U.S health and transport problems are us
Today in these unUnited States of America, nearly 2,000 people will die of heart disease and another 1,700 or so will die of cancer. And this will continue on the morrow and on the day after and for all the days to come.
Not all of these deaths could have been prevented by lifestyle changes, but CDC scientists have estimated that about a quarter of them among Americans under the age of 80 are preventable every year, and some studies have put the percentage higher.
E-bikes were once seen as one of the tools on the path to prevention of not only these deaths, but others linked to chronic lower respiratory diseases and stroke – two other big killers of Americans with unhealthy lifestyles.
And all of this was before the pandemic of the unhealthy and unfit, which has left America’s misguided medical community mired in nonsensical social arguments over whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus killed more Republicans than Democrats or more of the unmasked than the masked while ignoring the physiological reality:
The health of the vast majority of those killed by the virus was compromised before they were infected by the virus that caused the disease that came to be called Covid-19. What would be truly interesting to know is how many Americans who could run or walk five miles in under an hour, a not particularly high bar for measuring fitness, died. The number is sure to be tiny.
But then the number of fit Americans has been shrinking by the year and is now down to the point that the U.S. military is having trouble finding recruits who can meet minimum fitness standards.
Those who really care about health in the U.S. – and not just selling medical treatments, devices or insurance – have long been worried about the fading fitness of the citizenry, and in this vain e-bikes were supposed to be something of a magic bullet in terms of not only improving health through fitness but in helping reduce the traffic congestion and air pollution that plagues the country’s major urban areas and literally drives people nuts.
A minority, and thankfully only a minority, of drivers, in these environments fall victim to dangerous road rage. This has led to the doubling of driving-related, fatal shootings from 70 in 2018 to 141 in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Far more drivers vent their frustration and anger by tailgating, cutting off other drivers, weaving through heavy traffic at high speeds, running red lights and otherwise engaging in what the American Automobile Association (AAA) classifies as “aggressive driving,” which leads to an even higher death toll.
A 2019 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found “nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage behind the wheel at least once in the previous 30 days.”
The AAA started surveying drivers about anger after a 2009 study concluded that about 56 percent of all fatal accidents were related to aggressive driving. If that percentage has held – it may have gone higher, it may have gone lower – aggressive driving would have been linked to about 23,965 of the 42,795 traffic deaths the U.S. Department of Transporation reported for last year and hundreds of thousands of injuries, many of them serious.
Neither e-bikes nor peddle bikes can totally cure that problem. There are regular reports of aggressive cycling as well as aggressive driving on U.S. roads, but aggressive cycling is dangerously counter-productive for the aggressors in that they almost always injure or kill themselves without hurting anyone else.
And there has been only one reported case of a road-rage shooting involving a cyclist in recent years. Thirty-two-year-old Theodore Edgecomb, a bicyclist of color, shot and killed 54-year-old Jason Cleereman in Milwaukee in 2020. Edgecomb claimed self-defense but was convicted at trial.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the shooting involved a car hitting or close-passing the cyclist – Edgecomb claimed he was hit; Cleereman’s wife claimed it was merely a close pass – before chasing the cyclist down with the car, and then confronting him. Edgecomb claimed that when Cleereman approached him, the man used profanity and a racial slur and was then accidentally shot in self-defense, but Mrs. Cleereman denied that happened.
Whatever the case, road rage incidents involving cyclists in the U.S. are extremely rare likely in part due to the fact that exercise, as one study puts it, “improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood.”
Cyclists angry about being nearly run down by incompetent drivers tend to pedal their bad mood away rather quickly. Drivers, on the other hand, often fixate on their anger at other drivers and start to fume. And they especially fume if they think a cyclist is being aggressive.
British psychologist Tom Stafford has floated the theory that this is “not because cyclists are annoying. It isn’t even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.”
In a column written for the BBC, he argued that motorists regularly stuck in traffic following a bunch of burdensome rules get upset when “along come cyclists, innocently following what they see are the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren’t allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.
“…Evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of (such) free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this…So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche (there) is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.
“Now, cyclists reading this might think ‘but the rules aren’t made for us – we’re more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn’t have to follow the rules.’ Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road users perceive you as breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution.”
The e-bike was supposed to help with the idea of “reducing traffic and pollution,” and help lessen the disharmony by putting more cyclists on the road, thus making cycling more acceptable due to what has been described in psychology as the “familiarity principle” or “mere-exposure effect” that holds that the more people are exposed to something the more they come to accept it.
Thus the idea that if cities became more like Utrecht, Netherlands – where the Global Bicycle Cities Index reports more than half of the 1.37 million residents use their bike for everyday transportation – or Copenhagen, Denmark – where “62 percent of inhabitants’ trips to work or school by bike – or even Bremen, Germany – where bikes make up more than 20 percent of the vehicles on the road every day – the more accepting drivers would become; the more cycling would become a part of everyday life for many; and the better the health of everyone – most especially lazy Americans – thanks to a daily dose of exercise even if the exercisers didn’t notice they were exercising.
Early e-bike studies trumpeted the idea that the ease of pedaling and the ability to break some of those rules that confine cars would encourage drivers to substitute cycling for driving and sucker them into getting much-needed daily exercise without noticing they were doing so.
As a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives proclaimed in 2019, the “overall physical activity among both (e-cyclists and pedal cyclists) was…comparable. These findings counter the often-raised concern that e-biking may result in a substantial reduction of physical activity for traveling due to the electric assist of e-bikes, which reduces the required physical effort.
“As this study shows, average trip distance of e-bike and bicycle trips among e-bikers is significantly higher than bicycle trips among cyclists. Equally, e-bikers’ daily travel distance by e-bike was also significantly longer than daily cycling distance in cyclists, which confirms reviewed literature. This suggests that e-bikers may compensate, at least in part, the lower effort per kilometer of e-biking by traveling longer distances.”
The large team of researchers from Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany went on to proclaim that their “analysis support(ed) the notion to accept, or even promote, e-bikes as a healthy and sustainable transport option based on e-bikers travel behavior and self-reported mode substitution. Planners should be aware that e-bikers travel longer distances than cyclists. Thus, e-bikes might be used for longer commuting trips than non-electric bicycles. To accommodate (or promote) this new demand and to avoid conflicts with other road users in urban areas, cycling infrastructure should be expanded and may need to be adapted to accommodate higher speeds and address safety needs. The health benefits in terms of physical activity of using e-bikes, particularly when replacing car trips, should be factored in when considering subsidizing e-biking.”
A changing Europe
Much of Europe has since gone all in on a shift toward cycling with a good part of the move dependent on e-bikes. Paris set a goal of making the city “100 percent cyclable” and now has so many people on two wheels that there are complaints of bicycle traffic jams.
“A bike path on Sebastopol Boulevard is one of the busiest in Europe after opening in 2019,” the Voice of America English News (VOA) reported last month. “In one week in early September, it recorded a record high of 124,000 riders.”
“In 2022 cycles were the single largest category of daytime vehicular traffic on (London) city streets making up 27 percent of all traffic,” the city of London’s transportation committee reported this year. “Cycles also make up over 40 percent of vehicular traffic during the morning and evening peak hours.”
Exactly how many of these people are on e-bikes in the United Kingdom is unclear, but Ebiketips, a UK publication, reports e-bike sales in that country nearly tripled from 55,000 units in 2017 to 160,000 in 2021 before leveling off.
U.S. sales have also increased significantly, but not by as much on a percentage scale. According to Business Insider, which cites Kelley Blue Book numbers, “E-bike imports (a good proxy for sales since most e-bikes aren’t made in the US) numbered around 1.1 million, surging from 880,000 in 2021 and 437,000 the year before.”
The 1.1 million in sales of e-bikes did, however, top the 800,000 electric cars sold in 2022.
How much use those U.S. e-bikes are getting and how much they are benefitting health in the motor country are, however, hard questions to answer, especially the latter given the American addiction to comfort.
In simple terms, this addiction as it relates to e-bikes can be summarized in nine words: “Why pedal when you don’t have to?”
And never mind the consequences of that approach.
Evolutionary influences again
The fundamental problem here is that all animals are hard-wired to get fat. It is nature’s first imperative given that survival at its most fundamental level depends on calories, and fat is, with only a few exceptions, the only way for animals to store life-ensuring calories.
Animals that fall short of meeting their daily caloric needs and lack the fat stores to replace those missing calories, inevitably end up dead. It is that simple.
This overpowering naturally driven desire for calories in turn powers other behaviors similar to those that humans – the most intellectually advanced of the animals – categorize as “greed” or “laziness.”
Thinking of themselves as separate and above all the other animals, some humans like to believe these are traits unique to our species. They are not. “Surplus killing” by predators like wolves and bears, much like the storage of an over-abundance of nuts by squirrels, is no different than humans banking money for the future.
Or hoarding, as many do, because you never know when you might “need” that dress or once fashionable pair of shoes you haven’t worn in a decade or the suit that doesn’t quite fit or one of those nuts, bolts or screws in those jars full of fasteners or….
Well, one could go on at length in this vein and, of course, the humans who become billionaires are among those most driven by this desire to store away protection against the future although a lust for power often enters the picture there as well.
Still, the desire for power, for control, is itself nothing but another extension of a desire to protect against the future, which takes us back to the starting point of that evolutionary drive to get fat. There is even a well-established, fat-associated phrase used to describe those with more money than is needed to survive: Fat cat.
Word Histories traces the origin of the phrase back to political in-fighting between the wealthy in Maryland in 1925, but The Collins Dictionary says the definition has since expanded to include “a person who has become lazy or self-satisfied as the result of privilege or advantage.”
Laziness is another derivative of this desire.
If you are, for instance, a brown/grizzly bear in Southwest Alaska, it is a lot more efficient to stand atop the falls of the Brooks River in the summer catching fat-rich sockeye salmon one after another than to run around in the wilderness burning up calories while trying to kill a moose or caribou or a mess of ground squirrels.
The National Park Service, as part of one of its many propaganda campaigns, actually celebrates this laziness with an annual “fat bear” competition which encourages internet viewers to vote for what they believe to be the fattest bear in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Once the same could be said for humans, but in the modern age, fat for humans more often equals early death, although the evidence is now pretty clear the modern problem isn’t just about the storage of body fat. The storage of human body fat is linked not just to what people eat but how much or how little they move.
Fitness trackers have allowed scientists to track the movements of those of normal weight and those who are obese, and what they have found is that the latter move a lot less than the former.
Thanks to the prevalence of the sedentary lifestyle, the country is now home to plenty of overweight people who move about as much as normal-weight people, but the truly obese are in a category of their own when it comes to lack of movement.
Getting them on e-bikes would be a good thing if the bikes got them pedaling, but in America, an increasing number of those bikes don’t get anyone pedaling because “why pedal when you don’t have to?”
People for Bikes, an advocate for the use of bikes for day-to-day transportation, last fall labeled “Out of Class Electric Vehicles,” so-called OCEV, the biggest problem facing the cycling world, and some say all throttle-controlled e-bikes – the kind you don’t have to pedal – aren’t far behind as e-bikes in the U.S. become ever more like motorcycles.
Motorcycles are machines powered by engines, not by muscles. U.S. “e-bike” regulations were to have kept all of this under control with e-bike classification standards.
Class 1 e-bikes required some sort of pedaling in order to get them moving and keep them moving but assisted that pedaling up to a speed of 20 mph at which point the assist kicked out. Class 2 e-bikes added a throttle assist that allowed cyclists to supplement the pedaling effort with more engine power when, for instance, they came to a big hill. And Class 3 e-bikes were allowed to provide pedal assistance up to 28 mph but only pedal assistance; these bikes could be thought of as simply juiced-up Class 1s.
“In many states a minimum age of 16 years is required to ride a Class 3 bike because of the faster 28 mph speed capability,” according to the EB Journal. ” ince the bikes are faster, they are more regulated in terms of where they can be ridden….They will also allow you to keep up with traffic much easier if you’re riding on busy streets without much of a bike lane.
“(But) this could also mean you’re at a bit more risk for injury as many drivers still don’t expect bikes to be traveling at nearly 30 mph before making turns in front of them. So, a word of warning, if you are riding a Class 3, it’s best to assume you are riding a motorcycle and that your predictive anticipation could save you serious bodily harm.”
The big problem that has arisen is that this classification of e-bikes work a lot better in theory than in practice, given that some Class 1 e-bike looks a lot like Class 3 e-bikes and a lot of Class 2 e-bikes have essentially become electric motorcycles because lazy Americans don’t want to pedal.
This might be fine if the people riding them had the judgment and bike handling skill necessary to operate the bikes on multi-use trails – those shared with pedestrians and pedal cyclists – but many don’t.
Thus one finds people who decide an e-bike a quick and safe way to commute to work via multi-use trails such as the narrow, winding Chester and Campbell Creek trails in Anchorage speeding along at 20 mph on their throttle-controlled bikes even if their bike handling skills are barely up to riding safely at 10 mph given the trail conditions.
The results are predictable. E-bike injuries are soaring along with injuries related to other e-devices used on multi-use trails, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Its September report on “Micromobility Products-Related
Deaths, Injuries, and Hazard Patterns: 2017–2022” reported “injuries associated with all micromobility devices (e-bikes, e-scooters and hoverboards) increased nearly 21 percent in 2022 from 2021. Micromobility-related injuries have trended upward since 2017, increasing an estimated average 23 percent annually.”
E-scooters and hoverboards (or one-wheels) have grown in popularity for much the same reason as throttle-assisted e-bikes because they require almost no muscle power to operate.
“Nearly half (46 percent) of all estimated e-bike injuries from 2017 to 2022 occurred in 2022 alone,” the CPSC added, along with offering a warning to e-bike riders to ride defensively because “most deaths involve motor vehicles.”
This, too, was predictable in that most American cities lack for cycling infrastructure, much of the cycling infrastructure that does exist is poor, and an ever-increasing number of American drivers preoccupied with their smartphones weave all over the road.
This encourages e-cyclists worried about their own safety to take to multi-use trails where they can become a danger to pedestrians.
And these risks can only be expected to increase in lin4 with the increase in use of throttle-controlled e-bikes and those OCEVs as they are called. Sales of many of the latter appear targeted at those wanting to go as fast as possible when they ride.
HPC Bikes, for instance, advertises its “Reolution XX is a one of a kind Super E-Bike…Top speed is officially listed at 70+ MPH, and not only that, the operator can physically pedal along at that speed due to a Schlumpf High Speed Drive custom made with a 38T/95T equivalent planetary geared chainring.”
But the Revolution is not sold as a high-speed, e-motorcycle; it is sold as an e-bike possessed of an “off-road mode (that) must be enabled on private property or where legal. Bike will ship fully compliant with Class 2 laws.”
HPC is far from alone in pursuing this marketing tactic. The number of Class 2 bikes that can be “enabled” to operate as electric motorcycles only seems to be growing with some number of riders thinking they can use them to “cheat” those irritating rules that cause traffic congestion by trying to prevent motor vehicle drivers from running into each other.
The only win in all of this – if there is to be one – is likely to come on the climate change front. E-bike manufacture and operation requires a fraction of the energy necessary for automobile manufacture and operation be it diesel, gas or electric.
Researchers who modeled what they considered a workable shift away from motor vehicle use to e-bikes where practicable in the UK concluded massive savings in greenhouse gas production were possible.
“Our micro-simulation of England finds that the maximum total capability to reduce car carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions using e-bikes is 24.4 million tonnes per annum,” they reported in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Transport Policy in 2021. “Although the CO2 intensity of the car fleet will improve as it moves towards electrification, this is progressing too slowly to avoid the need for parallel reductions in car use and the simulation is an attempt to quantify the scale of carbon reductions if a switch to e-bikes were to happen in the near-term. Mass uptake of e-bikes could make a significant early contribution to transport carbon reduction, particularly in areas where conventional walking and cycling do not fit journey patterns and bus provision is relatively expensive, inflexible and, certainly in the UK, has diminished over recent decades.”
The study was, however, based on European standards for Electric Pedal Assisted Cycles which are limited to a “maximum of 250 watt assistance whilst the rider is pedalling and does not provide electrical assistance at speeds above 15mph.”
U.S. e-bikes are legally allowed three times the power – 750 watts – and top speeds of up to 28 mph, and there are no end of websites offering advice online as to how to up the wattage and or speed of those e-bikes.
Pedaling a bit to get fitter and healthier? Who cares.