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Five threats to e-bike success

Published October 21, 2022

A version of this article ran in the October issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

BOULDER, Colo. (BRAIN) — E-bike sales in the U.S. have grown 300% in the past five years. More and more retailers are saying, "E-bikes are our future." Despite the rosy glow around the category, there are concerns among the movement's leaders.

Larry Pizzi, CCO of Alta Cycling Group, has produced and sold e-bikes since 2002, and since 2015 he has chaired the e-bike subcommittee for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, now PeopleForBikes.

"In some areas, like passing the three-class model legislation in 39 states so far, and our first-of-its-kind battery recycling partnership with Call2Recycle, we're thrilled with our progress," Pizzi noted. "And the threats are real and some are really challenging to address."

Dr. Ash Lovell, the electric bicycle policy and campaign director at PeopleForBikes, echoes Pizzi's thoughts. "On our monthly calls with e-bike company heads and advocates we spend the first five minutes celebrating our successes, and the rest of the call in 'What could go wrong?' mode," Lovell said.

So let's take a look at the five challenges that lie ahead and how Lovell and Pizzi plan to address them:

Out-of-category bikes

BRAIN: The PeopleForBikes three-class structure works great within our industry walls. Yet we're seeing so many products that are being touted as electric bicycles that violate the power and speed limits that have been defined by the CPSC. What can be done?

Pizzi: The original definition of e-bikes in the U.S. was included in HR727, a federal bill that modified CPSC 1512 and was signed into law in December 2002.
Malcolm Currie, an early product pioneer and my former employer, testified on behalf of HR727. He had a public service background and connections in D.C. He deserves a great deal of credit for this early work.

The 20-mile-per-hour speed limit for Class 1 and 2 was based on what an athletic rider could achieve on a level surface. It was decided that the power level should be less than one horsepower, hence "less than 750 watts" in the bill.

These limits fit in well with what was emerging in Europe and they still seem well-suited for the U.S. market. What's problematic is the urge to violate them with more speed and more power.

Lovell: This is really a two-pronged challenge. First, there needs to be a better understanding of what is and is not an electric bicycle according to federal regulations.

Many of the products that we are seeing come to market are being marketed as able to achieve higher speeds than defined by CPSC. Obviously, with higher speeds, we see greater chances for accidents and injury.

Pizzi: If you're importing something that can be modified to exceed the three-class limits, you're breaking the law. Not only can CPSC and NHTSA impose penalties, you're putting the public at risk.

It starts with educating the brands with all the information they need. PeopleForBikes members can go to the member portal and find the Erika Jones memo that covers this. So many of the startup e-bike brands are not members yet though.

Inexperienced users

BRAIN: There's legitimate concern that folks are new to riding and may be buying "bikes" that are out of category and go twice or three times faster than they've ever pedaled a bike on their own. What's being done, at the point of sale or afterward, to minimize the risk?

Lovell: Many members of PeopleForBikes are working on rider education initiatives. PeopleForBikes' Safety Task Force is working with industry members to develop curriculum around safe and responsible riding practices.

Last year we created an introductory video that gives a high-level overview of rider etiquette. We are currently supporting a study in Newport Beach with Cal State - Fresno to explore how electric bicycle riders are interacting with folks on the beachfront and on nearby trails.

We are also seeing some bellwether regulations come into play — including California's AB1946, which requires the California Highway Patrol to develop statewide safety and training programs for e-bike users.

That said, there is a lot more to be done to help educate the public both about the types of electric bicycles they are buying and how to ride them.

Pizzi: So few American youth get any kind of traffic safety education in school. Kids don't get that now until they learn to drive, and even then they don't get much. It's a failing of the education system and kids are the ones at risk.

Online e-bike issues

BRAIN: We have a whole population of consumers buying e-bikes online and then finding out that assembling them and getting them serviced is challenging. Are we losing future buyers to a bad first experience?

Pizzi: For the most part, people that experience an e-bike they buy online are getting the initial "oh wow!" experience. But if it stops working, if there's no established service network, we're gonna lose some of them.

Lovell: I think this could go either way. Folks could buy their first electric bicycle online, realize how complicated these products can be, and the assembly and servicing problems could push them into their local bike dealer.

Alternatively, the struggles with assembly and maintenance could push people away from purchasing another electric bicycle in the future. ... it's really hard to tell how this will go at a macro level.

How young is too young?

BRAIN: We're seeing so many youngsters, some as young as single digits, riding e-bikes, sometimes with tragic consequences. Should there be an age limit? If so, how would we apply it and enforce it?

Pizzi: This is a global question with no easy answer. The mature European market is beginning to develop some standards. For example in Germany, the age limit is 11. However, their low-power e-bikes are 250 watts and 15.5 mph max speed, so it's not comparable to our market.

The added complication is that age limits can only be adopted at the state and local levels, it can't be a federal regulation. Youngsters riding irresponsibly may not be our biggest threat, and it may be the hardest one to solve.

Facilities conflicts

BRAIN: While the three-class system creates structure at state levels, localities are still struggling with "which class goes where." How do you see this sorting out as more e-bikes mix with "regular" bikes and other path and trail users?

Lovell: Local land managers should have the final say in where electric bicycles are allowed, as all municipalities and trail systems are different.

We are currently supporting a pilot project in Vermont where local land managers are introducing e-MTBs to the trail system and we're seeing some really positive feedback from the community.

Pizzi: When we envisioned the three-class system it didn't seem that difficult to differentiate what kind of infrastructure would be best for each class.

Class 1 could go anywhere a "regular" bike was allowed including natural surfaces, Class 2 almost anywhere except natural surfaces, and Class 3 for higher speeds on roads but not on multi-use paths.

We need all the brands clearly labeling their bikes so the rider knows what's OK and enforcement agencies, land managers and park superintendents can determine the difference.

We still have brands that don't label their bikes being sold in states where labeling is required. They're breaking the law. We just want everyone to do the right thing and make good choices.

We've been careful to introduce e-bikes into the recreation and transportation mix in a thoughtful and responsible way. Let's all follow the rules and encourage others to do the same so we can keep the category growing, for all our sakes.

Topics associated with this article: Electric bike, From the Magazine

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