Much of the media is at it again, hyping up a manufactured fear of electric bikes. (Side note: I know that sentence makes me sound all MAGA, but even as a card-carrying liberal, I can call out media bias). The issue this time centers around American teenagers on e-bikes and the manufactured choice between supposed “freedom or danger.”
While not alone, the New York Times has been at the forefront of a slew of anti e-bike articles. The latest example attempts to offer a balanced presentation of the arguments for and against teenagers riding electric bikes. But it betrays that guise of impartiality with an underlying implication that there are two sides in the argument: Parents who don’t want their kids on e-bikes and irresponsible parents who do. Case in point: The example in favor of teens on electric bicycles used in a recent NYT article featured an anonymous mom who lets her 14-year-old son ride an illegally modified 70 mph (120 km/h) electric motorcycle. That would be like presenting the debate about gun control and using the example of a 14-year-old whose mom lets him drive a battle tank.
Unlike the NYT article which was ostensibly marketed as unbiased news, I have the privilege of telling you outright that this is an opinion piece, and thus, I’m sharing my own views. As someone who has worked in the e-bike industry for nearly 15 years and also once spent an entire seven years in a row as a teenager, I figure I’m as qualified as anyone to discuss the issue of e-bikes and teens.
E-bikes: An imperfect yet amazing solution
Look, I’m not going to sugar coat this or tell you that every teenager should have an e-bike. There are real safety concerns here. Not everyone is ready for an electric bike. E-bikes can go fast (most are limited to either 20 or 28 mph in the US (32-45 km/h) depending on the classification, though some people modify them to go faster). There are dangers, but there are also incredible upsides to electric bicycles as well. And balancing those two is the key here.
Everything in life comes with some level or risk. But you once put your small child on their first bike so they could learn to ride, didn’t you? You eventually removed the training wheels and gave them some taste of freedom riding around with their friends, even if just in the neighborhood. There may have been some skinned knees and ruined pants along the way, but it was worth the risk.
Now those same cute little kids have grown up into teenagers, the kind that want to get to school or go to the movies with their friends. And instead of needing their parents to drive them like they did a decade ago, we now have the glorious invention of electric bikes. Unlike pedal bikes, which most Americans don’t want to ride very far due to the effort required, e-bikes can actually move teenagers nearly anywhere in their city with ease. What was several years ago just a way for older folks to enjoy riding again has now turned into one of the biggest revolutions in teenage freedom since the repeal of child labor laws.
E-bikes give teenagers personal agency. In cities without good public transportation (i.e. most of the country), a teen can ride an e-bike several miles to get to school, visit friends, get to work or just enjoy some fresh air. Parents enjoy that freedom as well, no longer serving as a personal chauffeur for their teens.
So many people miss the amazing potential of an e-bike: This is a fully-functional transportation device that can increase the resources in a city that are available to teens while simultaneously teaching them responsibility and freeing up their parents. And it even comes at such a low cost compared to nearly every other form of transportation other than walking.
Sure, there will always be some people who act as gatekeepers, working under the impression that there’s an arbitrary age at which someone becomes responsible enough for anything. For some reason Americans think teens are ready for guns and war at 18 but that it takes another three years until they can handle a sip of wine. Car rental companies think young adults aren’t ready to drive cars until their 25th birthday. You have to be 35 to run for President of the United States, yet senility apparently isn’t a disqualifier (the fun thing is that one works for both parties). Our society is full of arbitrary guidelines for responsibility, but the real world isn’t so black and white.
I hope we’re all open-minded enough to realize that there is truly a spectrum of responsibility. There are 16 year olds who can be safe, conscientious and responsible e-bike riders, and there are adults who shouldn’t set foot near an e-bike. In the same way, there are 16 year olds who can be safe, conscientious car drivers despite there also being adults that should probably have their car driver’s licenses revoked.
It’s time we stopped babying teenagers and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve. Sure, they still need parental guidance and benefit from the wisdom of age and experience. But this notion that they aren’t “ready” for an e-bike is simply misguided, and I would argue insultingly coddles them. There are teenagers on the other side of the world that ride a 40 mph (64 km/h) scooter or moped to work a 12-hour shift everyday. Those teens are no different than your own kids, other than that they weren’t as fortunate to be born into the same money and privilege. Instead, they had to grow up learning responsibility. And having agency over their own transportation became part of that.
You don’t even have to go halfway around the world. Just go a quarter of the way, to Europe, where you’ll find kids that look just like yours but ride their bikes to school every day. I know, it’s even harder to dismiss it when they have the same complexion. And if your immediate response is “Yeah, but those countries have bike lanes,” well then look at that, it seems we all came to the same solution!
American kids are so overprotected by helicopter parents these days that their development is being stunted. I see parents idling their SUVs next to neighborhood bus stops so they can pick their kids up and drive them two minutes home. Heaven forbid those middle schoolers walk five minutes on the safe, setback sidewalks in the planned community. Of course this doesn’t mean all parents do this; I don’t mean to overgeneralize. But it’s common enough to serve as a warning of what we should collectively strive to avoid.
This national trend towards nannying kids and teenagers has unfortunately spilled over into electric bikes, and it’s a real shame. We’re all hurtling towards climate catastrophe here, whether you accept it or not. (Less-than-fun fact: Your kids will suffer the dangers of climate change regardless of whether or not you acknowledge the problem). The best chance those kids have of spending their middle and old age years in an environment that isn’t downright physically hostile to them is to instill upon them the importance of making environmentally responsible decisions. Transportation is just one sector contributing to climate change, but it’s a large one.
Teaching kids that they can get around without needing a 5,000 pound vehicle is a great early lesson. Instead of trying to teach kids about the value of electric cars, let’s teach them about the value of not using a car.
An e-bike for teenagers means freedom, but it’s also an early lesson in alternative transportation. It teaches kids from a young age that we can move ourselves around in a way that is both efficient and sustainable. We don’t have to burn gallons of fuel to get to school or buy a carton of milk. We don’t have to pave more lanes and expand roads to fit ever-larger cars (both physically bigger and more numerous, each a unique and dangerous trend on its own). Owning and using an electric bike is a lesson in so many fields, from personal responsibility to punctuality and even environmental stewardship.
And look, I know this is going to be controversial. There are certainly going to be many arguments against what I’ve said. That’s fair and valid. I’ve expressed my opinion, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only opinion in the room. I’ll try to address some of what I expect to be the main counterarguments against my position that we should encourage more teenagers to ride e-bikes.
“What’s with all the e-bike stuff? Just put those kids on pedal bikes!”
Sure, I’d love that. I would truly love to see more kids and teenagers riding pedal bikes. I’d support any initiative that pushes that agenda. The problem is that it just isn’t realistic, no matter how much I want it to be. American kids are lazy. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not their fault, it’s mostly their parents’ fault and the culture. The US has an obesity problem that we can’t ignore. Kids simply don’t want to ride pedal bikes because it’s too much effort. However, we’ve already seen that they take quickly to e-bikes. We can’t wish kids onto pedal bikes, but we can bribe them onto e-bikes with the promise of fun and freedom. And if they happen to accidentally get a little exercise at the same time, that’s great, too.
As much as I’d love to see more kids on pedal bikes, it’s electric bikes that will actually get kids moving, get them traveling on their own and give them true, effective freedom.
“Teenagers don’t know road rules, how can we put them on little electric motorcycles?”
First, stop with this “e-bikes are motorcycles” fear-mongering. You’re better than that, I believe in you.
Yes, a lot of teenagers don’t know the rules of the road yet. Many are delaying getting their drivers licenses or aren’t getting one at all. I personally believe that we should have rider’s education classes similar to driver’s ed, but for cyclists. It’d be a great way to teach new road users the nuance of road rules as well as instill rider training similar to what you learn in a motorcycle license course. California has gone as far as to propose a law that would require unlicensed e-bike riders to get a watered down “bike license” to teach them road laws. That has a few problems, but it’s an interesting rough draft.
“Teenagers ride on sidewalks and endanger pedestrians.”
They shouldn’t do that. Stop them. Fine them. Confiscate their bikes. Punish the parents. If that’s illegal in a certain area, then punish the rule breakers. This isn’t rocket science. Don’t break the law and also punish people who do.
That being said, let’s ask ourselves why people are riding on the sidewalk. The answer is that they don’t feel safe on the road because there aren’t safe, protected bike lanes. Perhaps we should also put effort into solving the root problem here. I know, it’s a crazy idea: Solving the problem instead of covering it with a band-aid. But if we give cyclists a safer place to ride, it will make everyone safer.
“I know my kid is alright, but what about those other kids? I can’t trust them.”
Here’s the thing. Your kid isn’t special; I know you think they are because you made them, but statistically speaking, they aren’t. Think about the average kid out there. There’s a 50% chance your kid is worse than that one. Ok, probably slightly less than 50% chance since Electrek tends to draw a more educated audience. But you get the point.
The point is, no one can trust anyone else’s kid. The best we can do is collectively educate our youth. Instill responsibility and critical thinking from an early age. If you give teenagers responsibility, most will rise to meet it. If for some reason yours doesn’t, then maybe an e-bike isn’t for them. The sheer number of revoked driver’s licenses out there shows that a car isn’t for many adults, either.
Not every human is ready for motorized transportation, but most are and it’s a matter of evaluation. This is a personal decision that parents need to make about their own kids, not something that others can decide for them.
I’ve beaten this horse well past death now, so let me leave it with just one more small whack.
Electric bikes are such a revolution in transportation freedom that we’d be sorely missing out by depriving a future generation from experiencing them at such a useful age. There is simply far too much good that can come from giving teenagers the freedom and responsibility of being in charge of their own mobility.
Yet at the same time, that responsibility is a double-edged sword. Parents need to be aware of their own kids’ ability to exercise that responsibility. E-bikes are not without danger and there is no age that we can be sure of that everyone is ready for any level of responsibility. But one thing is for sure: There are many teenagers that are ready. And there are a lot worse things your teen could be doing right now.
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