Two Big Things Holding e-Bikes Back
In a couple of recent news articles, two big obstacles to e-bike adoption became clear: landlords and thieves. And, even without adopting a socialist talking point, the problem basically boils down to thieves in both cases. Let’s take a look at each problem and then I’ll explain further why it’s thieves in both cases.
NYC Landlords Aren’t Letting People Bring e-Bikes Inside
In a recent article at Cycling Weekly, it’s explained that landlords in New York aren’t letting tenants bring their bikes indoors. Why? Because they sometimes catch fire.
Being a big, dense city in a country that doesn’t have many big, dense cities, New Yorkers love e-bikes. Traffic sucks, and in many ways, so does the subway. But, if you have an e-bike, you can zip along through and around traffic without going on the subway without breaking a sweat. And, on the way home, you have the option of getting a nice workout in.
Sadly, with the popularity came problems. With the city leading the U.S. in e-bike adoption, rare problems became un-rare. Injuries, and especially fire made the news. Fortunately, there has been a big reduction in e-bike battery fires, with a good chunk of it attributable to a new city ordinance banning the sale, rental, or lease of bikes that don’t meet UL safety standards for fire and electrical safety.
This isn’t good enough for the landlords who saw ugly photos of burnt buildings on the news, though. In some cases, property managers are banning e-bikes entirely, no matter whether they meet safety standards. In others, they want proof that they meet UL standards. In others, property managers lie and tell people that the city doesn’t allow e-bikes in apartments at all (always consult a lawyer about legal questions).
The article does mention a couple of possible ways around this issue. One proposal is to require apartment building owners to offer secure e-bike storage. Another proposal, made by the Housing Authority, is to limit bikes to one per unit and only allow bikes that meet safety standards, but that would make it difficult for families and roomies who have more than one e-bike.
Thefts Are Another Big Obstacle
I know from my brother’s experience that riding an e-bike is quickly ruined by thieves. After only a few weeks at the local university, thieves broke his very expensive lock and made off with it in broad daylight. We lucked out and managed to get a ping from the bike’s GPS, but local police proved pretty worthless. Fortunately, New Mexico State Police actually put the work in to retrieve the bike, but there are several key parts missing, including the whole handlebar assembly.
At this point, we’re working with the company to get replacement parts, but who wants to risk a $3000 bike by putting it out where it was stolen from last time? We might not get it back next time it gets stolen.
Apparently, this is a big problem in New Zealand, too. Bike thefts have been common for decades, and people generally haven’t been able to do anything about them. If your bike gets stolen, about the only option you have is to waste your time looking for it like Pee Wee Herman.
Sadly, e-bike thefts are driving the theft rate even higher, largely because e-bikes are so valuable compared to the average Walmart bike. The writer found that people are very nervous to get into riding again after experiencing a theft, even if the bike was their primary mode of transport before the theft.
Even when police do manage to recover a bike, they often can’t find the owners. Registering bikes and/or reporting them stolen with a serial number helps, but many people don’t do that, and thus the police have no idea whose bike they got back from a known thief. So, they end up auctioning around half of recovered bikes off.
There are good ways to mark a bike to make life harder for thieves and their fences (people who buy stolen property to resell as if not stolen), but they aren’t universally used either by bike owners or police.
Thieves All The Way Down
While I’ve covered two news stories in this article, it’s important to point out that thieves are the root problem in both cases (and, no, I’m not calling landlords thieves, even if some of them deserve it).
In theory, a New York bike owner could lock their e-bike up outside if the property manager refuses to let them in, but nobody wants to do that. The obvious reason is that a bike in one’s apartment is a lot safer from thieves than one locked up to a bike rack.
The American legal and political system is loathe to tell property owners what to do. If this were Europe or Asia, politicians would have already told them where to stick their e-bike bans and people would be able to bring bikes that meet safety standards inside. But, we’re always on the lookout for communism here in the States, so we don’t tell landlords what to do unless they do something really, really bad like not provide heat.
But, like it or not, we’re going to need to do something about this issue. Electric bikes are an important technology for cities to meet their climate goals, and they’re also a key to fighting congestion. Being the anti-communist individualists we are, we aren’t going to talk everyone into taking the subway. So, micromobility is key.
If we aren’t going to make landlords let people take bikes inside, there needs to be another solution. Perhaps they could instead be talked into allowing owners to eject the battery and put it in a fireproof sealed bag (these are available on the market). Or, they could require e-bike owners to check batteries in with an attendant in larger buildings, and the attendant can put the batteries in a safe location that won’t burn the building down. Buildings with parking garages could also host e-bikes in a special fire-resistant lockup.
We need to get creative either way.
But solving the property management issue only solves for one end of the trip. I personally think more people should consider folding bikes and scooters so it’s easier to take the vehicle indoors at all stops.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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