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Cities want motorcycles to stay in their lanes – but which one?


it is difficult to find anything that unites Nashville, TN; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and New York City. But all of these communities, and many others, are grappling with what to do about electric bikes.

No matter where you are in the United States, ebikes are having a moment. Market research firm NPD says ebike sales grew 240 percent in the twelve months to July 2021, outpacing sales of traditional road bikes. This was the second year in a row that ebike sales at least doubled.

Experts attribute the increase to the pandemic, which has left introverted Americans thirsting for new, Covid-safe ways to get out of the house and exercise. Ebike models geared toward families and new riders have seen particular success, despite there being a thriving community of e-mountain bikers. This shift has encouraged advocates of active transportation, who believe that e-bikes – even more so than electric cars – can help reduce emissions from transportation and combat climate change. Meanwhile, bike-sharing companies Motivate and BCycle have added pedal-assist bikes, which use small motors to give riders a boost to their systems.

In Nashville, the relaunch of BCycle’s local bike-sharing system last summer, all-electric sparked debate about what kinds of vehicles should be able to travel where. The debate focused on the city’s green roads, a system of parks and linear paths that stretch nearly 100 miles throughout the city. Tennessee law allows e-bikes traveling less than 28 miles per hour to operate in most places, but local jurisdictions can create their own rules. “Motorized vehicles” have long been banned from green roads – although e-cyclists say enforcement has been minimal. And some Nashville residents are haunted by memories of the scooter companies that blanketed the streets in 2018 without first getting permission. For these folks, ebikes can feel like another tech-driven company scam. “There’s some PTSD, as a city,” says Bob Mendes, a member of the Metro Council.

Sales of ebikes have more than doubled in each of the past two years.

Photo: Irrfan Khan/Getty Images

So last summer, the council passed a resolution directing city agencies to consider whether new rules were needed. A report is due within weeks, says Cindy Harrison, director of the Green Lanes and Open Spaces division for the city’s Parks Department.

As in many other places around the country, the new popularity of ebikes in Nashville has pitted traditional cyclists against cyclists against dog walkers against recreational exercisers for space on the smooth, limited trails where cars are prohibited. “This is a city full of cars trying to fight from behind for years,” says Mendes, who has had a bike since 2018. Banning e-bikes from green roads, he adds, will limit the places where riders can travel safely.

But Kathleen Murphy, another council member, says she’s heard from voters — often pedestrians — who are concerned about the speeds of ebikes. “With an ebike, you don’t hear it come from behind,” she says. “They’re faster and heavier, which is something that people really worry about.”

The controversy divided traditional allies in the fight for car-free places. The Nashville nonprofit Greenways urged caution and argued that green roads aren’t really meant to be part of the city’s cycling — or transportation — network. “It’s like you’re making a sidewalk and bike path together,” Amy Crowneover, executive director of the group, says of the plan to allow e-bikes to be used on green lanes. But Walk Bike Nashville, an advocacy group that pushes for alternative transportation, wants ebikes left to ride. Director of Advocacy and Communications, Lindsey Janson, urged local residents to think of green roads not just as spaces to walk or cycle, but as greener transportation routes.

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