Central Oregon loves bicycles. Bikes give people a sense of freedom and independence, and with the growing necessity of environment-friendly transportation, the popularity of bicycles and bike riding is booming. The benefits are numerous and include reduced air/noise pollution, savings on fuel costs and less congestion on roadways. And let's not forget the positive physical and spiritual outcomes too.
But while the high desert has long been filled with bicycle aficionados, in the past few years a cycling revolution of sorts has begun to gain traction worldwide: e-bikes. How much traction, you ask? According to Precedence Research, the global e-bike market size surpassed $18 billion in 2022 and is predicted to grow to nearly $41 billion by 2030. That's Billion with a B.
Electric assist bicycles (e-bikes) come in myriad versions, from the off-road mountain bike and gravel steeds, to the urban commuter and kid hauler. Most require the rider to pedal in order to get the "E" boost; but not all.
Oregon also has a helmet law for both bicycles and motorcycles. Everyone traveling on a roadway on a motorcycle in Oregon is required to wear a helmet, and for bicycles, any rider under 16 is also required to don a potentially brain-saving device.
On local paved streets, paths and sidewalks, a conflict is rising exponentially. Sheila Miller, communications manager for Bend Police Department, says e-bikes are great for the community, but they do come with challenges.
"They open up many options for people to travel and explore, but there have been increased concerns and complaints here at the PD regarding (their) usage." Miller explains that the majority of complaints center around younger kids riding them to school, riding on sidewalks, going against traffic and not wearing helmets. This past June, a 15-year-old Bend teen died after being hit by a car while riding an e-bike. The teen and his passenger were not wearing helmets and were riding on the sidewalk, attempting to cross a street that intersects with Highway 20 in east Bend, police said. The driver was not cited.
Complaints about e-bike use in the city "have spiked from one email a month to about 20 in the last couple months. And (in response) to the increase, the department launched an educational campaign via social media," said Miller. "Anecdotally we see an increase (mainly) on the west side and downtown in particular. We get e-bike and vehicle clashes, because generally the bike is traveling quicker than expected or they are riding erratically and not as would be expected," Miller said.
City bike infrastructure
For years the City of Bend has been working on better cycling infrastructure, with plans that include more bike lanes, multi-user paths and designated safe routes. Bend City Councilor Anthony Broadman is an avid cyclist and safety advocate who regularly rides an e-bike.
"The key to keeping kids, and all of us, safe is good infrastructure," Broadman said.
Just this month, for the first time since 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on child pedestrian safety which supports Broadman's claim.
Among its recommendations, AAP advocated for reducing speed limits in urban areas, developing more safe routes to school, advocating for more pedestrian infrastructure and providing more information to parents and families so they can educate their children on safety.
"I ran for Council to build the Bend Bikeway and the Hawthorne Bridge, and those are the lynchpins of crosstown transportation safety for everyone — cars, bikes wheelchairs, everyone," Broadman said. "The best thing that we can do with the finite City resources we have is to focus on meaningful improvements to infrastructure."
Following the death of the teen recently, councilors also put out a call for ideas to help them plan an educational event where parents and other community members could come and learn about the ins and outs of e-bike safety.
Supporting an active commute
Other educational messaging has been spearheaded by Commute Options, the nonprofit advocating for safe commuting alternatives in Bend. Executive Director Brian Potwin thinks that education is by far the best method to find balance.
"Our Safe Routes program aims to increase access to alternative methods (of travel), with the goals of being safe, fun and convenient," he said. Working directly with local school districts and promoting these concepts in the classroom, the program teaches safety and rules of the road for students K-12. Other programming in support of the cause includes Walking School Buses, where school groups are led by adults to and from schools, suggesting walk and rolling routes as viable options. Commute options also offers a helpful introduction to e-bike safety on its website.
At the school level, Scott Maben, communications director for Bend-La Pine Schools, says e-bike usage is, "Definitely a rising concern and community issue." Currently the district is working on updating its transportation policy (which does not yet address underage riders on e-bikes) as well as communications and messaging at the school level.
"We have seen an increase in e-bike users, especially at the middle schools," Maben said. This past school year, "Principals were focused primarily on the education of parents," he said.
Until this year, there had not been a serious injury attributed to e-bikes in Bend and Central Oregon, but within a day of each other, two serious accidents led to the region's first tragedy involving a motor vehicle and e-bike. On June 16, an adult rider was driving a mini-motorcycle that was not street legal in the bike lane on Reed Market Road and crashed into a car. The driver of the mini-motorcycle was seriously hurt, and was cited for operating a vehicle in the bike lane.
As children head back to school, teams at City of Bend, Visit Bend, Commute Options, Bend PD and other organizations are working to spread the word on the growing issues, continue to build better infrastructure and educate more of the community on rules, regulations, protocol and proper usage of all classes of human powered and power-assist bikes.
With law and policy changes in their infancy, the potentially epidemic and proven tragic outcomes of e-bike accidents here in Central Oregon, requires a patient and focused community effort to build awareness for both the riders and drivers who share the roadways.