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Transportation

Are E-Bikes Less Safe?

Higher speeds could mean more crashes, new research suggests.
A visitor looks at electric bikes made by French company Moustache displayed at a cycling trade show.
A visitor looks at electric bikes made by French company Moustache displayed at a cycling trade show.REUTERS/Charles Platiau

In American cities, e-bikes don’t have a huge presence yet. But elsewhere, they’re taking to the streets in ever-more-noticeable numbers. In China, they may have already reached market saturation. In Europe, between 700,000 and 1,200,000 e-bikes were sold in 2012, twice as many as in 2009 and eight times as many as in 2006. It’s no wonder; the small, battery-powered motors tucked inside e-bikes’ hubs or tubes permit considerably swifter, less sweaty progress. Projections show these machines are even slowly breaking through to car-loving North Americans.

But the ascent of the e-bike raises safety questions. With normal speeds topping out around 20 mph, are e-bikes more prone to crashes? Do e-bike riders behave any differently than regular ones? And do pedestrians, drivers, and other cyclists respond any differently to these motor-powered two-wheelers, which often look much the same as non-motorized ones? A study published this week in Transportation Research suggests that e-bikes do indeed carry a specific set of safety implications, and that transportation policy makers might do well to adapt.