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E-bikes on Toronto streets: It’s a love-hate thing

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The explosion in the popularity of e-bikes has converted even the purists among cycling advocates about ways the e-powered vehicles can reshape public space – if only we can get some rules to deal with the hot mess on the streets.
Why we love e-bikes
I’d see her riding her bike practically every morning on the way to work, rain or shine, nattily dressed in a knit hat and scarf. Gone like the wind.

It all looked so effortless. And it was hard to keep up. I discovered why one day when I got close enough: she was riding an e-bike. Every turn of her pedals was four or five of mine. Brilliant.

I’m a purist when it comes to pedal power. E-bikes are like cheating to me. (Maybe I’ve been watching the Tour de France for too long). In the Big Smoke, the relationship between e-bikers and traditional cyclists has been marked by frustration. It’s a love-hate thing.

But two years of living under pandemic conditions has Torontonians rethinking their transportation choices, and more of them are opting for the e-bike. Their popularity has exploded.

The new turn has got cycling activists rethinking their cynicism and reimagining city streets with fewer cars and more space for everybody else as post-pandemic commuting undergoes a sea change during climate change. That’s the good news. The bad news is that regulations have failed to keep up with technology creating one hot mess on the streets.

First, a primer
There are many different e-powered vehicles out there – cargo e-bikes, electric scooters and e-powered motorcycles and mopeds. But there are two basic categories of e-bikes. There are the pedal-assisted e-bikes (or -pedelecs), which require pedaling and come equipped with a battery-powered motor and computer that reads your output and returns that power to your pedals. It makes riding a lot easier.

And then there are the power-assisted e-bikes, which require no pedalling – although some come equipped with pedals to make them look like pedelecs. You’ve seen them. They look like Vespa-knock offs. They’re throttle and go and a nuisance. They’re autonomously powered electric vehicles and, most agree, should be treated as such. That’s meant a push for laws around licensing and registration in other jurisdictions, but not Ontario.

The feds want nothing to do with regulation, while the province considers them all e-bikes under the Highway Traffic Act, which has left the city riding solo on regulations at the same time as e-bikes are revolutionizing how we get around.

A years-long process has seen the city bring in a number of rules to try to accommodate the growing number of e-vehicles out there based on their weight and speed. Generally speaking, pedal-assisted e-vehicles are allowed on painted bike lanes, power-assisted e-vehicles are not. (See the chart below).

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But there’s still a whole lot of confusion about that – and little enforcement – while opportunistic manufacturers keep flooding the market with bigger and badder power-assisted vehicles that are e-bikes in name only. E-bikes is also a marketing thing aimed at making e-bikes attractive to car drivers. That’s where the money is.

The pandemic is fast-tracking change in our commuting patterns. It’s made us smarter about our travel choices. E-bikes are changing the game – now if we could only get some rules.

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Eric Kamphof says some old-school bike stores “had to be dragged kicking and screaming” into the e-bike market.

A perfect e-storm
Eric Kamphof, general manager at Annex-based bike shop Curbside Cycle, can remember a time not so long ago when bike stores that now sell e-bikes “had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. My own community of cyclists often verge towards the purists and my industry is especially guilty of this. Us longtime cyclists can be our own worst problem sometimes.”

But necessity being the mother of invention, Kamphof says that both traditional cyclists and people looking to free themselves from their car are opting for e-travel in the city. Nowadays he says e-cargo bikes and e-bike sales make up about 30 per cent of Curbside’s business whereas “it was barely a glimmer” before.

“It’s like everyone chose the pandemic to get an e-bike.” It’s been a perfect storm.

The city introduced its own fleet of e-bikes as part of BikeShare shortly after the pandemic in 2020. Now for those for whom the distance to work or to buy groceries made riding a bike too impractical – or too sweaty a proposition – e-bikes are becoming a growing option.

Kamphof, who also sits on a technical committee advising the Ministry of Transportation on e-bikes, says increased literacy around the benefits of cycling in general is contributing to its surge in popularity of e-bikes. What used to be a feeling of incredulity about bikes has turned to Torontonians thinking more like the Dutch when it comes to travel choices. We’ve become essentialists.

“The Dutch don’t think in terms of bikes versus cars,” says Kamphof. “They think about what their best option is.”

Riding high
The global market in e-bikes is super-charged for big things. It’s projected to hit USD $79.7 billion by 2026 from $47 billion in 2021. By 2023, the number of e-bikes in use on the planet is expected to grow to 300 million, up from 200 million in 2019, according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte. And investors are lining up to rev growth.

Last month Rad Power Bikes, North America’s largest e-bike manufacturer, announced another $150 million injection in its operations.

But e-bikes’ surge in popularity is not just a COVID-induced fad. It’s about practicality in a post-pandemic, climate changing world.

There are millions of vehicles on the road. And most of them, some 60 per cent, are being used for trips of 10 kilometres of less, a distance that can easily be handled by an e-bike.

According to the REACT Lab at the University of British Columbia, the average length of trips by e-bike in Canada is actually half a kilometre longer than trips by car.

It’s kinda nutty to think about that when you consider that a vehicle costs something like $7,000 a year to maintain (give or take a few hundred depending on where you live). An e-bike will run you around $1,000 a year.

It’s also a healthier way to travel than perviously thought. Here, too, e-bikes are exploding myths.

A recent survey of some 10,000 riders in seven European cities published recently in the British Medical Journal found that physical activity gains from e-bike use are “similar” to regular bikes. That’s because e-bikers tend to take longer trips – up to twice as long, according to some data – as those on conventional bikes.

E-bikes are also more doable for those with physical limitations and for whom conventional cycling is not an option, like the 70-year-old with a bum knee.

The development of lighter-weight bikes and more powerful electrical energy storage means that e-bikes of the future will be able to travel longer distances on a single charge.

That means more demands on cities in terms of infrastructure and changing the way we think about getting people around and moving goods and services, says Keagan Gartz, executive director of Cycle Toronto.

“The commute is the thing,” says Gartz.

The car-versus-bike paradigm – or for that matter, the bike-versus-e-bike paradigm – no longer applies. Gartz says it’s time to think in terms of “mobility lanes” instead of bike lanes on our streets.

“As you’re seeing people using different micro mobility devices,” says Gartz, “everybody needs a safe space to get around.”

Some countries in Europe have moved to extra-wide lanes that can be used for a range of mobility devices, from e-scooters to bikes. A similar proposal here for a “Mobility Greenway” to coincide with the building of the Finch LRT has been presented to council.

Gartz says the days when roads were built just for cars are over. Some major employers like FedEx are already thinking about the new reality of greener forms of transportation, and is now using 40 e-cargo bikes to deliver in five Toronto neighbourhoods.

“When we think about our streets there’s already a slow lane and a fast lane,” Gartz says. Only, right now, it’s cars that are using both of them.

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Why we hate e-bikes
The new bike lanes downtown have been a real eye-opener on ways the city should be thinking about public space post-pandemic. So have efforts like the city’s ActiveTO lane closures this summer – for which Torontonians turned out in droves.

But on the streets it’s already back to pre-pandemic levels when it comes to animosity between traditional cyclists and e-bike users.

“They’re freaking everywhere,” says Toronto city councillor and cycling advocate Mike Layton. And they’re not all following the rules of the road.

It’s not all e-bikes, of course.

Pedal-assisted e-bikes that don’t go faster than 32 kilometres per hour are allowed on painted bike lanes – although they can be a menace, too. They’re too quiet to hear coming and whiz by without warning.

But it’s the imposters out there riding the Vespa look-alikes and fat-tired, Mad Max-inspired knock-offs that don’t have pedals (or have fake ones) and can travel up to 42 kilomeres and hour (or more).

They’re not allowed in bike lanes, period – both the painted and the separated variety. There are good reasons for that, which have to do with space and Newton’s second law of motion: F=ma. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that a bike of that size with an adult human aboard travelling at max speed can generate enough force to, well, kill someone, should things go awry. But they’re a common sight on bike lanes.

One was in front of me on the Yonge Street bike lane the other day. It didn’t take long for those old anti-e-bike emotions of mine to start spinning.

Layton, who has noticed a significant rise in their numbers on his own rides along Bloor, says it’s time to revisit the rules around e-bikes and “how to keep the most vulnerable road users safe. A lot has changed since they first came onto the scene.”

Indeed. The vast majority of bike lanes in the city are not wide enough to accommodate e-bikes. Longboarders, rollerbladers, cargo bikes and those on mobility devices also use bike lanes. Our infrastructure has not only not kept up with existing demands – it’s now being confronted with whole new technologies.

On e-bikes there’s also little in the way of enforcement, inviting a bit of a wild west out there when you consider that you don’t need a licence to ride an e-bike. The bar is low – as long as you’re at least 16 years of age and wearing a regulation bike helmet (no motorcycle helmet required) you’re good to go.

The city has moved to ban the use of “non-pedelecs” in separated bike lanes. But as of right now, there’s no push in any direction for more change by city council as bigger and more powerful throttle-assist e-bikes are entering the fray.

And they’re not configured at the factory to make sure they fall within the legal requirements of the markets they’re being sold in when it comes to speed and power.

“Two industries have emerged,” says Kamphof, “which clearly define for themselves what is and isn’t an e-bike.”

In February, the British ColumbiaCourt of Appeal upheld a BC Supreme Court ruling that mopeds and scooters do not meet the province’s definition of an e-bike and therefore require a driver’s licence, registration and insurance.

Ontario, meanwhile, is moving in the other direction away from regulation.

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What’s next?
Darnel Harris, who is also on the technical committee currently advising the Ministry of Transportation, knows what it’s like “to end up getting deep down the hole of regulation” on e-bikes.

The executive director of Our Greenway Conservancy has some big ideas about how e-bikes can change the city and connect high-density communities in the city’s northern reaches. His group has been training those communities on how to use e-bikes since the pandemic. Those include e-bikes that seat two people.

The group is also pitching plans for a 21-kilometre “Mobility Greenway” with an extra wide lane for bikes and other mobility users along a redesigned Finch LRT corridor. It includes community hubs along the way.

Harris says our notion of streets needs to be broadened to think about access for other groups, including those living in apartment buildings as well as seniors and people with accessibility and mobility issues.

He says that as the popularity of e-bikes grows, the city will have to figure out how to accommodate them as a fundamental part of the transportation network. Harris says “the potential is huge.”

But before that can be realized, Harris says our language around mobility needs to change, too.

“Bikes are used for recreation is the orthodoxy,” Harris says. “But bike lanes are not just an amenity and niche for a small group of people. They can actually shift vehicle use.”

If e-bikes can get us to that place faster, then maybe they’re not so bad after all.

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I live right off the Danforth and I hate these f'n things with a passion.

The vast majority of the ones I see are food delivery drivers.
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