Scooter rider and two cyclists.
Scooters are everywhere these days. (Photo: Getty Images)

As E-bikes, Scooters, and Onewheels Become More Popular, Cyclists Are Getting Squeezed Out

The rise of electric micromobility gadgets has brought more people into bike lanes across the country. Is there still room for cyclists?

Scooter rider and two cyclists.
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There was a time when riding a bike in the city was simple, if a bit dicey. There were cars, and there were traffic lights. You avoided the former, you ignored the latter, and if you were lucky you managed to stay alive. What could be easier?

Today, things are a lot more complicated. In addition to bikes and cars you’ve got e-bikes and e-scooters and e-mopeds and Onewheels and electric skateboards and even at least one person riding around on a Roomba, though to be fair I could very well have been imagining that last one. Regardless, whatever strange configuration of lithium ion battery and wheel you can possibly dream up, I guarantee there’s someone out there already riding something similar across the Manhattan Bridge in knee pads and a full-face helmet.

Of course, when anything new hits the streets, people complain. When New York City started installing bike lanes in earnest, people did everything short of crucifying themselves in them to stop it–one lawsuit against a bike lane in Brooklyn dragged on for five years. When the Citi Bike bicycle share program debuted, The Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz famously declared it the work of “totalitarians” who had “begrimed” the city. And when a lone investment banker on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called in to a radio show in 2017 and complained about delivery people on e-bikes, mayor Bill de Blasio launched a “blitz” on them that lasted until at least March of 2020 when the city got distracted with other things.

I’ve always been skeptical of those who engage in Old Man Yells At Cloud-like behavior. For example, when the world was convinced that shared e-scooters were going to bring humanity to its knees, I traveled all the way to Portland–Portland for chrissakes!—in order to prove them wrong. I’ve also always been strongly in favor of e-bikes, and I thought de Blasio telling delivery people not to use them was both cruel and stupid, akin to insisting firefighters dispense with the trucks and the hoses and fight fires with squirt guns and buckets of sand.

And yet, as micromobility continues to flourish and electrified contraptions proliferate seemingly exponentially, I’ve been forced to confront the fact that, well, some of them can be really fucking annoying. 

See, in the old days when you rode a bike in the city, you were liable to get squashed between two box trucks. Now, while undeniably far less of a threat than motor vehicles, e-bikes and their various cousins introduce a disconcerting new element to the streetscape. They may not terrorize you with their power and mass, but they do mess with you due to their preternatural acceleration and small size, in the same way UFOs do with fighter pilots. Lately, delivery people on e-bikes have been launching themselves out from between parked cars as I pass in what always seems like a deliberate attempt to T-bone me. Passing between me and the curb at high speed is another vexing form of e-rider behavior, as is coming at me head-on and wide-open throttle when circumventing car traffic. I’ve even watched horrified as a rider on an e-bike locked up both wheels and barely avoided hitting a pregnant woman in the crosswalk with the right of way. For all their horsepower, cars are relatively ponderous in the more dense areas of the city, and are thus stymied and neutered by the congestion they themselves cause. So if anything is going to take me by surprise these days, it’s probably one of these e-things.

We all know almost doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades, and that there’s no ward for victims of near-misses in the hospital. At the same time, I can’t deny there’s a sort of “flippening” taking place in which on a typical urban ride I’m now having more frustrating encounters with e-bikers than I am with motorists. Sure, you can accuse me of being an old man yelling at a cloud, but I’d offer that I’m more of an old man describing the shape of the cloud and pointing out that at some point it seems likely to rain on me. 

And yet, as micromobility continues to flourish and electrified contraptions proliferate seemingly exponentially, I’ve been forced to confront the fact that, well, some of them can be really fucking annoying.

So what does the future hold? In a city like New York, where door-to-door delivery is a part of life, it’s completely unreasonable to expect that the people who make those deliveries for a living won’t opt for a small, nimble, efficient vehicle such as a throttle-assist e-bike. (After an especially bloody year, it’s also crucial to remember they’re the victims and not the antagonists.) It’s similarly unreasonable to expect lots of other people not to avail themselves of all these various forms of micromobility in order to get around. After all, not everybody has the same affinity for the bicycle that we dedicated cyclists do. They don’t care about frame material or tire pressure or gear ratios or any of that stuff; they just want something zippy that they can store easily in their apartments. I don’t particularly relish playing chicken with a wrong-way scooter rider in the bike lane, but I also wouldn’t be so arrogant as to begrudge them their convenience.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the bicycle was once a wildly popular mode of transport … until it was relegated to the gutter by the automobile in the early 20th century. Who’s to say “progress” won’t pass us by once again, and that we won’t find ourselves relegated to some sort of dedicated “micromobility lane,” riding around like Sean Connery in “Finding Forrester” as thousands of people on e-whatevers whiz past and beep their shrill electronic horns at us? It’s not unthinkable that one day in the not-too-distant future others will view our analog bicycles as mere affectations, and our needs and desires hardly worthy of accommodating.

Sure, you can accuse me of being an old man yelling at a cloud, but I’d offer that I’m more of an old man describing the shape of the cloud and pointing out that at some point it seems likely to rain on me.

If you’re an old fusspot like me, it can be tempting to ball up your fist and shake it at all those whipper-snappers on their whatsits and whoosits. You might even find yourself siding with the “devil you know,” that being the motorist, with whose pigheaded arrogance you at least have years of experience. But the truth is that sides are meaningless; cities evolve, as do the ways we choose to move through them. New York City was once a great mess of wires, and it took a great blizzard for us to figure out what to do with them. Ultimately, when it comes to transport, it’s convenience and efficiency that will carry the day. We’re still in the primordial soup phase of our vehicular evolution, and we can’t avoid the interspecific competition that comes along with it, nor is infrastructure and enforcement ever likely to completely catch up.

As city cyclists, we’ll never be completely free of annoyances or totally protected from harm. However, I have no doubt that we’ll always endure, for sheer virtue of the timeless perfection of our machines and the adaptability of the people who ride them. We were frightening horses before there were cars, and we’ll still be pedaling away when everything else is driving itself. On a fundamental level the streets will always belong to us.

Lead Photo: Getty Images

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