The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in April began reviewing the archaic and lamebrained ordinances still on its books. One of the board’s proposed topics for the year ahead: Increasing the speed limit on the city’s bike paths.
This idea, according to the board, emerged from frustrated constituents who say the 10-mph limit is meaningless — both too low and largely ignored. The board will be asking itself: Is the city better off with higher speed limits that acknowledge actual biking speeds? Or — since apparently no one in the history of the city has ever been ticketed for speeding on a bike path — is actual enforcement the answer? And: Does the city even have a significant reckless biking problem on its bike paths?
These questions coincide nicely with what could be a summer of reckoning on the region’s bike paths — the summer when the lumbering, whizzing electric bikes arrive, in droves.
E-bikes are those bulkier, often retro-looking models that assist the rider with a small, battery-powered engine. That little extra electrical oomph is an absolute marvel for many — older riders hoping to extend their rides; commuters trying to minimize sweat on the way to the office; parents hauling trailers full of kids and dogs; and delivery services looking for an edge. E-bikes are an alluring, efficient, environmentally sound way to get around for a wide range of people.
Fine. But did you also know e-bikes can legally go 20 mph? And they’re big, often weighing 40 to 60 pounds or more? And some of them have grip-twist throttles that require little peddling at all (and are already banned in several places including New York City)?
And these 20-mph e-bikes have, in the Twin Cities, complete and utter access to what are certainly some of the nation’s most congested bike paths?
Riding a pure-pedal bike at 20 mph on a bike path for any length of time is difficult. Cyclists who can ride that fast are by definition experienced, in shape and probably in control of their bikes.
An inexperienced, sedentary person can board an e-bike and immediately join the fastest traffic on bike paths, weaving in among with all the slower riders and, often, pedestrians. We might be able to see our future in the Netherlands, where 20 percent of the bikes are e-assisted, and huge majorities of e-bike sales are sold to men over 55. Interesting: In 2017, more Dutch men over the age of 65 died on e-bikes than in cars.
The only time that I personally have ever called 911 was last summer on an otherwise vacant bike path near Excelsior. I came upon a man, of an age, unmoving on the ground. He was next to his e-bike. He said, “It got away from me.” The emergency medical technician thought his collarbone was broken.
None of this would matter if e-bikes were still an occasional curiosity, or if e-bikes were just using city streets. But while sales of pure-pedal bikes nationally are sluggish (down 9.3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to the Bicycle Product Supplier Association), e-bike sales are now officially exploding — up 86 percent so far this year. Today, one in 10 bikes sold in this country has electric-assist; it was one in 20 a year ago.
The bike industry is pushing e-bikes hard, partly because of their obvious advantages, but also because the average selling price is $2,400. E-mountain bikes — another, similar issue in parks and national forests — can be even more expensive, and profitable.
So this year might actually be a perfect time to discuss the speeds at which various kinds of bicycles are, and should be, traveling on bike paths. In the meantime, please watch out for all those old guys on e-bikes, which can apparently get away from them.
• Quote of the month, from League of Michigan Bicyclists Executive Director John Lindenmayer, on the complications of prosecuting a Kalamazoo motorist who drove his truck into nine cyclists, killing five of them:
“Efforts to hold drivers accountable are usually pretty weak. Many people don’t bicycle, and some of them don’t believe that bikes should even be on the road. So they put themselves in the shoes of the driver.”
The driver, one Charles Pickett, was nonetheless convicted of five counts of second-degree murder last week.
• Minneapolis this year is phasing in a “dockless” bike-share program to replace the dock-dependent Nice Ride bike-share program.
The advantage of a dockless bike-share program is that riders are free to leave the bikes anywhere. The disadvantage is sometimes that riders leave the bikes … anywhere, piling up in unwanted places.
The city hopes the vendor will instead paint boxes on sidewalks or streets, creating designated places where people will leave the bikes.
In other words: A dock.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.