Electric Bikes: A Shift in Perspective

Electric Bikes: A Shift in Perspective
Photo by Juan Rojas / Unsplash

There are moments when the creative spark seems distant—a void of ideas that roll aimlessly until they dissipate into nothingness. Some might call it giving up, as the cacophony of honking horns and reckless drivers on the streets becomes background noise, lulling us into complacency’s doldrums until the fourth wall breaks, reality rampages in, and a fellow cyclist lies broken on the rain-soaked streets. It’s in moments such as these that quicken those ideas and hasten them to the page.

Today, I want to explore a subtle shift in my thinking regarding electric bikes (e-bikes). Living in Seoul, where drivers often display little regard for cyclists, I've witnessed a myriad of traffic violations that sometimes make me question why I adhere to traffic rules that others ignore, at my peril. I could delve into the injustices cyclists face in a city dominated by cars, but my focus is on the evolving perceptions of e-bikes.

Initially, I welcomed e-bikes with open arms. My optimism was rooted in the belief that these electric wonders would foster mindfulness, if not respect, among drivers and pedestrians towards cyclists. I celebrated anyone who joined the ranks of "two-wheelistas," especially those whose entry was eased by the accessibility of e-bikes.

Over time, I even contemplated getting an e-bike for myself. My daily 45-minute bike commute, repeated three to five times a week, led me to consider the motorized option to alleviate the strain on my legs. Daily cycling seemed like the most compelling argument for embracing e-bikes.

E-bikes inspired me. The exhilaration of overtaking a fellow cyclist, only to discover they were riding an e-bike, ignited my imagination. Dreams of enhanced cycling infrastructure flourished, with the hope that e-bikes could drive mass adoption. It was a "build it, and they will come" scenario in reverse; I envisioned smoother bike paths thanks to the e-bike revolution, and maybe, if I played my cards just right, a motor could push me faster and further than ever before.

Reality, however, unfolded differently. I watched with growing annoyance as traffic-control measures designed to corral drivers were turned against cyclists. Rumored "improvements" like roundabouts and rumble strips only seemed to hinder cyclists, not motorcycle delivery drivers as I initially assumed.

The situation became clearer with the installation of CCTV cameras, flashing LED signs displaying speed limits that hardly mattered (20 km/h was easily exceeded, even during leisurely rides). I began questioning the purpose of these investments in public safety when they seemed to target cyclists.

It was then that I took a closer look at my surroundings. While I considered myself a competitive cyclist, my skills in handling a bike at high speeds through tight corners weren't acquired overnight; they were the result of countless hours spent kissing the asphalt. E-bike owners, especially newcomers, could easily yeet themselves to unsafe speeds without mastering the fundamentals—a key to safer cycling for everyone in the vicinity.

A True Shift

When we consider the safety implications of e-bikes, it's worth drawing a parallel with their two-wheeled counterparts, motorcycles. While e-bikes often offer increased speed and maneuverability compared to traditional bicycles, they lack the protective gear and braking capacity that comes standard with motorcycles. Motorcycle riders are typically clad in helmets, protective suits, and gloves, all which provide a significant level of safety in an accident. 

Add to that, motorcycles are equipped with advanced braking systems designed to handle higher speeds, whereas e-bikes often rely on traditional bicycle brakes, which, while they have improved in recent years since the introduction of disc brakes, are not nearly as effective at safely stopping a bicycle when traveling at similar scale speeds (when adjusted for vehicle weight).

The electric bike dilemma is not just about convenience or speed; it's about striking a balance between embracing innovation and ensuring the safety and etiquette that make the roads safer for all. As the e-bike wave continues to surge, it's essential for riders and policymakers to consider the broader implications and foster responsible cycling practices. After all, a harmonious coexistence between traditional cyclists and e-bike riders is essential for a sustainable and safe future on two wheels.