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With sales projected to keep rising, what more e-bikes could mean for Seattle

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is by Conor Courtney through our partnership with UW’s Community News Lab journalism course.

Photo of person biking at night with cars headed in the other direction.
A cyclist on a pedal-assisted Jump bike passes cars near the University Bridge. Photo by Conor Courtney.

Seattle cyclists can expect to see a substantial increase in the number of riders zipping around the city on pedal-assisted e-bikes in the next few years, according to an industry forecast by consultants at Deliotte.

Internationally, the number of e-bikes in circulation in 2023 will reach 300 million, up 50 percent from the number currently in use, according to Deloitte’s projections.

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This increase in cyclists will bring significant benefits to the Seattle community, according to Kristi Straus, a lecturer in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment who teaches a course focused on personal and societal sustainability.

Viewing sustainability as an intersection between the environment, economy, and society, e-bikes help all three, says Straus. Cycling to your destination can often be faster than driving, especially in Seattle, which traffic analytics company Inrix ranked the sixth most congested U.S. city in 2018.

“E-Bikes are awesome, and can be a stepping stone for people who otherwise might not choose to bike or be able to bike the distances or hills that they’re now biking with e-bikes, and more e-bikes is likely to increase bike infrastructure and benefit all people in Seattle, not just all people who bike,” said Straus.

E-bikes can also make cycling more accessible to new parents, older cyclists, and cyclists in hilly areas.

“I think that e-bikes make a big difference for folks who are a little bit older, who aren’t as strong as they used to be,” said Clara Cantor of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Cantor also says that e-bikes make it easier for community members with chronic pain or other disabilities to have a reliable, healthy transportation option.

E-bikes have been steadily dropping in price over the last few years, with an average e-bike costing around $1,000 today, making them more affordable for many families looking for another transportation option.

From an environmental standpoint, e-bikes also provide a huge benefit for communities.

Project Drawdown ranks e-bikes as the #69 most viable global climate solution, ahead of recycling paper, trains, green roofs, and ridesharing. The research organization projects the net savings from electric bikes as $226 billion compared to a net cost of $106 billion.

Cantor also noted that the majority of trips people take are within a 2- to 5-mile radius of their home, a distance that is often too far to walk, but perfect for cycling.

But there’s still problems to solve as the number of cyclists is expected to increase.

“The more people we have riding bikes the more places we need for riding bikes, and that includes protected bike lanes and trails all over the city connecting all of our neighborhoods together,” said Cantor.

This projected rise follows years of e-bike popularity in Europe and China. In the Netherlands, the majority of adult bikes sold in 2018 were e-bikes. In China, 32 million e-bikes were sold in 2013, compared with 1.8 million across all of Europe, according to Forbes.

Locally, Rad Power Bikes CEO Mike Radenbaugh said the Seattle company’s e-bike sales more than doubled between 2018 and 2019 in an interview with the Seattle Times in January.

Andrea Learned, an independent climate action leadership strategist and e-bike advocate, also pointed to e-bikes’ value outside of cycling for commuting or fun.

E-bike companies will cash in on the projected $20 billion in sales revenue according to Deloitte’s projections, but they’re not the only businesses benefiting from the bikes. Businesses from local shops to giants like Amazon and Domino’s are increasingly turning to e-bikes as a way to deliver products quicker and cheaper.

“The bottom line,” said Learned, “is that we have to see e-bikes as transportation and last mile delivery.”

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15 responses to “With sales projected to keep rising, what more e-bikes could mean for Seattle”

  1. Tom Fucoloro

    Thanks for the reporting, Conor!

  2. Josh

    While Washington is ahead of many states on this, the rise of e-bikes also brings more need for legal clarifications.

    Which trails are legally open to e-bikes, and which exclude them?

    What signage is proper for a trail that excludes motor vehicles but allows e-bikes, so users can reliably tell from one city to the next where they’re allowed?

    Should e-bike retailers be required to advise buyers that many insurance companies don’t cover e-bikes under homeowners insurance the way they do un-powered bicycles? (No liability coverage, no theft coverage, etc.)

    Are e-bikes covered by the separate intoxication provisions for un-powered bicycles, or by the DUI laws for motorized vehicles?

    Can cities and counties legally set speed limits lower than 20 mph on facilities designated for bicycle transportation, or are they covered by state law on setting speed limits for vehicles, sine a shared-use path is a highway under state law?

    1. Greg

      Josh raises a good point about legal questions.

      I’d add to that that e-bikes represent a new category of vehicle speeds. Before, we had pedestrians and joggers (2-8 mph), bikes (10-15 mph), and cars (25-45 mph on surface roads). We are adding e-bikes (15-20 mph) to that mix. Mixing traffic of different speeds tends to create dangerous conditions.

      E-bikes in bike lanes and on trails might be an okay solution, as might greenways (non-car arterial streets near the car arterial streets), but I think this is a problem that requires a lot more thought. Josh’s point about legal questions gets at some of the many issues that we need to resolve soon.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        I’m gonna push back on this a bit. There’s nothing new about people biking 20mph. Roadies out training go 20 all the time. I don’t think e-bikes really change that much. Maybe on uphills they stand out. Obviously, courteous and safe practices when passing or moving through crowded areas is vital. But again, that goes for a roadie back in 1995, too.

      2. bill

        By the time a person gets strong enough to pedal a bicycle 20 mph they have generally gotten clued-in to good cycling practices. Not so most new e-bikers. I get passed on the right and passed in dangerous places all the time by e-bikers. “But those roadies go fast” is not a justification for e-bikers going too fast.

      3. NickS

        @bill: “By the time a person gets strong enough to pedal a bicycle 20 mph they have generally gotten clued-in to good cycling practices.”

        We’re going to have to agree to disagree there. The least friendly, most dangerous riding (typically high speeds and dangerous passing in congested areas) I’ve encountered has been by experienced riders riding expensive road bikes who have places to be and Strava ladders to climb, dontcha know. These folks will glare and swear at other riders for any perceived slight, and get hyper competitive with electric bike riders that they perceive to be “cheaters”. I’ve seriously seen people get in road rage like fits, and it’s 100% of the time road bike riders. Every. Single. Time.

        @Greg: Completely agree with Tom. I ride a mid-drive Class 1 (assistance fades out as I approach 20mph, no throttle, pedal assist only) trekking/commuter oriented bike on my 9 mile commute to and from Pioneer Square and SE Seattle. I typically cruise along at 16 mph or so, and it’s not unusual at all for me to be passed by experienced road bike riders on flats.

      4. Greg

        Hi, Tom. First, thanks for the blog, love the work you do here.

        I’m a little surprised, though, to hear you push back on that e-bikes represent different speeds. While I agree that strong bike riders hit 20+ mph, I don’t think it’s relevant to the point of mixing different traffic speeds whether bikes are in the range 10-20 mph or 10-15 mph. What’s important is that most cars are going faster than most e-bikes which are going faster than most bikes which are going faster than most pedestrians and joggers. So e-bikes add more mixing traffic of different speeds.

        I’d assume we can agree that mixing traffic of different speeds is dangerous? And perhaps we can also agree that greenways, which at least remove the much faster car traffic and provide wide streets for bikes going different speeds and sidewalks for pedestrians, might be a good solution?

      5. duncancycles

        @bill I totally agree with your observation here and have had the same thoughts myself many times over recent years. Heavy, long wheelbase, two wheeled vehicles (many of the offenders I see are riding Rad Power type machines) with plenty of torque and power are a handful for people who are relatively new to cycling. In short, they have little or no road craft.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      Good questions. Some of which I think I can answer (though I’m not sure they have been tested in court yet):

      Background on the 2018 state law: https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2018/02/28/clarified-e-assist-bicycle-rules-head-to-the-governors-desk/

      – The trails question is frustrating because each jurisdiction makes the decisions about their trails. So state law allows class 1 and 2 e-bikes (limited to 20mph assisted speed) anywhere bikes are allowed, but this does not preempt local laws. So if a city or county says no e-bikes on our trail, then that’s the law.

      – The insurance question is a good one.

      – E-bikes are treated like bikes under state law, so the same should go for DUI laws (you can’t get a DUI on a bike in WA, though this is not the case in every state). But again, I don’t think this has been tested in court yet, so you never know.

      – Speed limits: I have wondered this so many times. If 20 mph is the lowest possible speed limit allowed on streets (“highways” in WA legal speak) without a traffic study, shouldn’t 20 also be the lowest possible speed limit on trails? Again, I think just nobody has challenged this.

      1. R

        We definitely need to address unreasonably low speeds both for trail design engineering (I’ve heard that the Westlake path was designed for 10mph) and trails where local jurisdictions post low, enforceable or not, speed limits.

      2. Andy

        This is so spot on. SDOT consistently chooses to use the absolute minimum (or in some cases below the recommended minimum) design speed for it’s facilities, so that it can take up less road space and preserve precious car parking space.

        When a small minority of the assumed bike facility users are going above 15mph, this is annoying. When most of the users can easily go above 15mph this moves from annoying to dangerous and frankly negligent engineering practice.

  3. ronp

    I commute on the Burke every day and there is a bit of an uptick in seeing e-bikes but nothing dramatic. I would say I have seen one speeding ebike in the last year (i.e. over 20mph) on the trail.

    I really think we just need to enforce the current speed limits on roads and trails and not limit the power of ebikes legislatively although at a certain size and weight the ebike becomes a motorcycle and you would need a endorsement and driver training for that.

    I would be exceedingly happy to see the Burke and protected bike lanes look like Amsterdam some day soon.

    1. jess

      I am curious what you are comparing to- a bit of an uptick compared to when? I have seen a huge uptick in e-bikes on the Burke compared to 5 years ago, but if you’re just comparing to 1 year ago then maybe the uptick is not so giant.

  4. I’d be a bigger supporter of eBikes if they were governed at 15mph. I’ve encountered too many clueless cyclists weaving along the BGT doing 20+.

  5. Phil Miller

    Gee, and we haven’t even started talking about e-scooters, yet….

    There’s a real possibility that bike lanes as we know them won’t exist in 5 years – they will be “mobility lanes” with such a variety of dissimilar wheeled things that a video game may look mild by comparison. The conflict of ebikes and traditional bikes is pretty mild, and likely transitional as people on ebikes become experienced ebike riders.

    Scooters, hoverboards, etc are very much different from bikes, and accommodating innovation and tech disruption will put a huge burden on cities and agencies to redesign (yet again!). E-scooters are coming, they aren’t bikes, they ARE fun and they are effective for some trips. The challenge will be accepting this change – something that (alas) challenges cyclists of all stripes.

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