Debate Time! Are electric bikes the solution to city commuting?

Response 1: Yes, they most certainly are!

Electric bikes are on the Internet’s Mind this week — everyone from tech bloggers to the Huffington Post is nerding out about a new-ish prototype from FlyKly, a company that launched a Kickstarter in October for an electric rear wheel which could make it easier and cheaper to Get Places Fast on your bicycle.

The best thing about this invention is that it could democratize cycling in cities like Denver, where commuters travel further distances to get to work than they might in tightly packed megalopoles  like New York and San Francisco.

If the Downtown Denver Partnership’s 2012 Commuter Report is to be trusted, most people living and working in Denver have a 14-mile commute one-way. 28 miles is a long way to bike every day, especially if you’re not a spritely young thing (the same Downtown Denver Partnership report says that people over 30 are significantly less likely to walk or bike to work than their younger counterparts).

Which brings us back to the democratizing idea behind electric bikes. Hopefully this fancy new tool will encourage those commuters who have longer rides to swap out their prohibitively expensive, dangerous, and decidedly silly car for a new-fashioned bicycle with an electric rear wheel.

In doing so, they’ll find that they can go further and be more comfortable on a bike than ever before. And we all love the idea of getting more people on bikes – healthier habits lead to healthier citizens lead to less anomie and more cooperation leads to safer roads lead to more fun for all!!

Response 2: No, they most certainly are not!

Fixing our commuting woes is not as easy as finding a well-marketed electric wheel, idiots. To solve this one, we need look no further than the history of trying to solve social problems through fancy weirdo and/or technocratic solutions that don’t really get to the bottom of the original contradiction at stake.

Like when Brazilian modernists decided to engineer a capital city – Brasilia – in the middle of nowhere – and then it didn’t really turn out how they had planned and also no one really wanted to live there because it was a boring shithole.

The point here, which I’m getting to, is that urban cycling and commuting are plagued by social problems that go beyond the fact that many of us are quite lazy people who don’t want to get all sweaty on our 5-10 mile commute.

Anecdotal testimony from friends and family and acquaintances plus articles I read on the internet demonstrate that a lot of people are actually pretty scared of cycling in American cities. And with good reason.

Writer Daniel Duane confesses in a recent NYTimes opinion article about cycling accidents that “Everybody who knows me knows that I love cycling and that I’m also completely freaked out by it.”

And early last month, Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes, posted a somber piece after the death of cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski, who was killed in an Oct. 2013 collision with a truck.

Blumenthal’s analysis was pragmatic: everyone is at fault for the abysmal safety conditions on American roads. Motorists are often dismissive and aggressive toward cyclists, who in turn refuse to follow basic traffic rules designed with everyone’s safety in mind.

America’s problem with bike safety isn’t going to wither away if we get more people on bikes. In fact, since electric bikes can easily bring cyclists to speeds that are harder to achieve on an old-timey non-electric bike (up to 20 mph), they could end up causing more accidents if we don’t change the way we think about commuting.

As John Whitelegg has argued in The Guardian, “Bike use goes up as a result of efforts to make streets safe and connect origins and destinations, and this involves urban design, measures to reduce the speed and volume of traffic and measures to make public transport bike-friendly.”

Let’s take the time to make biking in Denver safe, cooperative, and realistic for the mainstream before we go electric.  

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