The Ethics of E-Bikes
When it comes to bikes and tech, morality is a moving target
It was back-to-school week, and I was pedaling my two-and-a-half-year-old to his first day when I felt myself beginning to crack.
The route is a grueling 1.3 miles with 112 punishing feet of climbing. While that may not sound like a lot, bear in mind that when hauling children on a cargo bike, you need to move the decimal point one place to the right in order to convert utility miles to solo road bike miles. I'd also been doing this same shuttle run with his older brother for years before he finally graduated to the school bus.
“Goddamn it, I need an e-bike,” I caught myself thinking. That was when I knew that I had finally broken.
Until the moment I cracked, I'd never seriously considered any sort of e-bike, believing them to be antithetical to the entire concept of the bicycle. It was simple: e-bikes are not entirely human-powered, and therefore they are unethical. In a world full of power adapters for everything, I despise the idea of a bike you've got to plug in, which is why electronic shifting groups have little appeal for me.
However, as e-bikes become increasingly pervasive (and relevant to my current lifestyle), my view has become somewhat more nuanced. At present, for me, the ethics of the e-bike break down thusly.
Inasmuch as putting on stretchy clothes and going for a road ride just for the sake of riding is essentially self-indulgent behavior that provides no benefit to society at large (apart from giving others something to point at and laugh, of course), I generally believe recreational cyclists don't deserve any special help. Hey, just because you want cycling to be easier doesn't mean it should be any easier. Want to finish with the group but can't? Tough! Sure, getting dropped sucks, but nobody's depriving you of your basic human rights.
Then there's mountain biking, where the influence of e-assists can be downright pernicious. Trail access is tenuous enough as it is, and it's hard to believe more riders going faster with less effort is going to help matters. Plus, the ubiquity of suspension and all this other tech has already transformed mountain biking into something that barely resembles cycling. It's given people the mistaken impression that you can't ride a bike in the woods unless every single component incorporates some form of hydraulic travel.
I used to be considered strange for riding with a rigid fork. Now I'm strange for riding with a rigid seatpost, and by next season I'll be a total freak for riding without telescoping handlebars. This is a sad state of affairs, and one e-bikes will do little to remedy.
E-bikes have gotten a lot of traction in countries where there's an existing cycling-as-transport culture, and where they allow the elderly and others to ride when otherwise they might no longer be able. It's tempting to think, then, that e-bikes could do wonders for Americans of all ages, who are remarkably averse to physical effort and prefer to drive themselves into a state of automobile-induced mobility impairment. Maybe a little electronic tailwind is all it would take to get some of these people out of their Hyundais and onto a bike when it's time to make that three-quarter-mile trip to the 7-Eleven.
Even in American cities where cycling is already growing in acceptance, the e-bike has huge potential. Consider my own example. I live in a hilly part of New York City. (Yes, there is a hilly part of New York City.) If even I, a supremely fit and highly expert cyclist, am complaining about riding up hills with my kids, then what is the likelihood of other non-cycling parents trying it? And I really wish they would, too, because the default mode of driving kids to school has resulted in an automotive clusterfuck at drop-off and pick-up that is only slightly less frustrating than getting punched in the face. (Not to mention dangerous, since the entire neighborhood descends into road rage due to all the double-parking.)
If just a few people opted for a bike instead of a car when transporting their precious children, it would be a massive improvement for everybody.
I'm not talking about bike racers. As far as I'm concerned they can motördope all they want. Remember the Femke Van den Driessche scandal? That was the most entertaining thing to hit the sport since Rock Racing.
No, what I'm talking about are delivery cyclists. You know, people who actually work for a living. Here in New York City, the vast majority of food delivery people have switched to e-bikes, which is entirely justified when you consider the arduous nature of the job. Think your last “epic” was difficult? Try running food in midtown Manhattan during a blizzard in January. Unfortunately, these e-bikes are illegal as per state law, which means every so often the NYPD descends upon delivery cyclists in a massive crackdown and confiscates their bicycles. This results in a massive financial hit to a group of people for whom every cent counts.
And yes, the ubiquity of delivery e-bikes does mean that every once in awhile someone carrying two plastic bags full of food on their handlebars like a milkmaid with a shoulder pole does something that really pisses you off, but criminalizing the machines instead of legitimizing them and working to accommodate them does nothing to improve the situation. At this point, accepting e-bikes as part of the commercial vehicle landscape is the only sensible thing to do. I'll take a typical New York City food delivery cyclist over some kid delivering Papa John's pizza in a farty street racer any day.
As for me, I have yet to obtain an e-bike (or to retrofit my current cargo bike for that matter), and it's entirely possible that I never will. But I'm thinking about it, and in that sense I’ve already surrendered.
I also realize nothing's ever simple. In 2014, I attended the IMBA World Summit in Steamboat Springs, where the subject was e-bikes and trail access, and a rider spoke up who had been part of the evolution of the sport. Obviously he's older now, and he expressed his deep gratitude for e-bikes, which allow him to ride the same trails he did decades ago.
Who am I to begrudge a mountain bike pioneer his e-bike? Nobody, that's who.
I do however feel perfectly comfortable begrudging the many other riders who have paid no dues whatsoever, and I reserve the right to do so—at least until I’ve got another 10 years in my legs.