Electric bikes and scooters may be the rage, but they can also be a menace

IOWA CITY — National Bike to Work Week starts today  and the sudden proliferation of electric bikes, e-scooters and even e-skateboards is bringing a new series of risks and challenges — as well as benefits.

Cara Hamann, director of training and education at the Injury Prevention Research Center, based at the University of Iowa, says motorists can be surprised when one of these so-called “micro mobility devices” darts into their path on a city street.

“When you get on these things, you can go pretty fast. People aren’t used to seeing someone like on a human-powered scooter or skateboard go that fast,” Hamann says, “and so there’s a lot of times misperception by the drivers of how fast people are going on these small devices, and that mismatch can lead to collisions.”

While plenty of people ride traditional bicycles for the exercise, many of the e-bikes also require you to pedal in order to move, just not as much.  “There is one class of e-bike, Class Two, where it has a throttle that you don’t have to pedal, but the majority of what you see, you do have to pedal, so you’re getting at least some physical activity,” Hamann says. “The other biggest benefit is using something like an e-bike instead of a car, you have environmental benefits of less emissions.”

Plus, the smaller, personal electric vehicles can help to relieve traffic congestion, while gas-powered vehicles sitting in traffic emit even more pollution. In most communities, this micro mobility technology has advanced faster than ordinances have been passed, so e-scooters may not need a license plate, nor do the riders need to be licensed to take them on the road. In some Iowa cities, e-bikes are readily available for rent on downtown street corners.

 “Especially with things like e-scooters, there’s been major loopholes in city code. You’ll have e-scooter companies just drop a fleet of e-scooters in a city overnight,” Hamann says, “and there isn’t any policy against it and so all of a sudden, you have these scooters all over the place.” Dockless e-scooters can be rented for minutes at a time and then left anywhere, so the next renter has to use a smartphone app to find it. That leads to the devices being dropped on sidewalks, creating clutter and a hazard. Plus, some e-scooter users may choose to zip down a sidewalk, darting between pedestrians, which can also be problematic.

“People riding them on the sidewalk is a major concern because they can travel pretty fast. On an e-scooter, you can get up to 30 miles per hour, something that really should be ridden on the road, not on the sidewalk,” Hamann says. “That kind of speed mismatch between someone walking and someone on an e-scooter can lead to major injuries if there is a collision.”

While micro mobility devices can be positive additions to our transportation system, Hamann says we need to hone in on safety and policy, and she adds, drivers need to pay attention and be patient in sharing the road.