Publicola: What the e-bike boom means for Seattle

E-bike sales are outpacing electric car sales two-to-one in the United States, and e-bikes now make up 20% or more of bikes sold in Seattle bike shops. And as Josh Feit (with Maryam Noor) wrote for Publicola, all signs point to a continued increase in e-bike use.

Feit recently bought an e-bike after a friend offered him a chance to try his bike “like we were 14, and he was offering me my first hit of pot.” Like so many people, that’s all it took to be convinced. E-bikes can flatten the city in a way that makes many more trips in our hilly town both practical and convenient.

I was one of several people Feit spoke with for the story, and it was a great excuse to think about how much has changed in recent years. For many years in recent decades, people prognosticated that e-bikes were about to break into the mainstream. But it just never seemed to happen at scale. That has finally changed. The real question now is: When do we drop the “e” and start just calling them “bikes?” I already sometimes refer to non-e-bikes as “pedal bikes” or “pedal-only bikes,” and I often hear people call them “acoustic bikes.” The electric assist will someday be considered just another optional bike component, like having a multi-gear drivetrain instead of a single speed.

All those Lime and Jump electric bike share bikes probably also supercharged interest in e-bikes in Seattle. Everyone who rides one for the first time is also sort of test-riding the idea of e-bikes. We already noted (before the pandemic) that Fremont Bridge bike trips continued to grow even after bike share trips leveled out, and a promising hypothesis was that many people discovered (or rediscovered) city cycling through bike share and then went out and bought their own bikes. It makes sense that people have done the same with e-bikes.

But maybe the most interesting realization I had during our conversation was how far we’ve come from the days when you couldn’t have a conversation about e-bikes without someone calling them “cheating” or “lazy.” Resistance to e-bikes from people who already bike has really melted away in recent years, and now it’s at the point where hating on e-bikes sounds antiquated or pretentious. I like how Maya Ramakrishnan put it in a recent tweet: “You can’t cheat at transportation because it’s not a competition. It’s good that more people are able to use Not Cars to get around and do errands.”

Be sure to read the whole story on Publicola, which includes wonderful quotes like:

“When someone says, ‘Oh, you know, cycling is great for people who don’t have children,’” Davey Oil, owner of G & O Family Cyclery in Greenwood, quipped, “I’m just like, ‘Hold my juice box, I have three kids on this bike.’”

and

While $1,500 for a bike still might seem Team Bourgeois as opposed to Team Budweiser, “it’s also a lot less expensive than a car,” said Anna Zivarts, local bike advocate and Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “And,” she added, “it is my car.”

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22 Responses to Publicola: What the e-bike boom means for Seattle

  1. NickS says:

    I love this trend. I hope the naysayers and gatekeepers will eventually realize that the more people on bikes, the greater demand for bike infrastructure and the less default acceptance of our car first culture.

    I bought my first (acoustic) bike in Seattle about 17 years ago, a spiffy Lemond cyclocross with drop bars. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I rode it maybe 10 or 12 times in about as many years. I lived near the crest of Capitol Hill at the time and the dread of having to cycle back up the huge hill from literally anywhere I went was a huge barrier for me. I’m just not an athlete and for a long time I thought that meant that biking was only something I could do when visiting the flatlands.

    I bought an electric touring bike with fenders and a rack about 4 years ago and it has been an absolute game changer. Pre COVID-19, I rode it on my 9 mile each way commute from SE Seattle to Pioneer Square. I rode it today the 10 miles from UW station to home. I now ride every week, often multiple times a week. I generally ride it in a low assist eco mode but when I need it to, it flattens the hills in an amazing way. It’s a class 1 pedelec (no throttle, 20 mph max assist) so I’m still getting exercise, I’m just not feeling like I’m going to have a coronary on each ride.

    • Jay says:

      But if a lot of people are riding devices that can go nearly the speed limit you don’t need to provide special infrastructure for them!
      (for the sake of Poe’s law, I’m joking, but others will think it makes sense, or at best will continue to make bike lanes very narrow for even slow bikes)

  2. Peri Hartman says:

    I’m glad e-bikes are swarming into the scene. Like Tom and Nick (above) say, the more people on bikes, the more demand – and justification in the eyes of non bikers – we will have.

    A year or so ago, it was novel to encounter someone on an e-bike while I was out riding. Today, it’s rare to *not* encounter someone else on an e-bike.

    In a different tone, I have a lot of complaints to SDOT and, I think, they need to be more aware of cycling needs if people are going to ride more. There are many inexpensive improvements they could handle. For example:

    – speed bumps: these are super jarring when ridden over with a non-shock bike. Why can’t they make narrow troughs that are flat for bikes to slip through ?

    – bike lanes around bus islands. The Dexter bike lanes can be ridden (downhill) at a good clip. They have a wide radius when passing behind the bus islands. Conversely, the bus islands on Greenwood that were put in about 2 years ago have comparatively right angle turns. Someone is going to get killed if they don’t realize how much they need to slow down (I take the traffic lane instead).

    – debris: SDOT seems to do a good job of cleaning the showcase bike lanes. Many others have slippery rotting leaves, broken glass, and other debris. Who wants to ride in that ? If they don’t have the funds, how about they organize volunteer teams to do the work ?

    – blockage by roadwork signs and other objects. So many times, I’m riding by some street work and the warning signs are blocking enough of the bike lane that I can’t get through without stopping and moving the sign or going out of the bike lane. Come on, SDOT, you can do better !

    – poor alignment planning: mostly they do a reasonable job of this. In a few places I’ve seen the bike lane end at an intersection, to continue on the opposite side of the street. If you’re lolling along, I suppose that’s fine. People on e-bikes and daily riders aren’t going to tolerate that – waiting for two stop light phases to continue along.

    • Peri Hartman says:

      And a couple more points:

      – filling potholes. Sometimes the repair is worse then the pothole, making a jarring moutain out of a small dip. I know for large excavations, they lump up the temporary patch in anticipation of settling. But for potholes, there’s no settling.

      – utility access covers. Usually, these are more or less flush with the pavement. Sometimes they are significantly recessed. There’s one on 3rd N in a shady spot that I hit and it literally jerked my hands off the handlebars. It’s recessed about 3″. Terrible hazard.

      Maybe this is slightly off topic. But consider that e-bikes allow riders to go faster than they normally would, especially uphill. With faster speeds, all these hazards matter more. A lot more.

      • AaronP says:

        Yeah, filling potholes, and fixing heaves. I hit a heave at speed along 25th behind Garfield HS near the end of July and had a wreck that put me in Harborview for a fortunately insured incident costing about as much as a new Prius. No helmet and I’d be dead. Glad I had gloves on too. (What is with all the bare hands?)
        I’m altering my riding style, this was a single vehicle accident after all, but the roads are bad bad bad. Heads up.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        AaronP – I hit a heave once (on Queen Anne) and wrecked, though not hurt much. Someone who lived there saw me and mentioned that another person wrecked and went to harborview and that others had crashed there, too. I reported the heave (and copied Tom) and SDOT actually came and fixed it.

        I can’t speak for your location but I do recommend at least reporting it.

      • Azimuth says:

        Why does it feel like SDOT won’t act unless someone gets hurt? I recently requested they add a simple “cross traffic does not stop” sign at an intersection near me where I have almost been hit a couple times and they cited not enough accidents had occurred at that intersection. Ugh!

      • AaronP says:

        I did put in a Find It Fix It record, 21-00162515, and actually thought that the city had come out to paint the heave white. Turns out it was a neighbor that saw the accident, or maybe me inspecting the heave the next day (I lived). Here is a picture with the paint: https://www.flickr.com/gp/apailthorp/ixGR00
        When I ran into it it looked more like: https://www.flickr.com/gp/apailthorp/6wW94b
        it is on 25th Ave behind Garfield High School along one of the safe streets, in the 330-340 range, east half of the street.
        I looked around for one of the web sites to report riding hazards/accidents, didn’t find anything that seems current.
        So glad I had good coverage. There was a lot of blood and without my helmet it likely would have been fatal, but I’ve actually healed well and quickly. It could have been far worse.

        With regard to ebikes, enthusiastic user, and yes I sometime speed. On the highway in my car as well (who doesn’t?). I make an effort to be polite, call my passes and wait to make them, but yeah, there are a lot of obnoxious operators. Not just in cars but on bikes, even “acoustic” bikes. I think as an ebike rider on a relatively lightweight I can make common cause with even fixie riders (!!). We need separate infrastructure for the more vulnerable (arguably scooters too, but one mode at a time) and ebikes can and should be safely grouped with pure human powered machines.

        Traffic policing all around would help. Who gets stopped for speeding in anything in the city now? I live by an urban highway, one of way too many. For that matter, people feel find going 30 MPH right by my front door.

  3. Ballard Biker says:

    It means that after decades of building infrastructure to be able to bicycle, walk, run, etc separate from motorized vehicles operated by dangerous idiots, those same dangerous idiots are now allow to operate motorized vehicles on the exact infrastructure we fought so hard to get.

    And we’re cheering this as some kind of transportation revolution? It’s like something out of the movie Idiocracy.

    • DougS says:

      Related to this, my personal observations are that less than 25% of riders of motorized bicycles signal me from behind when they are passing, while more than 75% of riders of human powered bicycles signal when passing. I’m very much in favor of motorized bicycles, however I do wonder if motorized transport activates anti-social behavior in people. Consider the way bicyclists are treated by higher powered cars and trucks.

    • Bruce Nourish says:

      Congratulations, you are part of the problem.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        We could have encouraged e-bikes to use our vast, pre-existing motorized infrastructure, but we didn’t. We shoved them onto our fledging non-motorized infrastructure.

        That’s the problem, not people wanting complete separation from motorized vehicles.

    • Nathan D. says:

      When e-bikes start weighing 700 lbs and can go 100 mph, you might start having a point. In meantime, assisted bikes are a fast improvement and should be celebrated. Not everyone can ride an unassisted bike, or wants to.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        When the original ebike law was being shoved through our state legislature with zero public comment, we were told: it’s not a big deal, just old and differently-abled riders with 10-15 mph motors.

        Surprise: the bikin’ grannies never materialized and what we instead got are lazy, entitled individuals on 30 mph massive cargo bikes or fat tire “bikes” that are motorcycles with pedals.

        I don’t want to get hit by these assholes and I’ve certainly had to dodge my fair share of them. Sure it’s “better” than getting hit by a car, but why am I even needed to worry about motorized vehicles on non-motorized infrastructure?

        Then we threw in e-scooters and whatever e-garbage entitled people use to terrorize others. And we’re supposed to celebrate this dystopian nightmare or be shamed.

      • NickS says:

        The name calling and profanity really aren’t appropriate; what do you think this is, YouTube? I’m embarrassed for you.

      • asdf2 says:

        I regularly ride to Seattle from Kirkland on an ebike that tops out at 20 mph. It’s a great ride and, on downhills, I typically get passed by pedal bikes.

        But, under your system, such a trip would be essentially impossible. If I can’t use that 520/I-90 bike paths, and can’t go fast enough to ride on the freeway, or even take highway 522, you’re basically telling me that so long as I ride an ebike, I can’t cross the lake at all. Yes, I could take my pedal bike instead, but that’s an extra 45 minutes each way, and I don’t have the time for that. So you’re basically telling me I need to stop riding altogether and either bus or drive. Sorry, but that’s rediculous.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        The name calling and profanity really aren’t appropriate; what do you think this is, YouTube? I’m embarrassed for you.

        So instead of providing a response indicating the positives of unleashing motorized vehicles on non-motorized infrastructure, you accuse me of name calling.

        Yet I’m supposed to be the one that’s embarrassed?

      • Ballard Biker says:

        But, under your system, such a trip would be essentially impossible. If I can’t use that 520/I-90 bike paths, and can’t go fast enough to ride on the freeway, or even take highway 522, you’re basically telling me that so long as I ride an ebike, I can’t cross the lake at all. Yes, I could take my pedal bike instead, but that’s an extra 45 minutes each way, and I don’t have the time for that. So you’re basically telling me I need to stop riding altogether and either bus or drive. Sorry, but that’s rediculous.

        Then let’s make exceptions for e-bikes on these two or three examples where the alternate is a freeway and have motorized vehicles transition to streets as soon as possible. This doesn’t need to be an all or nothing scenario here.

        Of course, we all remember the e-bike “pilot”, which only allowed motorized vehicles on 5 trails throughout the region and we see how the motorized crowd complied with that.

  4. Peri Hartman says:

    I thought it might be useful to look at e-bikes in europe. The EU has legislation which appears to apply generally. I tried to find specific info for copenhagen (where I actually rented and rode a bike) but only find info for e-scooters (which I include below).

    – e-bikes must have pedal assistance.
    – motor assist must progressively decline and cut out at 25km/h or when user not pedaling.
    – other than that, it appears e-bikes are universally allowed where non assist bikes are allowed.
    – no electric scooters can be parked in the city center (I think they allow riding through). This appears to be to address scooters left blocking the sidewalks.
    – scooters prohibited on sidewalks
    – scooters limited to 20km/h

    • asdf2 says:

      My ebike does have a throttle, although I don’t use it during normal riding. Rather, I use it in special situations, such as if I need to walk the bike up a hill or accelerate quickly on a street with heavy car traffic.

      I don’t feel that the mere presence of a throttle that I never use on the Burke Gilman should preclude me from riding the bike on the Burke Gilman.

  5. AW says:

    I too am frustrated with the inconsiderate e-bike riders and in my experience there are a higher percentage of them as opposed to non motorized bicycles. However there are plenty of inconsiderate non motorized bike riders too. Also there are people who use the e-bikes because without this help they wouldn’t be able to ride or ride as much as they want. They aren’t riding like jerks or being the fastest ones on the road.

    My problem with e-bikes is that they all seem to have overpowered headlights that point directly into the oncoming bikes. Although this is also a problem with non motorized bikes, it feels worse for e-bikes since the lights are built in and fixed into place.

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