Singing The Bikey Electric

It was warm and springy yesterday evening which made for a delightful ride through town:

And as the sun set, I was secure in the knowledge that my Arclight PRO (!) pedals were glowing beneath my feet:

Oh, wait, they shut themselves off automatically. Here you go:

See that? A little nudge brings them right back to life:

I wish I could say the same for myself.

Now excuse me for a moment while I put on my Old Guy Hat:



Anyway, as I rode through this beguiling metropolis, I contemplated–as I often do–just how much it’s changed over the years. For example, I remember back when there were no bridges at all over the East River, and you had to pay a young Walt Whitman a ha’penny to paddle you across it in his skiff–and another ha’penny to shut him the fuck up. (“Go sing that ‘Body Electric’ crap over in Jersey,” I used to admonish him.)

But now, not only are there multiple bridges, but they’ve also got dedicated bike lanes on them–though they’re increasingly contaminated by moped traffic:

This particular trip wasn’t too bad, but you may have noticed several oncoming throttle-twisters–especially this e-douche who was on some kind of high-speed electric motorcycle:

This is a new breed of e-rider I’ve identified. They’re not delivery riders, or people carrying kids with last names for first names to preschool, or even the bros smoking weed as they languidly ply the bike paths on electrified fat bikes. No, these are people who seem to be enamored of the whole “café racer” aesthetic, yet are presumably too cowardly and mechanically inept to ride actual café racers, and so they ride things like this in the bike lanes instead;

Please note that the above is a stereotype I’ve formulated based entirely on a handful of two-second encounters, and that in truth I know nothing whatsoever about these people, their interests, or their character. Nevertheless, I stand by it.

More common are the gasoline-powered scooters which should have license plates but don’t, and you may have heard this person on my tail for quite awhile before he eventually passed me:

The Smuggies like to go on and on about “micromobility” and how it will save the planet. As someone who increasingly tends to lean libertarian when it comes to getting around I’m all in favor of small, nimble vehicles that get people where they need to be with a minimum of fuss, and while I may complain about many of them I also understand it’s an evolutionary process that doesn’t stop just because I find it annoying. At the same time, the reality of “micromobility” is often far more prosaic than the idealistic version the Smuggies put forth, by which I mean it’s basically a bunch of people on unregistered farty motorbikes who should be riding in the car lane but don’t feel like it.

Unfortunately neither the Smuggies nor the DOT bike counter make a distinction, and so these fart-smelelrs pad our numbers like so much food filler:

And while I’m wearing my Old Guy Hat, I should admit that while…(sigh)…I Have Nothing Against E-Bikes, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the idea that ebikes are our best hope to meaningfully replace car trips, or even car ownership:

This idea is so oft-repeated that we all just assume it’s true. However, as far as I can tell, there is no meaningful data to back it up–and nobody has been able to furnish me with any, either. I mean yes, there are absolutely individuals who have replaced car trips with e-bike trips. There are also people who will tell you they’re riding instead of driving if you ask them as part of a survey. But so far there’s no sign that this is beginning to meaningfully reduce car use in any way–and we’re years into the widespread availability of e-bikes, and decades into cities adding more and more bike lanes.

“But it can, and that’s the point!,” you may now be shouting at the cat. But will it? Here’s why I’m no longer so sure:

See, people could also cover those three-mile-or-less trips on a regular bicycle, which has existed since the 19th century…and yet here we are. This isn’t to say the bicycle hasn’t flourished, or that people don’t use them for short trips, or that we shouldn’t make it easier for more people to do so. However, it is to say that, while the e-bike is nifty enough that people might choose it over a regular bike, I’m not sure it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it will upend the car in a way the traditional bicycle hasn’t. There are people who buy bikes with lofty goals and then abandon them as soon as the tires lose pressure and they realize they don’t know how to get more air into them. (Or as soon as it rains, which it still does if you’re on an e-bike.) So why should an e-bike be any different? For years I took my young children to school by bike, and happily entertained the questions of other parents who expressed interest in doing the same, but ultimately not one of them did. I do think e-bikes could make America’s paltry bicycling-for-transportation numbers ever-so-slightly less paltry, and I do think they could potentially sway a few more parents than my non-assisted cargo bike did (so maybe a little more than zero), but I also think e-bikes and e-bike trips are an addition, not a replacement, in the same way all the gizmos I see people riding in New York now are there in addition to the cars, and the regular bicycles, and so forth, and increase in number right alongside everything else.

In this sense, I wonder if e-bike proponents ultimately do them a disservice by constantly promoting them as car alternatives, or pointing out how much cheaper they are:

E-bikes are no more car alternatives than a dishwasher is a sink alternative. Yes, there are some people for whom an e-bike might allow them to do away with their car, or forego purchasing a second (or third) one. For many more though an e-bike is something they’d own in addition to the car, in which case comparing the prices of the two is pointless. However, it does make sense to compare the price of an e-bike to a regular bike–which is a much better bargain, but which is the purchase the typical e-bike consumer will ultimately forego.

Trying to convince people e-bikes are just cheaper cars is ultimately a fruitless endeavor. So when people complain that e-bikes are expensive, don’t remind them that they’re cheaper than cars; remind them that if they think e-bikes are too expensive they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they price the regular bikes that are just as capable, and that can sit for months and still be rideable…presuming you can be bothered to figure out how to inflate the tires.

Never forget your roots.

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