High speed on cycle paths, part 3

Published on 2 March 2014 by Hilary Staples

The speed pedelec - a threat or opportunity?

Being a cycling nation, the Dutch have come up with creative bike solutions to deal with the problems of traffic congestion and pollution. On a Dutch cycle path you’ll see all types of bikes from the traditional oma fiets to the streamlined velomobile, from the bulky cargo bike to the speedy electric bike. But can our cycle paths cope with such a diverse fleet of bikes?

The rising number of accidents with e-bikes - some of which can go up to 45 km/h - is causing much concern. Is the e-bike a curse or a blessing? Find out in our series High speed on cycle paths. Part 3: The speed pedelec - a threat or opportunity?

High speed on cycle paths series:
[url=http://www.holland-cycling.com/where-to-go/day-trips/100-alkmaar-cycle-route]Experimental bicycle street in Alkmaar[/url]. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Experimental bicycle street in Alkmaar. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Speed pedelecs have the legal status of a (light) moped and are allowed - under certain circumstances - to ride on the cycle paths. But is it safe or desirable? To investigate this, the Dutch Cyclists’ Union asked cyclists in December 2013 what they think of these high-speed e-bikes. Are they a threat or an opportunity? This triggered a heated debate between supporters and opponents. So what are the arguments and what does this discussion mean for the cycle path of the future?

The responses the Dutch Cyclists’ Union received, can roughly be divided into three groups:

  • The high-speed pedelec is a threat
  • The high-speed pedelec is an opportunity
  • The high-speed pedelec calls for creative solutions

The high-speed pedelec is a threat

Most respondents feel the high-speed pedelec is a threat. It’s simply too fast and therefore a danger to other cyclists. Increasing speed differences on the cycle path are considered a major problem - both for high-speed e-cyclists themselves and for ordinary cyclists.

There is some debate among this group about what’s a safe speed on a cycle path. Some cyclists say the maximum speed for e-bikes should be 25 km/h, so high-speed pedelecs that can go up to 45 km/h don’t belong on the cycle path, but on the road. Others suggest that everything with an engine - i.e. also ‘slow’ e-bikes - should be separated from ordinary bikes. Little is said about the safety of e-bikes sharing the road with heavy traffic.

Another proposal is not to distinguish between the type of vehicle, but the speed at which they’re going. Everybody who wants to ride faster than 25 km/h should be banned from the cycle path. At the moment there is no speed limit for ordinary bikes, so this proposal would require a fundamental change in the law.

The high-speed pedelec is an opportunity

Respondents that own a high-speed pedelec themselves, see their fast bike as an opportunity “that shouldn’t be lost due to people with conservative ideas”. Especially for longer commutes in rural areas it’s an environmentally friendly and healthy alternative to the car.

Some respondents call for more understanding for the high-speed pedelec as they are not the only type of bike responsible for the increasing speed differences on cycle paths.They say they feel perfectly safe cycling at speeds of up to 45 km/h - even though they rarely or never manage to reach this top speed. They consider themselves not that different from ordinary cyclists. It’s not the bike that’s dangerous, but the behaviour of the rider. It’s all about anticipating and adapting your speed to other cyclists.

The high-speed pedelec calls for creative solutions

There is a third group of respondents that sees the high-speed pedelec as an opportunity, while acknowledging the dangers caused by big speed differences on the cycle path. However, they say it’s not the high-speed pedelec that’s the problem, but the infrastructure. Cycle paths should be for ‘real cyclists’, but banning ‘fast cyclists’ to the road is far too dangerous.

There is a strong call for creative solutions that are safe for both ordinary and for fast cyclists, even if this means less room for cars and more room for bikes. Holland is already experimenting with bicycle streets - where cars have to adapt their speed to bikes - and bicycle highways - main cycle paths where cyclists have the right of way. Quite a few respondents suggest a new type of cycle path with a separate lane for fast bikes, like on regular highways.

Old problem

What to do with traffic that is faster than the ordinary bike, but slower and more vulnerable than the car is not a new problem. Mopeds and light mopeds have been around for ages. You could say that the discussion taking place now is the result of the success of the bike. Thanks to the willingness of Dutch cyclists to embrace new alternatives to the car, this category of traffic is growing and becoming more diverse, which makes the problem more complex and more urgent.

The Dutch Cyclists’ Union concludes that high speed on cycle paths divides cyclists. But what stands out (for me) is that individual cyclists differ on the solutions, but they all seem to agree on one thing: something needs to change - the legislation, the attitude and behaviour of cyclists, the infrastructure, or possibly a combination of all three.

Future

The debate started off with the high-speed pedelec, but in fact it’s about being prepared for all the different alternatives to the car that are still to come. It’ll be interesting to see what the Cyclists’ Union is going to do with the outcome of this debate. What suggestions will they make to policy makers and city planners? And what will this mean for cyclists and cycle paths in the future? Will there be any fundamental changes?

Source: Fietsersbond (in Dutch)

 
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