Advocate On The Hudson

All Charged-Up and Nowhere to Go

May 25, 2014

Both the NY City and NY State legislatures are preparing to vote in the next month on legalizing electric-assist bikes. Would giving politicians and their staffs test rides, where they are, be a better strategy than putting on a mini-event, at a fancy resort in NJ, 90 minutes away from the city?

OK I admit it. I hate the New York Post. I used to love it. There were writers like Murray Kempton, who fashioned poetry out of muck, and dazzled us with the hard evidence of his enduring love affair with words, and our humanity, and inspired us with his justifiable suspicion of everything else. He was only associated with two material objects in this universe, aside from his typewriter and pencil, and they were a pipe and a bike. He was a minimalist to the core, although his sentences sometimes led through long and dimly lit caverns. He told the truth, never pretended to know anything that he didn't and showed you how to find enough irony in a situation, to keep you from having to shed real tears about it.

Rupert Murdoch, the current owner, spends a fortune each year to provide himself with an editorial sidearm and the political leverage which comes with it. Now, this former illustrious rag, is a nail-studded, poisoned club, to be swung at its “enemies”, in angry drunken lunges, devoid of reason, truth or compassion. They get almost everything wrong if it has a political dimension. One of the problems with this modern-day version of William Randolph Hearst and his “You supply the photographs and I'll supply the war” mentality, is their fealty to their advertisers. One day's worth of ads in a shrinking world of tabloid newspaper advertising is the old reliable, in his case 29 pages long, car ad section. Counseling any reduction in the consumption of anything, is half way between treason and heresy. Since he also owns the Wall Street Journal, this article of faith has been elevated to the level of Prime Principle.

One consequence of this arrangement is that this classic tabloid, America's oldest newspaper, the NY Post, is in an unrelenting war against anything having to do with human-powered transportation. Economical bikes are the enemies of the people and those who ride them are barely human. Before bike-share was established they had regular screaming headlines, claiming that this was going to result in something resembling a battlefield, the streets littered with the bodies of both cyclists and their victims. Ambulances would need to cruise the streets constantly, to pick up the bodies and get them out of the way of legitimate vehicles. After 7 million rides and zero casualties they are in trouble. Pedicab drivers from other countries are their new devils and restaurant deliverers a constant target. Only 1% of us commute by bike, so pandering to the other 99% comes naturally to them. (This is in spite of their ordinary sympathy for the wealthiest 1%, when their interests are threatened) They can even do it self-righteously, with phony allegiance to principles that don't even exist.

We owe a debt of gratitude to one of the richest men in this country, Michael Bloomberg, also master of a media empire, who could, due to his wealth, resist the automobile industry's stranglehold on the political system. He pushed for congestion pricing, because he knew it would cut down on traffic considerably and improve the air outside at least as much as his smoking bans did indoors. He couldn't get past the outer boroughs addiction to easy passage for their beloved cars, but he decided to do the next best thing and put in lots of bike lanes and even a bunch of bus lanes. Unfortunately, he had a City Council that was totally beholden to the usual suspects and unable to do much more than step aside and let it happen. The new Council is much more activist though and totally behind the current Mayor's Zero Vision plan, to slow speed limits and rein in dangerous misbehavior by those tooling around in multi-ton machines, texting and talking their brains out.

Last week we were treated locally to an event put on by the titans of the bike industry in this country, INTERBIKE, who puts on the yearly show out west and Bicycle Retailers Magazine, BRAIN, and Outdoor Retailer. They assembled a small handful of electric bike manufacturers, a tiny fraction of the industry, and provided them with an opportunity to give rides to journalists at a fancy resort in New Jersey, a 90 minutes car ride away from New York City, the city with the lowest rate of car ownership in the country. This recognition, by the largest factors in the bike business, of both e-bikes, and the East Coast of the United States, is very welcome, albeit long overdue.

When I first became involved in this issue, the “Bike Show” was one floor, and a mere fragment of, the “Toy Show” here in New York City and obviously strongly tilted towards the young. A few major manufacturers dominated the industry and the most original element of any given show was likely to be based on snazzy paint jobs. Now that Las Vegas, one of the least bike-friendly places on the planet earth, is the home of the yearly INTERBIKE show, our side of town has become almost incidental to the process.

This is all in spite of the density of population on the East Coast and therefore the relevance of slower means of travel, like bikes, to the transportation systems. Except bikes are not often considered transportation. They are for sport, for exercise and pleasure. They are marketed to young people primarily, although somewhat less than in the past, and there is a real dichotomy in their demographics. They go largely to the upper and upper-middle classes and the lower classes, delivery workers etc. They are either the only affordable, or at least most economical, way to travel, or just another recreational option, a way to get out into the country.

In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, 25%-50% of trips are made by bikes, not 1%, and we all have the same arms, legs, hearts etc. We also have the same need to keep those limbs functional and in that regard, we in the US are also way behind, in health, vitality, life span etc. Breathing the by-products of hydrocarbon incineration, daily, at close range, is clearly not a good idea, whether you are in in Beijing or NYC.

Is this a plot by doctors to make us unhealthy? Not really, but many are concerned, that they do far too little, to exert their influence on the political process, especially when it comes to policies that either damage or improve our health profile. They should be riding and promoting bikes like mad. What activity could be more supportive of good health?

It is notable that the 5-Boro Bike Tour, which had its big ride and accompanying Expo only a few weeks ago, had 85 exhibitors rather than the tiny handful in New Jersey. In the afternoon, bike store owners were invited to ride some of the bikes on display around the grounds of the golf club and residential development surrounding it. While there were surely benefits to this demonstration and exhibit, I could not help wondering where everybody was? Wouldn't it have made more sense to have this affair in NYC itself, on some piece of private property, like it was in NJ, which also currently bans electric bikes from its roads? Since the NY City Council and State Legislature are going to be voting on this issue, within the next month, could invitations have been provided to all of its members and their staff's, to have what will probably be their first ride on these devices? We know that the level of positive responses from those who have actually ridden one of these machines is stupendous.

The US Open attracts over 10,000 journalists to its event. The NYC press core alone is huge. As rare as such an event has recently been, maybe it suggests a stronger East Coast presence on behalf of the industry in the future. A great many journalists and store owners from Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC and Europe might find their way to a great demonstration event, with a chance to try a wide variety of machines. The public too is hungry to see what the fuss is about and could be a part of such an undertaking. Being in NYC puts you in the middle of the media industry, from magazines to web companies, Google etc. etc. The interest in this subject, if you measure it by the number of stories written about it and mentions of it, is immense. It is an anomaly, that there is a subject, about which almost everybody knows only a little tiny bit, especially regarding legality, and what they think they know is usually wrong. The industry needs, but can't afford apparently, a huge public information campaign. When it includes a multitude of free rides at County and State Fairs and block parties, and a scattering of celebs, the breakthrough will come in a big rush.

The missing piece has been, as is so often the case when it comes to worthy causes, the financial one. The cost of machines has been a few thousand dollars, significant for bike stores but not enterprises like car showrooms and TV stations, where multiple $10,000 bills are expected. The profit margins are a bit better than ordinary bikes, but the volume, at today's low level of awareness, is still very small. In New York State electric bikes have not been approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles, so they are technically not permitted. Some argue that the Federal law grants them rights to the road, but there have been problems for some users, especially restaurant deliverers, whose ignominy is magnified by their need to get there as quickly as possible. Regardless, stores are nervous about renting them, which would provide the key step in giving the public a chance to find out if they work for them, all due to the liability risk that accompanies a product in legal limbo.

The problem with determining its relevance is that 99+% of people have never been on an electric-assist bike. They have no idea how pleasurable and empowering it is to realize that you have the ability to decide when and how much handy power you want, in moving along. Even car drivers do not get to make this choice. Since our health ultimately depends heavily on how well we are able to keep ourselves limber and use our faculties, this is not a small matter. It is an immense advantage that human-scale transport has over industrial-scale solutions. Cars kill and not just when they hit you. They are slowly killing you while you are sitting there, when you could be standing, pedaling or even cranking. The key question is: who makes the choice, you or the machine? Are you controlling it, or is it controlling you? Is the answer $60,000 multi-ton robots or $6000 shared devices, measured in tens of pounds?

If you are heavy industry, there is no question, this beneficial adaption would be a catastrophe. If you are insuring things or loaning the money to purchase them, this will not please you at all. If you are tired of wasting time in traffic and ready to get closer to the ground and in closer touch with nature and what is around you, this will be a positive development. Whether it is a wheel or a shoe, transport is bottom up. When we begin to direct its development from down here on the ground, rather than in the boardrooms of the petroleum and automobile industries, much can change. I am afraid that there are decisions being made on behalf of the bicycle and e-bike industries, that are also not fully appreciative of the immense potential here, both for themselves and for others as well.

We are in the initial stages of a new “Movement” as it applies to movement and it is being propelled via a new “Medium”, Hybrid Human-Electric power. The question “How do I get there?” turns out to have so many answers, applications and varieties that it qualifies as a creative “Medium”, like Dance or Sculpture, not just a mechanism. Unlike those classic arts, its history is one of suppression rather than expression, its prospects held down by its own “leaden” identity. It is now an opportunity, to open up the issue of expedited movement, to artists and other creative makers. Sure, it is a functional exercise, mostly engineering, on one level, but it is also the key element in the re-design of our streets and public spaces and our relationship to them re-conceptualized. We are talking about what is beautiful, unusual, unique and fantastic, something that changes how you view the world.

There is work that needs to be done here, to forge links between the health, environmental and other public interests involved with this issue. One person who is already part of this coalition is Tim Blumenthal, the President of Bikes for People, who was the main speaker at the NJ Charged-Up event. His organization has been known for their pro-bike activities, and happily, he and his group are completely supportive of electric bikes. This has both symbolic importance and practical benefits as well, as better information begins to circulate. There have been times historically when this was not so, when the strength and endurance needed to take part in cycling was considered essential to its nature and identity and motors were considered “cheating”, a sign of weakness, or an unwillingness to suffer the pain that athletes must endure. That self-limiting attitude, fortunately, is in the past now.

This more recent acceptance of diversity within the cycling community, is a vital step on the path to legality and legitimacy. The League of American Bicyclists (a 120 year old organization originally known as the “League of American Wheelman”) has also taken the same enlightened position. Their support will be essential in the struggle across the country to craft rules that will enable us to accept the blessings that bikes, with helper motors, can provide to great swaths of our population. The complete acceptance of the many forms of cycling and its evolution into a fully functional and refreshingly diverse, healthy and vibrant element of our transportation system is now possible. It is clear, that if we would legalize the future, we would immeasurably improve the likelihood that we will have one.

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