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Bicycle industry shot itself — and others — in the foot with 45km/h electric “bicycles”

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.

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10 comments

  1. I think 45km is a moped. Too fast for cycle lanes. I also thing electric bikes or scooters should have to go outside the cycle lane if overtaking cycles. A “bike” is a bike. A “machine” is an e-bike.

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  2. “Ooh I think this speed, ooh I think that speed” blah, blah. Go the speed you want. Accept freedom and responsibility. Know your surroundings and your abilities and act accordingly.

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    • Accepting responsibility at that speed would mean accepting responsibility for injuries or slower moving cyclists that you may collide with at a junction.

      Since these events are unpredictable in their timing, that means having insurance before setting out (which means the insurance company requires licence plates).

      It also means minimising your risks by travelling in the same lane as vehicles which move at a similar speed. If 45kph is possible then that means in the road with cars and mopeds, not in the cycle path.

      So yes your approach does work if you assume responsibility for those things. Most people however will choose to manage their risk by staying under 25kph. This is the speed which allows for beautiful practical cities which people enjoy going to, not just passing through. Such speeds give an enormous amount of freedom in terms of what we do with our city streets.

      Cycling is of course a means, not an end. The end is the resulting opportunities to improve our towns, cities and rural areas.

      Reply
  3. Couldn’t disagree more with the opinion piece. I can ride 45 km/h without a motor as most people can but it’s much more enjoyable to have motor assist especially for hills and mountains.

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    • The effort required to cycle at 45km/h without a motor includes an entry barrier which in practical terms means few people ride at 45km/h in urban areas and they have gained some experience before reaching that speed.

      The barriers of reaching that speed on a fast ebike is much much lower. That causes a lot more issues.

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    • I don’t think that is particularly relevant.

      The frequency at which you will see someone hit 45kph while cycling unassisted and in proximity to pedestrians or slower moving cyclists is effectively zero. It is especially difficult to accelerate repeatedly to that speed if you work a town or city with traffic lights.

      The fact that most cycling moves at less than 25kph is really the key feature which allows it to co-exist in environments with lots of pedestrians. Ignoring this fact is how we ended up going mad for cars and motorcycles in the first place.

      I agree that electric assistance can be very important for people living or travelling through hilly areas but would consider that going up and down mountains at 45kph is very much in the territory of being a motorised vehicle. Some sort of system is needed to ensure that such vehicles don’t end up being used in cycle lanes and other urban locations where they may not be appropriate. That is sort of the same mistake we made a century ago with motorbikes.

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  4. Why would anyone bragging that they can go 45km/h un-aided need a motor for hills?
    The inclusivity I advocate is for younger, older, less fit people cycling to essential things such as school, work, medical appointments etc. The inclusivity perspective appears to be getting hijacked, firstly by elite-level competitive cyclists and now motorized vehicles of various types. These vehicles put the aforementioned non-elite cyclists off using the lanes(thus making cycling an elitist pursuit, rather than an inclusive mode of transport). By all means do 45m/h if you wish using a battery, but do that on the road lane. Leave cycle lanes to ‘cyclists’ of all levels of ‘cycling’ ability.

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    • 100% concur. Writing from NYC, BTW, which has a mad mix of trad bikes, e-Assist, full-electric, and motor scooters at any given time in it’s supposed bike lanes. The intent of cycling infrastructure is to make it safer for the average person to ride in the city. if people with little to no experience riding a bicycle, and therefore little skill, can boost upwards of 25km/h it’s *highly problematic”. I personally have been hit almost head-on but exactly that type of person while riding up a nice, wide ramp over one of our bridges. I am dead lucky I came out with a “taco’d” front wheel and brusied inner thighs from my bike frame slamming into me. Yes, there needs to be an enforcable (and ENFORCED) limit in the actual bike lanes. Those who, via assisted means, can go (and will try to go) 30-45 km/h need to move into the normal slipstream of traffic, which in most urban environments is going roughly that speed.

      Reply
      • I see this from both sides.
        I certainly don’t want bike lanes to be turned into a dangerous environment anymore than they already are by some reckless individuals.
        25kmh should be the maximum speed for assisted cycle speed in bike lanes and paths of any kind. Any faster and it’s all going to become too dangerous too quickly among the other users of those facilities so it’s a hard no from me for anything over assisted 25kmh in cycling lanes.
        But that being said, as someone who lives 20km from my work, I would like very much to replace my car with an e-bike to make this trip along almost exclusively open roads with zero biking infrastructure apart from a section of the very last kilometre.
        25kmh is really too slow for that kind of environment and distance. I average 20kmh with no headwind or bad weather already on an unassisted bike.
        But it’s still an hour’s hard pedalling for someone who’s getting older and just moderately fit compared to 18 minutes effortless driving in my car.
        Even a currently 25kmh limited assisted e-bike would speed that journey up by getting me over the hills quicker and overall with considerably less effort. But whatever about 45kmh, I definitely think that assisted e-bike’s should have an increased speed of 30-35kmh for outside of a 25kmh bicycle path or lane.
        That would really viably get me out of my car for a 20km commute and arriving still relatively fresh in 35-40 minutes even in wet or windy weather without arriving already tired and sweating.
        So perhaps a switch to limit maximum assist to 25kmh and off for 35kmh for the open roads?
        Or expecting people to follow the rules? (Just thought I’d throw in a joke at the end!)

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  5. Interesting whats happening in NY. Even the Amsterdam cycle lanes have become overcrowded with all sorts of non-cycling vehicles.We need to guard our cycle lanes from this. Its taking so long for us to get them. Lets stand up and say cycle lanes are for cyclists only.

    Reply

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