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E-Bikes and Scooters

My last article about bicycle steering brought the following comment from Steve. I know Steve as a long-time reader of this blog, and often asks thought provoking questions.

“What do you think of the sudden fascination with scooters, which used to be considered a child's toy, now a legit, and preferred over bikes, transportation mode?

(Compare the irony of bicycles being seen as toys to scooters not viewed that way.)

Is a scooter's steering as safe as a bicycle?

Does leaning help or hinder steering and the stability of a scooter, with its geometry?

Do the companies that unloaded these onto the public know the physics of riding scooters? I know the people don't, they just ride them, which is the same with bicycles.

You don't need to know the physics behind riding a bike, because science only helps explain the act of riding. And riding well has nothing to do with knowing the science of riding a bike.”

The traditional child’s scooter is relatively safe and doesn’t even need brakes. It is kind of like running with one leg, and when you want to stop you simply stop running. The small wheels gather very little momentum, even downhill, and often it precedes a child’s first bicycle.

Add an electric motor and it worries me to see very young children riding these. A few years ago, right around Christmas, I witnessed a girl about 12 years old riding an electric scooter in the street outside my home.

She appeared to be traveling at about 15 mph. As I watched her ride up the street about 100 yards from my house, the scooter suddenly pitched forward, and she went down hard on her face. She lay motionless in the road. I was about to run out to assist her, when her parents came running out. Her father picked her up and carried her indoors. I never saw her ride that scooter again.

From what I witnessed, and the fact she was outside her own home, I surmise she turned the handlebars to steer into her driveway. She was probably going too fast and the front wheel flipped 90 degrees and sent her over the top landing on her face.

This can happen on a bicycle too, and usually causes the front fork blades to be bent sideways. In all my years framebuilding, I straightened many forks bent in this fashion. The difference is, the bike has to hit a serious pothole, or most often is the result of touching another rider’s back wheel.

The larger wheels on a bicycle give it stability, and it would be difficult to accidentally turn the front wheel 90 degrees, unless you hit some object.

If you put a child, or for that matter an inexperienced adult on a bicycle, they will be riding relatively slow to begin with, and should they fall, injuries will nothing more that a few scrapes and bruises.

By the time the rider has the ability to ride fast, he or she as gathered some bike handling skills along the way. Not so with e-bikes and electric scooters, you have the instant ability to ride fast without necessarily having the skills to ride at such speeds. Making this person a danger, not only to themselves, but everyone else they encounter.

My opinion is, if you add a motor, it no longer a bicycle, it is a motorcycle, and if you are going to ride a motorcycle, get a proper one, like a Harley-Davidson. You will at least get more respect from other road users.

As for Steve’s question about the scooter’s popularity. I can only surmise that people have no shame anymore. What next Electric Pogo Sticks?

Feel free to add your views for or against E-Bikes and Electric Scooters.


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Reader Comments (17)

Love my E-Mountainbike- it’s a whole new world of enjoyment. As some one who has been seriously mountain biking since 1987. If you think you don’t like them, don’t try one! 😀😀😀😀

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Murphy

Thanks for another excellent explanation of physics, Mr. Moulton. I like your blog, and it’s responsible for my understanding of road bike geometry; you changed the way I think about road bikes.

I am mostly against e-bikes and scooters – mostly because I think the Earth needs fewer lithium batteries, not more. Come to think of it, same goes for the MTB industry. Is having a fun bike worth bringing a hunk of toxic waste into this world, especially when there are plenty of fun bikes already?

This is not to say that mobility isn’t important, or that e-scooters aren’t better than cars. Of course they are, but I think that the people who really trade in their cars for e-scooters are few and far between. But I think a lot of folks who could be riding bikes (a sustainable and repairable transportation option) are buying e-scooters (a disposable commodity) instead.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersix dave

The bikes of death. I hate them.
They are typically 60# or heavier, and often they travel 30MPH or faster, and they make no noise at all.
I cannot tell you how many times in Asia I have nearly been killed by these monstrosities.
I like the idea of e-assist bikes in order to aid the rider.
I know people in FL that wouldn't ride otherwise. Since 99% of their riding is dead flat but in order to get places they have to cross tall bridges.
I would strictly limit the top speed, require them to make noise, and not allow them to propel the bike unless the person is applying pressure on the peddles.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered Commentered

Personally, I have evolved from your view. There's really nothing wrong with the lower legal classifications top out at 20 mph. It's the same as running a sprint or cruising on a bike. Crashes at that speed are almost never fatal. Our bodies, brains, and bikeways can handle this.

I think Class 3 bikes (capable of 28 mph) are a different story. This won't end well for anybody.

No doubt the National Bicycle Dealers Association has an informed disagreement with that take. Exactly what information the industry lobby is using, however…

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

I have come around in favor of electric-assist bikes, the kind you have to pedal but that give riders a boost. I live in rural western Massachusetts, and we recently got a bike share system. It's based on pedal-assist e-bikes, which makes sense given the distances involved, and it uses GPS to limit the speed to 12 mph when it detects that the rider is on a college campus or on a multi-use path.

My wife and I are also considering getting her an e-assist bike so we can do long rides together without her feeling exhausted or me feeling like I have to either scale back my ambitions or put the bikes in a car. It's not so much the speed difference as the fact that if we are limited to 9-11 mph, we can't visit some interesting day ride destinations.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Ogilvie

In San Diego these electric scooters are everywhere. I live in a beach community and frequently ride where they are being used. Once while on a usual morning coffee ride I was actually hit by one; at a 4 way Stop, it's driver assumed I wasn't going to Stop and in trying to go behind me he hit me on the side, right about mid-bike. Thankfully he was trying to Stop himself. No real damage...but he asked--why did you Stop? My reply, it's a 4 way Stop; why didn't you? Crazy.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBill Hermann

Hi Dave,
I ride bikes for enjoyment but more so for the workout. I have a 25 mile one way commute and I stand most of the time at my job which is physical in nature. I like the concept of e-bikes, but the weight factor sucks if the thing dies while you are out and you get to shlep the thing home. I saw recently that Specialized has a 26 lbs. road e-bike coming out. Great ! except it costs over $ 10,000.00. I'd like to see a 30-35 lbs. e-bike with decent components in the $3000.00+$5,000.00 range that will go 20-25 mph for 30 miles. I would buy one just to commute on and only use the "E" function on those days I'm too tired to ride. This bike is slightly heavier than medium priced mountain bikes, doesn't need suspension and could have braze-on's for lights, racks etc.... It would strictly be a commuter. As for the scooters, they are just silly and dangerous. You don't burn many calories or get much of a workout. Here in LA they are everywhere and most who use them show no regard for road rules or laws. Studies have shown an increase in ER accidents from them. Just today some fool was videoed riding one on a freeway ( not sure it was in LA) but this just goes to show the mentality of those who use them. I see mostly ( but not all) are young males under age 30 or so. They were initially marketed as a means to go " that last mile." Last Mile? Bullshit, just walk and don't be lazy!!! You will just put on the pounds and turn into a butterball of fat if all you do is ride a scooter.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Dave — I'm middle-aged and live in a hilly area. I've toyed with getting an e-bike just to help out on the hills. However, a decent one is very expensive. Also. part of the reason I go out on my bike (Not often enough, I'll admit) is to get some exercise, so an electric bike would defeat the purpose.

July 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterStephen McAteer

Blast E-bikes, I just about choked when I read that you think Harley-Davidson a proper motorcycle! Egads man, how can an artisan like you think a bloated , out-of-date, "life-style statement" is a proper anything? I suggest you look at Japanese sport bikes or any BMW for an example of what constitutes a proper motorcycle. By the way, I live in western South Dakota and am subject to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, when we are inundated with those proper motorcycles. Q: What's the difference between a Harley and a Hoover vacuum? A: The dirt-bag is on the outside of a Harley.

July 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Laurence

I disagree with you about the electric motor bicycles, Dave.

While I don't have one and I wouldn't use one unless I had to, I can see the benefits of these types of bikes.

I live in a very hilly area on the west coast of the US. Any ride of even a couple of miles will require you to climb a hill or descend one (thus having to climb one on the way back). This makes cycling very hard for people who are out of shape and/or older. Until the advent of E-bikes, I never saw older people (apart from rare cases) or out-of-shape people riding around.

Since E-bikes got popular around here, I've seen many more people out and about on their bikes. I once watched this older guy on a test ride with a bike salesman, and they were easily going up a steep, longish hill that the older guy would probably never have tried on a normal bike. I have climbed that hill myself with no issues, but my wife would never tackle it (and she's in decent shape, but not a rider).

I think E-bikes are great for those who need them. They're more exercise than sitting around watching TV. They also get people outdoors.

I wish that bike shops would require a short seminar and field training on how to ride on the roads and in traffic, though. Some of the people using these bikes have no real training using a bike and ride them like they did when they were kids.

July 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterYohann M

I don't understand the argument that "an e-bike for my spouse will allow us to ride together" when there's a bicycle that already allows this, a tandem.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTonyP

In my 'hood, electric scooters have replaced bicycles as rentable alternatives in public parks. The scooters are quite fast and the riders use the bike paths - what a pain to deal with groups of them.

I've never been on an e-bike but I would like to try one out. On a recent ride, a woman that was even older than me, flew up the hill in front of us from a stop light. Wow was I embarrassed.

I caught up with her at the next stop light and this time she failed to keep up with me - that is how I deduced that it was an e-bike.

I see e-bikes as a good solution and as an attractive opportunity for many. They certainly offer to turn car users into cyclists in good weather and increase the demand for more bike friendly policies. Yes they still are way too expensive.

July 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Bicycles used to be a part of growing up, almost every kid had one. Not until good wheels came on the scene did skateboards, skates, and Razors/scooters become more popular, but because of obvious reasons, namely crashes and braking, bicycles remain.
We learned how to ride a bike and eventually knew the rules of the road, written and unwritten. That didn’t happen with motorized scooters. Even though Bird is valued at $2.5 Billion, they dumped their scooters onto cities that embraced them as the answer to their Climate Action Plans without any Public education.

According to the California Vehicle Code:

Motorized scooters can only be ridden on roads with bike lanes, and then only if the roadway has a speed limit of 25mph or less.
They cannot be ridden on sidewalks, or on streets without bike lanes.
Scooters must be ridden with the flow of traffic, so no riding the other way in a bike lane unless it is a two-way lane.
Scooters cannot be left on sidewalks or obstructing right of ways.

As we can see, all these laws are disobeyed almost every time these scooters are rented. By people that did not grow up with these toys, and of course do not bother to learn the written and unwritten rules of the road.
And these companies have been rewarded by our city councils and state governments with unprecedented monetary and legal favors.

Follow the money, or the agenda of reducing emissions if you will.
Citizens have a responsibility to know what their government is doing, because they think they can run our lives better than us.

July 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Dave, I respectfully disagree with you; a proper motorcycle would be a BMW or Triumph (and if it's the model on Dylan's shirt, even better). But back to e-bikes. If it has a motor it belongs on the street. E-bikers are lazy; if you have a hard time riding use a lower gear and spend some time training. Harden up. We expect so little of ourselves these days.

July 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDan Silvernail

Actually, I conceptually designed a two cycle diesel pogo stick, a couple decades ago, my wife and kid's laughed their a**s off, haven't got around to building the prototype, might get to it before I die.
Semper Fi,
John McClain

July 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJohn McClain

There really isn't anything wrong with e-scooters or e-bikes; the problem is the behavior of the people who ride them. I live in San Francisco and sharing the road with tourists on rented bikes can be an annoyance especially in summer. Many of these people probably haven't been on a bike in years and treat the whole city like an amusement park—making sudden turns, stopping in the middle of the path, taking selfies while riding, riding on the wrong side, etc. But at least they were slow. As long as I kept an eye open for them and got past them cautiously, they weren't likely to cause any harm. Not anymore. Like you said, now people with little or no bike-handling skills have access to effortless speed which makes them several times more dangerous than they were just a few years ago. What worsens them even further is that, without motors they were at least humbled by their lack of strength to go fast, but now with their access to undeserved speed they are impatient all of a sudden, much like drivers.

That said, I think I'd still prefers to see more e-scooter/bike riders on the road than more drivers.

August 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKeith S

A rose is a rose is a rose...If it has a motor or engine, electric or fossil fuel, and has two wheels, it is a motorcycle (just like a car: electric, hybrid, or conventional, it's still a car). If you want to ride either one, fine, just keep it off bike paths. E-scooters? From what I have observed, they are mostly ridden by knuckleheads in a manner that endangers others.

August 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDon

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