Amid rising safety concerns, particularly in Southern California, proposals to add more restrictions to who can ride an e-bike and to require e-bike riders to have a license have gained steam. In 2024, the legislature will consider a bill to do just that. And the Huntington Beach City Council has announced its intention to develop a proposal to require bike licensing within its city limits.
Unfortunately, this is the wrong solution. Traffic violence is a serious issue; constraining e-bike riders isn’t the solution.
Why bike education is good and mandating it is bad
One of the challenges of this conversation is that education about how to safely operate a bicycle is a good thing. It would be great if every bike rider got training on how to ride safely. Teaching elementary school students how to ride a bike responsibly would be excellent. However, requiring a license will create opportunities for harassment of the most vulnerable riders and deter people from riding.
Requiring riders to complete a safety course, even if it’s not called a license, is, in effect, the same thing. Police will be able to stop e-bike riders and ask for proof of safety course completion. We know that police are more likely to stop Black and Latino bike riders, and those stops are more likely to include harassment, expensive tickets for minor infractions, and sometimes even violence. The people least able to complete a course or get an e-bike license — because of lack of access, money, or time to complete the training — are also the most likely to be targeted while riding, even if they are riding safely.
Plus, restrictions on bikes, even in the name of safety, reduce ridership. A helmet law in Australia caused a dramatic dropoff in ridership. The bicycle is an efficient and essential tool to fight climate change, and e-bikes make bicycling accessible to a wider range of people. E-bike licensing requirements are unlikely to measurably reduce the prevalence of crashes (see below for why), but they will reduce ridership just as California needs to employ every strategy to mitigate the climate crisis.
People who drive cars should learn about bike riding
Some of the prejudice against people on bikes comes from people who don’t ride bikes and don’t understand safe bike riding. Vehicle driver education doesn’t adequately address how to safely share the road with someone riding a bike, even though bikes are fully legal vehicles on a majority of roadways. Advocates continue to work to add more about bicycling to driver education and bring bike riding handbooks to the DMV. In the meantime, car drivers, please take a bicycle education class! (Bike riders should take a class, too — even veteran riders may have something to learn.)
Many local bicycle coalitions and even some local governments offer in-person and online trainings, usually for free. New resources specifically for electric bikes are coming online as well: PeopleforBikes has created a series of short e-bike safety videos, the CHP has created online safety information pursuant to AB 1946, and the Air Resource Board will release a half-hour e-bike safety training video in the next few weeks. (We’ll review and compare all three once they’re live.)
Regulating e-bikes won’t solve the problem of traffic violence
The US has a long and inglorious history of blaming and penalizing victims rather than perpetrators. We’ve thrown sex-trafficked women in jail for prostitution, thrown out rape charges based on the outfit the woman (or girl) was wearing, arrested and brutalized Black people for being victims of violence—the list goes on.
Given this history and our car-centric culture, it’s not surprising that the first response to an increase in collisions that injure or kill people riding e-bikes is to regulate, control, and limit not reckless car driving or dangerous streets, but e-bikes.
Unfortunately, even if we removed all e-bikes (and classic bikes) from our roadways tomorrow, we wouldn’t solve the problem of traffic violence. Everyone still needs to walk at some point, and pedestrians now make up a quarter of California’s traffic fatalities, despite having a much smaller mode share than motor vehicles.
Plus, people who drive cars will find other things to hit, such as homes, shopping centers, and movie theaters. Those three examples are all from California, all from the past three months; there are many more.
People crash their cars into all sorts of things; they did it before e-bikes became popular, and they’ll continue to do it until we design our streets for safety rather than speed.
Who loses when you add obstacles to bike riding?
E-bikes are a terrific way to get around for people who are too young to drive or don’t want a driver’s license. Older adults and people with disabilities can greatly increase their mobility and get healthy exercise with e-bikes. The motor power allows people with long commutes, parents who need to transport children, and people who need to haul groceries or equipment to do it by bike.
If we require a license to ride an e-bike, low-income people will be saddled with unaffordable tickets. Fewer people will ride. Communities of color, who often live in neighborhoods poorly served by transit, will be most impacted.
More people will drive, and fewer people will bike. So, in the end, we all lose.