Monday, October 28, 2019

Fake Bicycles

A bicycle with a motor is a motorcycle.

We were on our walk today, to the airport and back, about three miles.  We're trying.  We like to go on walks and ride our bikes, and on retirement island there are a lot of places to walk and ride, as I have noted before in my videos.

A couple came by us on bikes, and I nearly broke out laughing.  You see, they were on these new electric bikes, which are an interesting idea, and as they went by us, they were pedaling furiously.  But as soon as they got around the corner, they stopped pedaling and just rode along, hand on the throttle.

I thought it was funny because they had to pretend like they weren't just riding a motorcycle, but actually pedaling - not "cheating" per se.  But as soon as they got out of sight (so they thought) they went back to just motoring.  And that is the problem with the electric bike, as I see it - human nature being what it is, the promises made to pedal all the time and only use the electric feature "just in case" go by the wayside pretty quickly.

Are these electric bikes - and scooters - a good or bad thing?   Well, that depends, I guess.   For elderly people who gave up on riding bikes because their muscle mass has deteriorated, perhaps the electric bike is a way they can get out and get a little exercise - sort an electric "assist" for the handicapped.   And from what I understand, some electric bikes actually work this way, with the "throttle" being keyed to how hard you pedal.  You want to go faster, you pedal harder, you want to slow down, you pedal less - and a power "assist" is proportionally applied.

Others, well, they are just electric motorcycles or electric mopeds, and you twist a throttle and off you go.  The question is, are these motor vehicles or not?

When I was a kid in regulation-heavy New York, I wanted a moped.  You could drive one on a learner's permit, so it was attractive for a young person.  In most States, mopeds could go 25-30 miles an hour, but for some reason, New York State limited them to some oddball speed, like 17 miles an hour.  And of course, they had to be registered and licensed!   It was beaten into our heads, in that State, that using the roads was a privilege not a right and that a car instantly turned into an immobile mass of metal the moment the registration or inspection sticker expired.   It wasn't until I moved to other States later in life did I realize this was a lot of hooey.

But still, in most States, a motorized vehicle is a motor vehicle, and usually requires some sort of registration and licensing.   In our little County, there is much controversy as the County has decided to enforce laws requiring that all golf carts be registered.  So far, this doesn't appear to affect our little island, which is a State Park, as the County cops don't have jurisdiction here.   If the law is enforced here, you will see a lot of golf carts for sale, as the cost of insurance and registration (including the annual $200 "electric vehicle fee") will make owning a golf cart even less cost-effective.

Not having to register, inspect, or insure a motor vehicle is a game-changer.   And this is how many silicon valley "tech" companies operate - by basically ignoring laws, such as licenses for taxis, or charters for banks.   By the time governments catch on to this fact, the company has grown to Amazonian proportions, and can afford to stare them down - or at least that is the hope, anyway.

But getting back to electric bikes and scooters, the invention of the Lithium-Ion battery has had some interesting effects on our society.   You may recall when the "Segway" scooter (and it was a scooter) was invented, the hoopla surrounding it included the comment that "cities would be redesigned" for this startling new invention.  Well, it turned out to be overblown hype - the scooter was too expensive for most people to own (about the cost of a good used car) but other people took the idea, and discarding the novel but pointless self-balancing feature, put those same Lithium-Ion batteries into conventional scooters and bicycles, and making them in China, sold them for cheap.

And they were right about one thing - cities would have to be redesigned to accommodate electric scooters and bicycles, as they don't fit into the traffic flow on busy streets or pedestrian sidewalks.   Bicycling itself amounts to bloody murder, if you try to ride in the car-clogged roadways in the cities - or even in the country.   In America, we are trying to put in bike lanes and accommodate bicycles and other non-traditional forms of traffic.   Meanwhile, in China, which a decade or two ago was clogged with bicyclists, some mayors are proposing banning bicycles from the streets to accommodate the flood of cars that the Chinese have flocked to.  Turns out, people like cars - sad to say - and will gravitate towards them once they are available.   Scooters and bikes - electric or otherwise - are local, fair weather friends.

Bike rental has taken off in China, of course, but more as an investment Ponzi scheme than a means of transportation.   Cities are clogged with bicycles that are rented once and then discarded.   How long this "business model" can be sustained is anyone's guess.    In America, these schemes have also proliferated, only to be upstaged by electric scooter rentals.   In visiting many cities, we thought about renting bikes, but the systems are often set up only for frequent users, not occasional visitors, and the idea of having to download an app, pay an initiation fee or annual user fee (in some instances), kind of turned us off.   Besides, we brought our own bikes with us - in the camper.

Now, traditionally, a motorized scooter or bicycle would be illegal to ride in the road, much less on the sidewalk, much less without a helmet (in most jurisdictions).  But, again, in a classic case of Silicon Valley chutzpah (break the law and let 'em come after us!) they flooded the market with these things and law enforcement simply didn't care, other than to show up at the scene of a bloody Lime scooter accident and wash the blood and brains off the sidewalk.

Again, back in the day, if I rode an electric or gas-powered scooter through my hometown, I would have been pulled over by the cops, and given a ticket for driving an unlicensed motor vehicle on the highway, and my scooter would have ended up in the trunk of the police cruiser - confiscated.  Today, not only do the Police turn a blind eye to these blatant violation of motor vehicle laws (and the widespread abandonment of these scooters, and the blocking of  sidewalks with them) but actually set up sting operations to catch "criminals" who have sabotaged or rounded up and discarded said scooters.  They should have given that guy a medal, instead.  (In France, they cut to the chase and just toss these annoyances in the river.   Vive La France!)

It is a classic example of "go big or go home" in Silicon Valley.  You start up a company doing something arguably illegal (unlicensed cabs, home delivery services using people with no commercial insurance on their cars, illegal scooters and bikes, and so forth) and if you grow fast enough, they can't stop you - because you are everywhere all at once, and the public, at least some of them, like the services you are providing.   If "Bird" and "Lime" tried to start out small and grow organically, they would have been stomped out of existence by some local city council.  By appearing overnight, everywhere, they seem like an unstoppable trend.

The problem, of course, with electric bikes and scooters, is that they are motor vehicles.   And motor vehicles can be unsafe - more unsafe than even bicycles.   When you start riding electric scooters, in and out of traffic, without a helmet, bad things will happen.   One carelessly opened car door is all it takes - ask any urban cyclist how that works out.    The problem with a motorized vehicle is the speed - most of these electric bikes and scooters don't go much faster than a conventional pedaled bike, at the present time. The top speed of these things, however, seems to be closer to that of a well-conditioned rider than that of the average recreational pedaler.  So in addition to the safety concerns of bicyclists, you have the additional problems of speed and lack of helmets.   Throw in city streets and sidewalk pedestrians, and you have a perfect storm.

Do these things have uses?   Yea, like I said, they could be useful for the elderly or handicapped to participate in society, even with infirmity.   But for the rest of us, I am not so sure.   Yea, it is fun to drive your golf cart on the road - but it isn't a lot of exercise.  And it is dangerous as hell - since most top out at 20 mph, you are always an impediment to traffic.  And if you get into a wreck with a car, it is no contest as to who is going to win.  Electric bikes and scooters have the same problem, amplified by a factor of 10.   I suppose one could argue that an e-bike or scooter can at least ride on the shoulder and avoid cars that way.   But on bike paths and sidewalks, it seems these forms of transportation become hazards to pedestrians and fellow cyclists as well.

What motivates people to buy an e-bike is fascinating to me.   From what I can see, the people buying e-bikes are the ones who need to ride the most - out-of-shape people who need exercise, not yet another electronic assist in life.   Today, however, people are conditioned to ride, rather than walk or pedal - from an early age.   Kids are given little electric cars as soon as they are able to walk - perhaps before.   The message is clear - walking and pedaling is for chumps.  Why exert effort, when a machine can do it for you?  But what do we do when the machine stops?   We'll be helpless as kittens by then.   The oil embargo of 1973 was sort of a precurser of how vulnerable we are, and how reliant we are on technology.   But that was just cars.   Now we're talking about walking here.

And again, promises to pedal and just use the electric for emergencies quickly fade by the wayside pretty quickly, mostly because these electric bikes are heavy as hell, and like a moped, nearly impossible to pedal without the power on.  So people quickly devolve into informal motorcycle riders, and pledges to exercise fall by the wayside, like so many home treadmills and diet plans.

Will I ever get an electric bike?   Again, I think it is a great idea for the elderly and infirm, as a means of getting out and participating.  Of course, the elderly and infirm can't afford to fall off or get into a wreck, as their bones become brittle.   But maybe, down the road, in a decade or two, I'll be twisting the throttle instead of pushing the pedals.

But not just yet.

P.S. - these electric bikes aren't cheap, either.  We bought our latest "cruiser" bikes at Walmart.  My 29" monster bike was $129 and Mark's "Margaritaville Special" was $89 with 10% off that!  From what I am seeing online, the electric bikes are more expensive, by at least a factor of ten, sometimes twenty!   For the cost of some of these e-bikes, you could buy a decent used Corolla.