The rise of the e-bike—often sharing space with pedestrians while travelling at 25 kilometres per hour—may necessitate a rethink of local transportation plans.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, I came to think I was the only adult in Yellowknife riding a bicycle. I never saw anyone else riding on my cycling treks.
I’d buck the sharp wind that gusted off the not-so-distant Arctic barrens to punctuate my circuits around Frame Lake and then Jackfish Lake, juddering past Max Ward’s old bulbous-nosed Bristol freighter, frozen atop its modernist stela in some eternal bush landing—or maybe it was an eternally over-loaded take-off, which might have been more in keeping.
The bike was a canary yellow CCM 10-speed. It was heavy. It had to be to withstand the washboard surface, potholes and clouds of grit that occasionally whirled off the Giant Yellowknife gold mine with its verdigris puddles and sickly-yellow trickles of who-knew-what.
Sometimes I’d ride out past the airport with the shiny silver DC-3 of Northwest Territorial Air that occasionally served as a courtroom for Justice Bill Morrow, and the golf course where a crashed C-47 fuselage had served as the clubhouse until the US Air Force arrived to reclaim it. The “greens” were oiled sand and mulligans were formalized because ravens would routinely swoop in to steal balls.
Almost 1,200 kilometers of gravel road separated me from the next pavement, laid down in northern Alberta to ease the movement of drill pipe to the Keg River oil play.
Or I might ride out the Ingraham Trail—named for the same Vic Ingraham who built Victoria’s iconic hotel of the same name and whose pub was beloved of the baseball, soccer and rugby set for post-game beers. I’d dodge the battered Ford F-150 drivers who’d do bemused double-takes at the spectacle.
I’d cycle out past the mine site until the tailings gave way to stunted spruce and granite outcrops, or, feeling lazy, I’d just head for Rat Lake down 52nd Street where I lived in a walk-up and used the otherwise useless balcony as a winter-long freezer for the caribou I shot that fall.
The snows arrived in October and the days would narrow toward their nadir in December, dwindling to a few hours twilight. I’d hang the old bike on a hook and forget about it until the drifts vanished in early May, when I’d extract it for another summer’s riding.
When did my propensity for taking these long, slow, contemplative rides start? I remember the first when I was about 12. I took my 10-year-old brother out to consecrate his new bottle-green birthday bike, a Raleigh three-speed, by riding a dusty lakeside track in the Interior.
As I remember, the ride was punctuated by many stops to swim. He fell off once but didn’t cry, and we had a splendid expedition picnic of peanut butter and Cheese Whiz sandwiches.
Our mother, usually more inclined to goats’ milk, had secretly packed us a sinful surprise, a couple KIK Colas which we guzzled surrounded by patches of wildflowers. My brother hit a rock on the way home and bent his front rim, which did not thrill my father.
I BEGIN WITH THESE CYCLING ANECDOTES to get something out of the way from the get-go. I am a cycling enthusiast. I have been for a long, long time. I don’t obsess about it. I’m not much for the fancy spandex duds, accessories and competitive spirit. But I’m all for getting on a bike and going somewhere, or nowhere for that matter.
So this is a caution, not a criticism of the Capital Regional District’s master plan to build out infrastructure—with the ambition of increasing cycling from the current 3.2 percent base in Greater Victoria to 25 percent—as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get us all involved in a healthier physical lifestyle.
Just be careful what you wish for.
The old yellow CCM has long departed. So has its successor, another CCM that I rode until it literally fell apart. But I still have a 60’s vintage Bill Clements road bike, although the drop handlebars have been jettisoned for something kinder to my shoulders, and its sleek lines are marred by a grocery basket, and—back to the future!—I also have a Raleigh 18-speed that my wife thoughtfully rigged with saddlebags for my 16-kilometre sorties to the grocery store and back.
So, really, I’m all for more investment in bike lanes that separate cyclists from motor vehicles; for prioritizing cyclists over motor vehicles where that’s practical and so on.
What I’m not in favour of is the canonization of cycling as a virtue-signalling entitlement that demonizes drivers for their ecological insensitivity and unintentionally marginalizes pedestrians as inconvenient dodderers who selfishly occupy spaces better reserved for somebody silently hurtling past them from behind at an intimidating 32 kilometres an hour.
The Lochside Trail is shared by recreational walkers, runners, commuter and recreational cyclists using pedal and e-bikes (photo by Stephen Hume)
Which is certainly how I felt while out for a walk the other day on a “shared” path when the rider of an electric bike with tires like a motorcycle gave me the finger as he flashed past close enough for me to feel the breeze. His curse drifted back: “Move over, you old @#$%&@! Stick to your walker!”
I have a thick skin. After more than half-a-century of reporting I’ve been called just about everything you can imagine and quite a few things I’m sure you can’t. Some surly young immortal yelling insults over his unhelmeted shoulder is the least of my worries.
That moment of road rage, if you can call it that, got me thinking, though.
If it was an isolated incident, I’d dismiss it as the rudeness of somebody having a bad day. But it actually happens frequently when I’m out afoot sharing the “shared” space. And when I ask friends and acquaintances, they concur with my perception: going for a walk is beginning to feel less safe as power-assisted cyclists arrive in greater numbers travelling at greater speeds.
THIS TURNS OUT TO BE TRUE almost everywhere. Studies in Israel, Australia, Norway, China, the United Kingdom, in Vancouver, Toronto, New York and Adelaide all confirm growing levels of apprehension among pedestrians who are seniors and those with hearing, mobility and visual disabilities. Participation surveys suggest that in many urban landscapes these categories of pedestrians feel they are gradually being pushed out of public spaces where they can walk safely.
One significant factor seems to be inexperienced cyclists who discover they can suddenly perform like triathlon stars simply because they have the money to buy a power-assisted electric bike—which they can then take into mixed-use spaces with no training, little regulation and virtually no accountability.
Their power-assisted bikes, which are almost silent, frequently travel narrow paths shared with pedestrians at the speed limit for cars on urban streets. Marketing ads tend to show elderly folk leisurely cruising along, the power used only for the occasional hill. They don’t show the reality of bike cowboys zipping past startled pedestrians. Yet research determines that the average e-bike user travels at about 25 kilometres per hour, a clip that wouldn’t be sustainable for any but the fittest recreational pedal cyclist. And these powered vehicle aren’t registered and they don’t have to carry liability insurance.
Because of the usage protocols on shared-use paths, they approach pedestrians—who may not be able to hear them coming—from behind at the speed of rush hour road traffic in Metro Vancouver.
Cyclists and pedestrians on the E&N Trail (CRD photo)
These realities tend to be submerged in the bland, corporate mission-statement rhetoric that suffuses planning documents like the strategic masterplan. But this issue is not going away and it’s going to get worse as more commuters are attracted to electric bikes and the convenience of shared-use routes. We need some clear, dispassionate, tough-minded thinking about the trade-offs. How should we deal collectively with the rapidly expanding phenomenon of power-assisted bicycles and the nature and structure of infrastructure required to accommodate them?
For that to take place we need a lot more objective data, not just surveys by city planners and proposals from various lobby groups. Frankly, there’s not much relevant data out there.
I thought over the nature of the offence in my own most recent incident.
I’d moved over a step to my left to make my way around a patch of ankle-deep mud. I wasn’t about to take the inside route around the mud hole. The bank was steep. It had soft edges. I’m pretty fit for my age, but I’m also a realist and I don’t tempt fate with unnecessary challenges to my much decreased agility, less certain balance and loss of strength.
The cyclist, when I’d glanced over my shoulder, seemed distant. He approached at a much faster speed than I’d judged. Not surprising really, he was coming toward me at the speed of a world champion sprinter. As he closed from behind, I heard not a sound.
Another disclosure. As is the case for about half those my age or older—I’m 75—I suffer significant hearing loss, particularly in the higher frequencies. So, again, not surprising that I didn’t hear him coming.
Regulations say cyclists are required to signal intention to pass. Perhaps he did. I didn’t hear it. But then, regulations say the law requires cyclists to wear helmets and that law isn’t universally respected or enforced either. Some of the safety conventions that we’re all sanctimoniously urged to adopt are clearly deemed optional by a lot of us.
I’ve been reading with great interest the vigorous conversation in various arenas about how we use this shared pedestrian-cycling infrastructure in the Capital Region.
Lochside Trail in November (photo by Stephen Hume)
Would it be better if pedestrians walked on the left while cyclists rode on the right so that walkers could see on-coming traffic?
Well, there’s a certain logic to that since the Motor Vehicles Act—once again seldom enforced—compels walkers on roads without sidewalks to walk on the lefthand side so they can face and therefore see on-coming traffic they might not hear.
Others counter that it would be a recipe for chaos in shared pedestrian-cycling spaces. That’s a reasonable argument, too. Chaos on shared-use footpaths in the United Kingdom is the source of lively if tiresome debate there with cyclists blaming pedestrians and pedestrians asserting their ancient right-of-way, complaints about scofflaws who don’t leash their dogs and about parents who don’t control their toddlers and from parents regarding the stupidity of cyclists who don’t slow down when there are small children ahead and so on.
In other jurisdictions, there’s now a move to once again disentangle vulnerable pedestrian traffic from the hazard of faster cyclists just as shared space was itself first devised as way to separate vulnerable cyclists from faster motor vehicles.
AMPLIFYING THE CONUNDRUM is the advent of the electric bike. It’s marketed as a green solution for commuters. It entices the less-fit who find recreational biking daunting. The public has embraced the technology. There are now 250 million electric bikes in China. Globally, electric bike use grows by about 130 million a year.
Unfortunately, what little data there is indicates that the rise of the electric bike is not without its downsides. It has increased hazards for pedestrians—particularly for seniors and children—and for cyclists, too. Politicians seem uncertain about how and what to regulate, and what they do regulate they don’t seem inclined to enforce. Enthusiasts frequently dismiss concerns as the fretting of entitled geriatrics.
Yet one recent Australian study found that a shocking eight percent of pedestrians using shared bicycle paths had been knocked down. One-third of walkers said they’d been frightened by a cyclist passing too closely at a high rate of speed. It proved worse than the pedestrians reported. Researchers evaluating the data subsequently concluded that for every cyclist colliding with a pedestrian on shared-use paths there were actually 50 near-misses.
When researchers concentrated on seniors who walked, they found high levels of anxiety. Perhaps this is because the burden of serious injuries in collisions involving cyclists and pedestrians is born mostly by pedestrians, especially those over 60 who are more fragile. In collisions, cyclists were most likely to suffer soft tissue injuries. Seniors suffered severe head injuries and broken bones ranging from skull to pelvic fractures incurred as they struck the ground.
Even though the actual risk of physical injury from a collision between a fast-moving bike and a pedestrian remains relatively low compared to other risks, the fear-factor is already having a significant impact on seniors’ behaviour in shared-use public spaces.
Another Australian study found that pedestrians have become much more likely to take pre-emptive avoidance action on paths they must share with high volumes of bike traffic. Although pedestrians nominally have the right of way and supposedly take priority on shared-use paths, more than 70 percent now feel they are required to keep close to the edge of the path and to walk single file. This precludes the social aspect of an elderly couple going for an afternoon walk. Almost 20 percent said they felt compelled to step off the path every time a cyclist approached.
Pedestrians over 70 were more likely than other groups just to try to avoid cyclists entirely “suggesting this group perceived a higher level of danger.”
So here comes another unintended consequence of the increased blending of pedestrian and cycling traffic (complicated by the added threat of electrically powered vehicles) on shared paths. Pedestrians now express the same concerns about cyclists that cyclists directed at drivers—inattention, hostility, dismissal of their concerns as entitled whingeing. And cyclists “obstructed” by pedestrians sound remarkably similar to aggrieved drivers complaining about the inconvenience of cyclists. The problem, it appears, is simply being moved from one venue to another.
For seniors over 75, many of whom have agility and mobility issues due to everything from arthritic conditions to calcium-deficiencies and brittle bones, walking comprises 77 percent of their total physical activity, one group of researchers found. Geriatric medicine has long advocated that the elderly remain active and mobile as long as possible as a way of forestalling an inevitable loss of physical function and the high public cost disabilities associated with ageing.
Denying these seniors access to walking because they are deemed an inconvenience to cyclists and because they feel menaced by increasingly fast electric bike traffic they have difficulty hearing seems likely to be counterproductive in terms of broader public health objectives.
Numerous studies show that walking on public footpaths increases steadily with age. The older people get, the more they take up walking as a safe, inexpensive recreational exercise with tangible health benefits. But the studies also show that this trend peaks at about age 60. Then it collapses by about one-third—just at the point where this segment of the population begins to express growing apprehension of danger from the the speed and silence of newly emerging electric bike traffic.
“You don’t hear them,” one pedestrian complained of electric bikes to a New York newspaper earlier this year. “They have the momentum of a motorcycle…They go faster than the fastest cyclist…They go faster than some cars.”
A peer-reviewed study by social scientists in Israel made the same point: “E-bikes and motorized scooters are virtually imperceptible by ear” which makes them dangerous to pedestrians, particularly seniors and young children.
The Israeli scholars noted the dearth of statistical data on the electric bike phenomenon but said their findings led them to conclude that “e-bikes along with motorized scooters have become a significant national health, economic and social burden.”
Israel recorded a sixfold increase in the number of injured patients due to electric bike and scooter incidents between 2013 and 2015. China saw electric bike-related injuries jump fourfold between 2004 and 2010.
“Some argue that walkers who don’t like sharing paths with cyclists can simply walk on footpaths instead,” observed one major Australian policy analysis. “Aside from the fact this overlooks the absence of footpaths in some areas, seniors, children and those with limited mobility should not be deterred from walking or using open space and recreation areas by inadequate or inappropriate infrastructure.
“Walking is by far and away the most significant form of exercise for seniors…Curtailing recreational walking would have significant negative implications for public health.”
In Greater Victoria, census data shows there are about 100,000 people over 65. That age segment will grow. The median age by 2036 is expected to increase to 51 years of age.
So this conundrum for planners is not going away soon—but there is a chance to get out in front of the issue.
Statistics Canada calculates that about 20.3 million Canadians walk recreationally compared to 6.2 million who cycle for fun and only 900,000 who use bicycles to commute to work or school. Where should the priority be?
Appropriating safe space from walkers to accommodate cyclists’ needs for safer space while adding a clearly more risky element to the cycling mix doesn’t appear to solve the problem, it just shuffles it down the line.
Once again, I’m a cyclist. I like to ride my bike, especially away from traffic. But perhaps this move to integrate pedestrians with fast, silent electric bikes deserves a cautious re-think.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.