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Posted by Gregory Maassen on August 25, 2022 - Latest revision September 5, 2022  Reading time: minutes remaining

Academic Research is Conclusive: E-bikes are Useful and Contribute to a Healthy Lifestyle

The National Park Service (NPS) has been at the forefront of the e-bike debate in the United States by permitting these modern marvels of micro-mobility on trails in national parks where regular, "analog" bike use is allowed.

To implement NPS' electric bicycle (e-bike) regulation of December 2020, a comprehensive literature review was conducted to assist superintendents with management decisions related to e-bikes. The park service has produced a detailed literature overview of nearly 60 e-bike studies. The literature review revealed the following conclusions:

Health and Wellness of E-bikers

  • Riding an e-bike has similar positive results for a rider’s overall health and wellness as a traditional bicycle.
  • Although e-bikes require less physical exertion than traditional bicycles, e-bikes help users achieve enough physical activity to reduce the chance of sedentary lifestyle diseases.
  • E-bikes provide mobility to those with physical limitations that may otherwise prevent them from bicycling.
  • Electric mountain bike (eMTB) users achieved similar levels of physical exertion as traditional mountain bike riders.

Access to E-bike Technology

  • E-bikes are commonly used by older adults and people with physical limitations that make riding a traditional bicycle difficult.
  • People with physical limitations are more likely to use e-bikes for recreation and exercise than for commutes.
  • Design characteristics, including lightweight construction, step-through frame, and tricycle style bikes can help make e-bikes accessible.

E-bike Users: Equity

  • The gender discrepancy between e-bike users is proportionally lower than that of traditional bicycle users in the United States; however, women remain underrepresented among e-bike users. 
  • The high upfront cost of e-bikes is a barrier to e-bike ownership and ridership
  • Some shared e-bike operators provide alternative means of access for low-income or unbanked individuals or those without a smartphone, such as “text-to-unlock” features.

E-biking, Environment and Natural Resources

  • E-bikes have order-of-magnitude lower lifecycle greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles, but higher emissions than traditional bicycles.
  • The extent of environmental benefits of e-bikes depends on mode shift behavior (i.e., substitution of trips that would have otherwise been taken using a different mode), degree of e-bike market penetration, and attributes of electricity generation.
  • Research suggests that e-bikes are most commonly replacing trips taken by traditional bicycles, but are also likely leading to a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, because e-bikes enable users to bike more often, travel longer distances, and carry more cargo.

E-biking and Trail Surfaces

  • One study found that there was not a significant difference in soil displacement on natural surface trails between e-mountain bikes (eMTBs) and traditional mountain bikes.
  • Management best practices indicate that traditional mountain bike degradation can be minimized if trail users are restricted to formal trails (in contrast to visitor-created trails).
  • A study of traditional mountain biking effects observes that trail design and management contribute more significantly to trail surface degradation than the type or amount of use.

E-biking, Wildlife and Vegetation

  • Research on traditional mountain bikes shows that their presence can disturb wildlife and effect ecosystems, similar to other forms of non-motorized recreation.
  • One literature review, finding no evidence that noise, speed, and trail effects were dissimilar between e-bikes and traditional bicycles, stated that the expected ecological effect of e-bikes would be similar to traditional bicycles.
  • There have been no fire incidents reported with e-bike devices that adopted the voluntary electrical standard (e.g., UL 2272) for micro-mobility devices.

E-bike Safety

  • Compared to traditional bicycle riders, e-bike users tend to have a higher rate of single-bicycle crashes.
  • E-bike crashes have been increasing in general, but this could be attributed to the increasing trend of e-bike ownership.

Perceptions of E-bike Safety

  • Some e-bike users feel safer on e-bikes than on traditional bicycles for reasons related to the speed and acceleration characteristics of e-bikes.
  • In a survey, non-e-bike riders indicated that they did not want e-bikes on trails because they were concerned that the e-bikes would travel too fast. However, the speed data showed that people using traditional bicycles traveled faster along the downhill sections than the people using e-bikes. The results of the study indicated that perceptions did not align with the observed behavior.
  • The average cyclist may be able to travel faster using an e-bike than a traditional bicycle; however, this does not mean that people necessarily travel at higher speeds when using e-bikes.
  • E-bikes generally travel at similar speeds as traditional bicycles on roadways, off-street paths, as well as natural surface trails. Depending on context, e-bikes may travel faster or slower than traditional bicycles.
  • Higher average speeds for e-bikes may be due to e-bikes having faster uphill speeds. Measured speeds along flat and downhill sections were relatively similar along both roadways and natural surface trails.

Demographic Differences Among E-bikers

  • E-bike riders tend to be older
  • Men have a higher rate of crashing than women.
  • Women, older adults, and people who consider themselves not physically fit have a higher rate of suffering a serious injury.

E-bike Rider Behavior

  • Compared to traditional bicyclists, e-bike riders exhibit nearly identical safety behavior for wrong-way riding, stop sign compliance, and traffic signal compliance.
  • Similar to traditional bicycles, speeding on e-bikes can lead to an increase in crashes, especially when weather conditions are not ideal.
  • Trail users stated that, with respect to passing distance and passing speed, the behavior of people using traditional mountain bikes and eMTBs was indistinguishable.

E-bike Trip Purpose

  • Those who use e-bikes to commute tend to have a higher crash risk than those using e-bikes for recreation.
  • eMTBs (with wider tires and better suspension) have a lower crash risk than other e-bike types.

E-Bike Classification

  • Class 3 e-bike have similar crash rates as Class 1 or Class 2 e-bikes, however Class 3 may have more serious injuries.
  • There is a lack of research on whether and to what extent there are differences in safety risks between e-bike classes.
  • Since e-bike classifications are not usually reported in crash statistics, it is difficult to draw conclusions about safety differences among e-bike classes.

User Conflict - Perceptions of E-bike Conflicts

  • Other trail users’ perceptions of e-bikes are related to respondents’ familiarity and experience with e-bikes.
  • Exposure to and education on e-bikes and eMTBs could lead to positive trends in perception among other trail users.
  • Most other trail users cannot differentiate between a traditional bicycle and an e-bike on trails.
  • The overall use of e-bikes is still very low compared to use of traditional bicycles on public lands. 

User Conflict - Management and Design Methods

  • Hikers and traditional mountain bikers typically have an asymmetrical relationship where hikers do not like to encounter mountain bikers, but mountain bikers are generally indifferent when they encounter hikers.
  • Understanding the reason or purpose people seek recreational activity is critical to understanding how to manage the trail and control trail conflicts among user groups.

Conclusion

As with many other things in life, perception and reality often differ. The results of this literature review of academic research hopefully will change the perception of e-bike doubters, skeptics, haters, or those deeply concerned with their safety on multi-use trails that allow e-bike users to enjoy the outdoors.

Objectively, there are not many differences between analog cyclists and e-bikers if common sense prevails. Technology is not necessarily at fault when things go wrong. Human behavior is probably a greater factor in how e-bikes and regular bicycles are used safely and responsibly.

Download the NPS study here.

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