Photo by Frank Theriault. Pooch looks on as her scooter-style e-bike-driving master mixes with regular traffic.
Laying down the law in the bike lane: Pedals only please
City council will reconsider allowing e-scooters in the bike lane again on Feb. 19
by dandyhorse staff
Something speedy is sneaking up on us in the bike lane. It’s not a bike. It’s not a motorcycle. It’s the dreaded e-scooter!
In a dramatic battle last week, cyclists fought to protect the few scraps of dedicated infrastructure we have here in Toronto from a scooter invasion. Meanwhile, the Toronto Electric Riders Association could almost taste the alkaline victory when a new transportation staff report recommended that they legally be allowed in the bike lane.
And so all eyes were on the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC) Thursday, January 9, at City Hall regarding that staff report recommending the heavier, faster e-scooters be allowed in the bike lane like their lighter, slower cousins now known as “pedelecs.” Fortunately, public works voted 4-2 on Thursday to delay that decision and ask for clarification from provincial regulators on what defines an e-bike. These new recommendations will now go before city council on Feb. 19. Click here to read the motion.
In a perfect world, all two-wheelers would ride together in harmony. Although dandyhorse focuses on the human-powered bicycle, we recognize the upstart electric bike, aka e-bike, is making inroads on the traditional bike’s territory.
Unlike the Highway Traffic Act (HTA), which doesn’t distinguish between electric and traditional bikes, the City of Toronto does not currently permit e-bikes on city cycling infrastructure unless they’re being pedalled. With this confusing set of by-laws, a chaotic sort of law of the jungle reigns on Toronto’s bikeway system. The city staff report tabled at the PWIC meeting was attempting to clear this up.
But a closer look at our motor-assisted cousins reveals that not all e-bikes are created equal. There are two types; one that looks similar to a Vespa or gas-powered scooter, the other is a bicycle with a battery-powered system attached, known as a pedelec by Toronto’s transportation staff.
E-scooters, as the Vespa-type e-bikes are referred to, have an electric motor, can travel at speeds up to 32 km/hr and weigh up to 120 kg. They’re also required to carry pedals, but since most e-scooters cannot really be pedalled for more than a few metres, if at all, they can be charitably summed up as motorized bikes.
A pedelec is an open-frame bicycle that has an assist electric motor, but relies primarily on pedal power. The electric assist only works when a cyclist pedals the bike up to a certain speed, here defined as 25 km/hr by the city, following the European standard.
Currently, the HTA classifies both e-scooters and pedelecs as “motor-assisted bicycles,” with no distinction between them.
The staff report presented to PWIC made a recommendation that the city formally ask the province to change the e-bike definition into two distinct classes as described above: e-scooter and pedelec.
The Toronto Electric Bike association was lobbying hard to utilize traditional bike infrastructure. The report recommended that e-scooters be permitted in painted bike lanes, but not cycle track or multi-use bikeways. The report also recommended that pedelecs should utilize any infrastructure that a traditional bike uses.
The traditional bike community aren’t worried about sharing the lane with pedelecs, but had serious reservations regarding e-scooters in bike lanes. In particular, the e-scooter’s speed, acceleration, and size differential was likely to increase the chance for a collision if they were allowed to share the narrow lane.
Bike lanes create safe space for cyclists and encourage more people to try cycling in the city. Many studies that show people won’t take up cycling unless they have that dedicated space. And we need more commuter cyclists in Toronto if we are going to ease congestion downtown and create more beautiful, safer streets for everyone.
An e-bike zooms up Beverly Street - a street with one of our better bike lanes, through U of T's downtown campus. Photo by Tammy Thorne.
Since little-to-no data has been collected on mixing e-scooters with slower moving, self-propelled vehicles, in bike lanes, we have U of T physicist, Steve Julian, summarize the potential danger:
"In the simplest scenario, the cyclist being hit from behind would suddenly find themselves traveling at 30 km/hr, and they would almost certainly fall off their bicycle while traveling at this dangerously high speed."
Professor Julian adds, “An important point, it seems to me, is that the different speeds of the e-bike and bicycle: If they are sharing the same lane, it makes collisions more likely.”
Julian also noted that he is a bicycle commuter who has had a few close encounters with e-bikers on campus; “I cycle on St. George Street, where the bicycle lanes are often very crowded, and the car lanes are often filled with stationary traffic during rush hour. When an e-bike (scooter style) tries to share the cycle lane it doesn't work in general because they don't quite have room to pass the bicycles, but they try to anyway." He noted that the quicker acceleration also affects the natural flow in the bike lane.
Electric bike riders share our fear of travelling with faster, heavier motor vehicle traffic – they, like us, feel safer in the bike lane.
One solution would be to lower the speed limits on downtown roads with bike lanes to 30 km/hr. That would make the e-scooter riders more comfortable and significantly lower the number of all traffic fatalities. At 50 km/hr a pedestrian that is hit by a car has a 50-50 chance of survival; at 30 km/hr the survival rate is much higher.
The public works committee did vote to continue to allow pedelecs in bike lanes, bike paths and sidewalks.
Cycle Toronto supported the decision and suggests writing to the Ministry of Transportation to ask that the definition of what an e-bike is, be clarified and put into two classifications. “We oppose allowing electric scooters in bike lanes across the city but we support the province to split the definition of a power-assisted vehicle,” Cycle Toronto’s executive director Jared Kolb told CityNews.
So cyclists had reason to celebrate the Thursday decision but the "battle for the bike lane" isn’t over. There is a note at the top of the report from Thursday's PWIC meeting that says: “Caution: This is a preliminary decision. This decision should not be considered final until the meeting is complete and the City Clerk has confirmed the decisions for this meeting.” It will be considered by council on Feb 19.
It is also important to note that the initial December 9 staff report already recommended a provincial re-classification or clarification. City of Toronto Transportation Services Manager Daniel Egan explains; “We are also requesting the province to review the definition/specifications for e-bikes and to establish two categories - those resembling bicycles and those resembling motor scooters, and to consider following the European regulations which set the maximum speed at 25 km/h and do not consider e-scooters as bicycles.”
So we could still very well have e-scooters in the bike lane while the city and the province embark on their study of the safety of this mix. It's not too late to write to City Council.
Egan also noted that safety is heavily influenced by the rider's behaviour. But behaviour is influenced by laws and rules. So, if the police don’t have any tools to enforce dangerous riding behaviour of e-bikes then we really are just giving e-scooters a free ride ...in the bike lane.
As a cyclist, former e-biker and current gas scooter driver, dandy contributor Roger Cullman says a little latitude would be nice, noting that the city’s study conveniently omits the average speed of scooter-style e-bikes and just lists their top speed.
“Calling scooter-style e-bikes 'e-scooters' or even 'scooters', as NOW magazine has done in their recent article, confuses motorists and cyclists alike with gas-powered scooters (what I now ride) and further muddies the association with e-bikes being faster than bicycles, more dangerous, etc. As I feel that scooter-style e-bikes deserve to be ridden wherever bicycles ride.” He continues, “Forcing scooter-style e-bikes into faster-moving traffic endangers them, so I welcome the proposal to allow them to ride alongside their other two-wheeled brethren.”
But he cautions, “This [blending of modes] can only be done with a widely adopted education campaign that includes e-bikes of all kinds in Ministry of Transportation literature and training materials. We need to educate, not discriminate.”
Lowering the speed limit on some downtown streets to 30 km/hr seems like the best – and safest – solution for everyone. Re-classifying e-bikes so that e-scooters are in a separate class is the flip side of that solution.
Again, we’re not anti-e-bike here at dandyhorse, we think all two-wheelers are great! We do however firmly believe that if you are going to use the bike lane here in Toronto that you ought to be pedalling.
We will report back following the Feb. 19 decision in council. In the meantime, let these decision makers know what you think.
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