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Guest opinion: Learn from Holland — 20 mph assist is too fast for e-bikes

Published February 19, 2020

By Theo Jorna

Editor's note: Jorna, is the founder and CEO of Hicle, which organizes some of the largest consumer bike fairs in the world, held in Belgium and the Netherlands. Hicle also organizes the E-bike Challenge Minneapolis, which will be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center on March 28–29. Jorna has been in the bike industry since the 1970s. 

An order was issued last August that opens U.S. Bureau of Land Management trails for "Class 1 Electric Bikes." These bicycles have motors that provide assistance up to 20 mph.

At first glance, this appears to be a positive step forward for the still-juvenile e-bike industry. The use of electric-assisted bicycles provides the possibility for less-athletic people to go out on public lands; stimulating growth for both the e-bike industry and recreation organizations. Yet this reasoning might be flawed.

The use of e-bikes for commuting and recreational use has been well established throughout Western Europe. The Netherlands is the front-runner of the worldwide e-bike industry. In 2018, 40% of the total bicycles sold there were e-bikes. This number increased in the next year to 50% of the bicycle sales, or more than 500,000 e-bikes sold and a 70% market share by revenue. Even though the market has been significant for the past few years, it still shows tremendous growth rates — conveying a worldwide example of the opportunities shown in the e-bike market.

"Class 1 e-bikes reach up to 20 mph, which is considerably faster than the average trail-user, therefore future testing with e-bikes on federal trails will likely turn out negatively."

These growth numbers are astounding. However it is important to signify where this growth is realized. The Dutch government actively encourages the use of e-bikes to get people out of their cars and on bikes, making it a common means of transportation for commuting and errands. The benefits include the improved health of bicyclists, the environment, and less-congested infrastructure. On a more local scale, similar developments are happening throughout the United States. In California, a trade-in program allows its citizens, in limited situations, to trade their old car for an e-bike, but so far these are exceptions.

Allowance of e-bikes on the trails of federal lands seems like a logical step toward enlarging the market and normalizing the use of e-bikes. However, one has to realize which audience the potential growth can come from. The growth of the market in Europe is realized mainly from errands, commuting, and day trips: an inexperienced group of cyclists who are drawn into the market by the emergence of electric-assisted cycling who are generally a new and less-skilled group of bike riders. Would these inexperienced cyclists be able to handle an e-bike going at the speed of a competitive cyclist?

In the U.S. there is hesitation when it comes to the acceptance of e-bikes. New York currently bans Class 3 e-bikes (maximum assisted speed of 28 mph). And some recreation organizations are unhappy with the growing popularity of fast e-bikes. In the meantime, BLM Order 3376 has been accepted, which demands these already hesitant entities make a short-term plan for the regulation of Class 1 e-bikes on the trails.

Class 1 e-bikes reach up to 20 mph, which is considerably faster than the average trail-user, therefore future testing with e-bikes on federal trails will likely turn out negatively. A direct consequence is that the trails will be shredded — resulting in a higher probability of damage. Federal lands that start running tests under this order will be discouraged by this potential damage, which would inhibit the trending growth of e-bikes.

In areas with a well-developed infrastructure for bicycle use, like the Netherlands, the use of e-bikes is driving the infrastructure to its limit. The increased use of e-bicycles is starting to overflow Dutch cities. The number of accidents involving bicycles is also rising. This increase is largely due to the increased use of e-bikes. The legislation in Europe allows e-bikes of up to 16 mph. What would have happened in the Netherlands if e-bikes had been going considerably faster?

Currently, the promotion of e-bikes focuses on this faster image. Photos of powerful e-mountain bikes shredding on trails, leaving a large cloud of dust behind, are prime examples of how the American e-bike market is presenting itself. However, this image is the opposite of what the established market of Europe has become.

By promotinging this speedster e-biking image, the brands damage themselves by not reaching potential buyers. The adventurous bicyclist feels too good for electric assistance, making this group unresponsive to adventurous e-bike promotions. These ads also fail to reach inexperienced cyclists because the e-bikes appear too advanced and dangerous.

With e-bike speeds of 20 mph, federal lands will forbid their use on the trails, cities will consider the use too dangerous, and the market will reach a dead end. To realize the potential growth of e-bikes in the United States there is a need to rebrand away from the daredevil image and toward the e-bike as a household essential. The American e-bike market needs to re-direct itself by looking at the European market and learning from it. Twenty is too fast.

Theo Jorno
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike

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