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E-bikes are gaining traction, though some say not so fast

Keren Hamel begins her ride home from Waltham to Arlington on her e-assist bike. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Most days, Keren Hamel bikes to work, mixing streets and a bike path from Arlington to Waltham. Along the way, she straddles not only her old, steel Pinarello updated with an electric-assisting wheel, but also new questions of where bikes — and which bikes — belong where.

She starts her commute on the Minuteman Bikeway, where technically e-bikes are not permitted, since they are motorized even if riders receive just a pedaling boost. She exits the path in Lexington, easily tackling some hilly streets the rest of the way into Waltham.

Hamel controls the amount of assistance given by the locally made Copenhagen Wheel from her smartphone. The red disc covering the motor almost matches the bike’s red frame.

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“People miss it a little bit. It’s not obvious,” Hamel said. “When I say it’s an e-bike, I try to say ‘e-assist.’ You are still expending the power. There are people who say, ‘Oh, that’s cheating,’ and there is always that, but I say before I had the e-bike, I would ride [to work] two or three times a week. Now I ride in five days a week.”

E-bikes are all the rage despite grousing from traditionalists.

Bike share company Lime recently announced plans to drop old-fashioned bikes — some call them acoustic bikes — from their lineup in favor of renting just electric bikes and scooters. Even the staid Union Cycliste Internationale that governs professional bike racing has plans to hold its inaugural e-bike world championships this summer.

“It’s a bike. Totally,” said Hamel, whose family of four has a stable of 13 bikes but only one needing a charger.

Galen Mook, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, agreed and said the added oomph may be just what some people need to get out on two wheels.

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“We want to encourage whatever gets more people on bikes,” Mook said. “More people biking means fewer people driving, getting more cars off the road, improving air quality, improving the quality of life and health and wellness. The benefits go beyond getting to work every day.”

Legislators are poised to update state laws to include several categories of e-bikes in the traffic mix on roads and multi-use paths. Master plans are being revised within the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Department of Transportation to include e-bikes.

Anticipating the changes, the town of Arlington already has provisionally OK’d the use of low-powered e-bikes on its stretch of the Minuteman.

But the thought of adding e-bikes that can be speedy to the already often crowded mix of bikes, strollers, runners, walkers, dogs, and kids on the recreational paths around the Commonwealth has some cycling advocates wondering if the time has come to rethink the linear parks.

“I think this calls out for a high-altitude conference to have this conversation,” said Craig Della Penna, a longtime rails-to-trails advocate who tracks projects across the Northeast and lives just 8 feet off a bike path in Northampton. “The speed of these things is unnaturally fast on a bike path and they are quiet.

“Maybe it’s the novelty of the e-bikes. They are new riders not familiar with the practice of calling out, ‘Passing on your right,’ ” Della Penna said. “Most trail users are walkers and they can be spooked by these fast, silent e-vehicles.”

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MassBike’s Mook said integrating e-bikes into the mix on trails may require a combination of enforcement, speed limits, and public education.

“E-bikes go faster without as much energy so it is easier to go at a speed that might seem startling to someone who is not used to being passed by a biker like that,” Mook said. “There is a stark difference between being passed at 12 miles per hour versus 18.

“We need to govern ourselves and be more courteous. On constricted, narrow ways you need to be more mindful and frankly slow down a bit.”

Safety is never far from Hamel’s mind along her commute, which takes her past the location of a collision between two cyclists in March that left a 71-year-old man dead. Last year, another cyclist died in a crash on a bike path on Nantucket.

“Why can’t they just post a 15 mile per hour speed limit on it?” asked Hamel. “There are busy days when it is all families with children and packs of riders have no business on it. I’ve been chastised for being on it going too fast on a road bike.”

Hamel always wears a bike helmet — required by state law only for children under 17. She even stashes a helmet into her carry-on bag when traveling for business.

“I know it’s not cool to show up at a meeting with a helmet in your bag,” Hamel said. “I just ordered a folding helmet. I have no idea how it will work out, but we’ll see.”

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Just how safe a helmet makes a cyclist remains a hot topic of debate in bike circles, with contrasting studies backing both sides. Curiously, the rise of bike infrastructure and bike-share companies around Greater Boston seems to have been accompanied by a dropoff in helmet usage.

Take Jeff Dieffenbach. He rides thousands of miles per year on roads, off-road, up mountains all over the country and generally wears a helmet except during his 1-mile commute to work through Cambridge.

“I ride quiet streets, mostly in the bike lane. Riding in the city just feels safer,” he said. “There are a lot of riders out during commuting hours. I think most people in the city in a car on a weekday are used to seeing us there on bikes. I don’t think I’m safer without a helmet than with, but I suspect on balance I am only moderately safer with a helmet than without.”

Cyclist Jeff Dieffenbach pedals down Decatur Street in Cambridge on his morning commute. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

E-bike legislation

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering two bills that would regulate electric bicycles just like human-powered bikes when it comes to following traffic laws, including speed limits and passing.

Changes would apply to bicycles that may be pedaled with supplemental electric motors of 750 watts or less and would slot the e-bikes into three categories:

Class 1: Bikes equipped with electric motors that provide assistance only when pedaling up to 20 m.p.h.

Class 2: Bikes equipped with electric motors that provide power when pedaling and/or at the twist of a throttle up to 20 m.p.h. Riders of Class 2 e-bikes do not have to pedal.

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Class 3: Bikes equipped with electric motors that provide assistance only when pedaling up to 28 m.p.h.

State law would allow Class 1 and 2 e-bikes on roads and bike paths unless prohibited locally but would not automatically OK e-bikes for off-road trails already closed to motorized traffic. The bills provide for local and state agencies to decide whether to allow e-bikes on the mountain bike trails.

Class 3 bikes would be excluded from bike paths and trails. Towns also would be allowed to enact ordinances banning them from certain roadways. Class 3 e-bike riders also would have to be at least 16 years old and wear helmets. Massachusetts law currently require only children under 17 to wear helmets while riding bikes.

Bicycle fatalities

The number of cyclists killed on Massachusetts roads dropped significantly last year, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. In 2018, three people died in crashes on public roads, a decline of 70 percent from the 10 fatalities reported in both 2017 and 2016. (There were two other fatalities in 2018, one in a parking lot and one on a bike trail). The number of deaths were even higher in 2015, when 12 cycling fatalities were reported by the RMV.


Jose Martinez can be reached at martinezjose1@mac.com.