Comment & Analysis: Gazelle, the Dutch bicycle maker, hosted a group of international journalists at a former car showroom which was turned into a Gazelle Experience Center, one of a number of edge-of-city units which allow Dutch customers to try-before-they-buy from small city bicycle shops. What happened next divided the group nearly neatly into two.
One of the bicycles we tried in July 2014 was a “speed pedelec”. It split the group of journalists and a few others nearly neatly into two camps — those who might be described as bicycle enthusiasts, who were focused more on bicycles and their components, and those who see the bicycle as a tool to enable sustainable and liveable urbanism.
It’s safe enough to say that the bicycle enthusiasts among us were well aware of what speed pedelecs were, while some of the more urbanists of us might not have seen one before and might have mistaken it for a standard electric bicycle.
The word ‘pedelec’ is short for pedal-assisted electric bicycle, the motor helps but you need to cycle to keep your bicycle moving and the motor stops helping at 25km/h. These are legally viewed as bicycles in Europe and most places.
Speed pedelec or fast electric bicycles are able to reach 45km/h before cutting out. The legal approach for these has differed in different counties, with some countries treating them like light motorcycles/mopeds, and some as something between light motorcycles and bicycles. Ireland is planning to treat them as mopeds.
Back in 2014, as we tested the speed pedelecs at the Gazelle Experience Center a few of us were able to reach close to 45km/h within the car park.
Most of the others who I talked to afterwards thought it was fun to some extent. The bicycle enthusiasts who spoke up all loved it, but the urbanists had a caveat: It was a really bad idea for cities.
Fast forward to 2023 and we have The Observer newspaper covering how “Amsterdam calls for crackdown on menace of souped-up e-bikes“.
This was all too predictable. Not from a few journalists in a car park trying one long after the industry first pushed the faster standard, but from the Netherlands’ experience of allowing mopeds in cycle paths. Mopeds aren’t as bad as cars, but they can feel worse once cycle paths, especially when the limiters were tampered with, which was widespread.
While there are some bits of over-the-topness in the article, including an unrealistic call for a 15km/h limit for bikes (which would make them slower than normal bikes), the bicycle industry brought this on itself, and on everybody else. If even a more sensible upper limit like around 30-32km/h was chosen as the standard there likely would have been some hope for faster electric bicycles to be accepted.
Now, not only do people who are advocating, planning, designing and enforcing what’s going on in our cities and towns have to contend with users “chipping” electric bicycles to make them go faster, but they also have to deal with bikes designed for 40-45km/h speeds. And these look the same or not much different to legal electric bicycles.
The Observer article even quoted VanMoof, another Dutch bicycle maker, outlining its concern for safety. It however took the company years to update its app to remove a feature which allowed users to increase the limit on their bicycles. VanMoof only last year removed this feature with an update to its app.
A similar and interlinked issue exists around electric scooters, many of which are designed for speeds higher than 25km/h.
There will be calls for pure street design change, to adapt to these higher speeds. But it is unrealistic and unfair to a range of road users to design cycling infrastructure around these higher-speed devices. As well as industry responsibility, lawmakers will need to focus on the area more to enable at least somewhat effective enforcement.
Care will also need to be taken to avoid over reactions that affect accessibility or make things less safe, including barriers on greenways and other routes.
The rise in different users of cycle paths will also need careful design and proper relocation of space. The issues which Amsterdam is facing aren’t just due to speed, but also due to overcrowding on narrow cycle paths. We’re already seeing other cities make the same mistakes of making cycle paths too narrow and that can be hard and expensive to fix after street layouts are charged. Lessons need to be learned.