-cross the five boroughs. “From the perspective of a map, it actually looks like a full network [of bike lanes],” says Doucet. “But when you actually cycle that space … you’re experiencing a very disjointed, disconnected network.”

Even if you don’t mind sharing the road with cars, many urbanites live above the first floor, and big elevators are a luxury—so an e-bike, which are often heavier than their powerless cousins, may leave you sweating when you have to wrangle it up to your apartment. The X3 I tried over the summer weighs as much as 50 pounds, and carrying that up three apartment floors was even worse than I thought it would be. Foldable e-bikes, like the Gocycle GXi, are somewhat easier to lug around, but generally don’t ride as well.

Then there’s the matter of parking while you’re out and about. In New York, where there’s little by way of secure bike parking to speak of, most riders—including delivery drivers and people in areas underserved by public transit—lock up their e-bike on the street and hope for the best. With a 27% increase in bike thefts but fewer arrests for bike larceny compared to last year, bikers can’t expect to recover their stolen wheels, and bike theft can be both discouraging and costly. Safe parking has only grown in importance as more people rely on more expensive e-bikes to get to and from places like work or school. But in a report detailing the state of bicycle parking in New York City, bicycle advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives found more than one vehicle parking spot per car registered in the city, while only one bike parking spot for every 116 bikes.

In 2020—when bike sales rose by 50%, according to the NPD Group, and bike use increased despite the pandemic-triggered drop in overall commuting—New York City failed to install a single new bike corral, according to public records. Installations of the publicly-shared Citi Bike system have helped encourage short-distance trips, with over 100 added over the past year, for 1,081 stations in total. But that doesn’t solve the problem for people like delivery workers, who use e-bikes constantly to get around the city, or people who own their own bicycles. “Not everybody wants to ride a Citi Bike, because they’re big and heavy,” says Jon Orcutt, head of cycling advocacy group Bike NYC. “And it definitely doesn’t solve the [parking] problem in your neighborhood.”

Bike parking startup Oonee is trying to solve that issue with its Pod system—a modular, security-focused parking structure that can be set up in a day and outfitted with security cameras, lights, and amenities like benches and green roofing. Oonee’s goal of improving bike parking for everyone is rooted in helping the city’s most vulnerable cyclists feel safe and secure whenever they have to leave their bike outside, says CEO Shabazz Stuart. “If you want people to ride bikes, it can’t just be about safety,” says Stuart. “You also have to make sure that riding a bike is as, or more convenient, than riding a car. And right now? Riding a bike is like the wild west.”

With the pandemic amplifying existing economic disparities between communities, adding bike lanes and parking— especially in low-income communities lacking other forms of safe or public transit—seems like an easy fix. Indeed, Stuart views the bike parking shortage as yet another problem exacerbated by race and class.

“65% of our user base is non-white, and 50% is below area median income,” says Stuart, noting that bike thefts primarily affect people in low-income areas as well as delivery cyclists, who are often people of color. “When you ask working cyclists, ‘what’s it like to have your bicycle stolen?’ They say ‘it’s not just a setback, it’s going to cost me my job.'”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com