E-bikes have appeared in growing numbers on California sidewalks. Now legislators want more information about how they affect traffic and what kind of danger they represent.
New legislation, Senate Bill 381, would direct the Mineta Transportation Institute to make a study of e-bikes, but what information it would look for or how it would shape policy is unclear.
E-bikes have surged in popularity in recent years as Californians look for green transportation alternatives. Helbiz, an e-bike rental company, recently launched a new fleet of e-bikes in Santa Monica.
While there are no statistics on the number of miles traveled by e-bikes or clarity on how often injuries occur while operating them, there has been enough anecdotal evidence to encourage the legislature to introduce a bill that would help it learn more. The bill, introduced by California State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, doesn’t aim to restrict use but to learn more about how the vehicles can be used safely.
“As a proud owner and rider of an electric scooter myself, I am cognizant of how convenient e-bikes are, and also how important they will be for reducing carbon emissions,” said Min in a news release. “But the rise of popularity in e-bikes also creates new challenges, which require us to rethink the rules in place to keep our roads safe… It is imperative that we get this right for e-bike enthusiasts of all ages, and also for the local communities looking to the state for guidance.”
The legislation, if passed, would direct the institute to collect data on e-bikes, likely through surveys, and research whatever e-bike policies may exist in other states.
Right now, there’s a shortage of information and rules specific to e-bikes. For now, California law places them under the same umbrella as bicycles. Scooters, a more established relative of the e-bike, are deployed in bunches by companies that often sign contracts with cities that require data sharing. That data can provide bite-sized statistics about the number of scooter rides per year or miles traveled on the vehicles.
Kevin Fang, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, said they don’t have those kinds of numbers for e-bikes.
It’s also not clear how dangerous the bikes are. While some hospital numbers show injuries, Fang said they don’t differentiate between e-bikes and scooters or other similar modes of transportation.
“This stuff all gets coded at the hospital, and they’ve got a lot of things going on, so can they accurately record exactly how the accident happened?” he said.
Fang himself has spent more research time on scooters and less on e-bikes. E-bike research hasn’t been a priority for the institute. While scooters have been widely available through various companies who have forged contracts with local municipalities, fewer e-bike companies have emerged. That means fewer broad data sets.
“Will we get data that we can estimate? Yeah, I think we will. Will they be quite as reliable as the scooter data? Maybe not,” Fang said.
Some of the concerns over e-bikes might not even appear in data. The Los Alamitos Unified School District recently put together an educational course for students along with the local police department. Concerns over children riding too fast or hauling other students on the handlebars of the bike or in other dangerous positions motivated the district to create a permit system.
SB 381 is a starting point, and doesn’t stipulate hard policy ideas like permits. State legislation is likely a long way from passing anything similar to the Los Alamitos Unified School District plan.
“It’s still being discussed what exactly the legislature is looking to do,” Fang said.