Following fatal hit-and-run, coalition says rise in e-bike popularity must lead to safer infrastructure

Person with a dress riding a bike on the street.
Person with a dress riding a bike on the street.
An e-bike rider in downtown Portland, January 2022. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“The increased popularity means greater demand on already subpar active transportation infrastructure that fails to meet our climate or safety requirements and goals.”

– Electric Bikes For All coalition

A broad coalition of business owners and nonprofit organizations who are pushing for more electric bicycle use in Oregon are sounding an alarm about the lack of safe infrastructure after a fatal crash in northeast Portland earlier this month.

The Electric Bikes For All coalition has written a letter to Oregon Department of Transportation Region 1 Director Rian Windsheimer and Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Chris Warner that warns of more deaths as the popularity of e-bikes skyrockets far above the safety of streets they are used on.

The crash that spurred the letter happened on June 7th when a man was hit while riding an e-bike on NE 102nd at Glisan. As we reported at the time, the victim was dragged 600 feet as the driver of the truck sped away and fled the scene.

“Electric bikes continue to grow in popularity, expanding the types and distance of trips that people are able to make,” the letter states. “The increased popularity – not just for e-bikes but for all individual mobility from classic bikes to e-scooters – means greater demand on already subpar active transportation infrastructure that fails to meet our climate or safety requirements and goals.”

The group goes on to say that the top excuse Oregonians make for not buying an e-bike is that roads are unsafe. Urgency for better bike infrastructure grows when you consider that e-bikes are a feasible and attractive option for a much wider range of people than acoustic/analog bikes. As the price of e-bikes falls, so does their appeal and the need to expand the network of safe routes well beyond Portland’s central city.

Here’s more from the letter: 

“It is imperative that we create and maintain safe streets for these new riders… While there are many benefits to light transportation, without separated facilities they add vulnerability to users when competing with automobiles.”

The group makes two specific recommendations: Make protected bike lanes a default treatment and add automated traffic cameras across the city’s entire “high crash network”.

 Below is the list of signatories:

Kiel Johnson
Chair – BikeLoud PDX

André Lightsey-Walker
The Street Trust

Brenna Bailey
ABC (Andando en Bicicletas en Cully)

Barrett Brown
Forth

Sara Wright
Oregon Environmental Council

Neil Bausgard
The Environmental Center

Sarah Waits
The Outer Rim Bike Shop

Lenny Dee
Onward Oregon

Alan Acock
Mid-Valley Bicycle Club

Steve Abbott
Climate Revolutions by Bike

Molly Conroy-Schmidt
Go By Bike Valet

Helen Hitt
Cynergy E-Bikes

Claire Vlach
Oregon Walks Plans and Projects Committee

Melinda Hanson
Electric Avenue

Eli Spevak,
CEO – Orange Splot LLC

Megan Ramey
Bikabout.com and Active Transportation Rep-at large for ODOT Region 1 ACT

E-bikes a better way to help people than cheaper gas, says Oregon Congressman Blumenauer

Rep. Blumenauer at the launch of Portland’s Biketown bike share program in 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

-Earl Blumenauer

Thanks to inflation and the war in Ukraine, gas prices have hit record highs, and in the car-dependent United States, a lot of people across the political spectrum are unhappy.

But instead of using this as a wake-up call to shift toward low-car transportation and loosen the Americans’ grip on their steering wheels, many local and national officials have proposed band-aid policies to make gas cheaper. Recently, President Joe Biden announced a proposal to temporarily lift the federal gas tax – about 18 cents per gallon for regular gasoline – to lighten the financial burden for Americans who drive petrol-powered cars.

But this idea has not been very well-received. Critics say it’s a political gimmick at best. At worst, it’s outright climate arson to continue encouraging people to drive gas vehicles.

One of these detractors has been Earl Blumenauer, the U.S. Representative from Oregon who represents most of Portland east of the Willamette River. In a June 16th letter to Biden, Blumenauer urged the President to seek alternate solutions.

“While there is undoubtedly a need to provide American consumers relief from spiking costs, there is no guarantee a gas tax suspension would reduce prices at the pump or stem the broader inflation affecting the global economy, and it may only increase oil companies’ bottom lines,” Blumenauer wrote. “Suspending the federal gas tax would not lower prices for consumers, and would not have the desired political effect; it also would seriously damage important policy opportunities, and should be rejected by your administration.”

I spoke with the Congressman on the phone Monday morning and asked him to elaborate on what he thinks about the future of transportation policy given the political temperature in D.C. and the bipartisan fixation on ‘pain at the pump.’ One thing Blumenauer (who is the co-chair of the informal U.S. Congressional Bike Caucus, by the way) thinks would help? Bikes.

“One of the things we routinely emphasize is there are things we can do that would cost a fraction of this and would actually help people,” Blumenauer told me. “I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

For the last year and a half, Blumenauer has been trying to use infrastructure talks to propel bike legislation, specifically with a bill to make electric bikes more affordable as a way to reduce car dependency.

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters. It really makes a difference.”

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters,” Blumenauer says. (We concur.) “It really makes a difference.”

One particularly troublesome element of the gas rebate discussion is how it ignores the fact that many lower-income Americans don’t drive cars. They need better active and public transportation infrastructure, not prepaid gas credit cards. Blumenauer agrees these people have been left out.

“Low income people and people of color are heavily transit-dependent. But [gas tax holiday proposals indicate] we shouldn’t be as concerned with them as we are with the suburban single-occupant vehicle commuter. It’s not rational, and it’s not fair,” he says. “It’s been really frustrating they don’t get the they don’t get the same attention.”

At this point, it seems unlikely Biden will be able to shore up support for a federal gas tax holiday. But several state governments, including in states with liberal governors, are going for it. And just the fact that it’s on Biden’s radar at all is cause for concern.

Even with these disappointing trends, however, Blumenauer appears hopeful for progress in the future. While bold transportation infrastructure investment may seem like a lost cause should Democrats lose control of Congress in the fall, Blumenauer says he still trusts Biden’s administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make moves.

“Working with federal, state and local agencies, we can have a profound influence, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections,” he says.

Blumenauer points out the transportation provisions in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year, acknowledging it’s only a “modest breakthrough” (advocates say it may actually increase carbon emissions) but that some of its funding will help fund active transportation projects across the country. He also says he is seeing a cultural paradigm shift against freeway expansions, including in very car-centric communities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. (Check out the Freeway Fighters Network map to see other places – including Portland – where this battle is playing out.)

Blumenauer says he sees Portland projects like the 82nd Avenue jurisdictional transfer, the plan to expand the Streetcar to the Northwest Industrial District and the upcoming bike and pedestrian bridge with his namesake as indicative of progress here that could be replicated elsewhere. And he says he and the ‘bike constituency’ (which includes other active transportation activists) aren’t going anywhere.

“Communities all over the country are struggling with the same challenges. A more diverse set of low-carbon transportation alternatives – with less reliance on single-occupant vehicles and more on bikes, pedestrian and transit – is key to success,” Blumenauer says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

The City of Tigard really wants you to try an e-bike

Screengrab from City of Tigard website.

There are a bunch of great events planned next month in Tigard as part of that city’s “Move 4 May” initiative, which they’re hosting in cahoots with their parks department and safe routes to school program. Among the events are several opportunities to test ride electric bikes.

It’s yet another illustration that local governments see the potential of e-bikes as replacements for car trips that can have a healthy impact on their cities.

Tigard has partnered with one of the biggest names in the business, Rad Power Bikes, to provide demo bikes that will be available for test rides. Portland-based retail shops Clever Cycles and Cynergy E-bikes will also be on hand with demos from other brands.

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Oregon legislator will propose e-bike purchase incentive bill next session

Rep. Power on her Instagram page in October 2021.

Oregon House Representative Karin Power (D-41 Milwaukie) knows how transformative electric bikes can be; but she also knows how expensive they are for some buyers. That’s because she recently bought one herself.

When Rep. Power purchased her Tern GSD last fall, we made it front page news. Central to her story is that she was able to get a loan from a local credit union to help make the purchase from Portland’s Splendid Cycles a bit easier. “Making healthier choices doesn’t mean you have to break the bank,” she wrote on Instagram.

Now she wants to expand that choice to all Oregonians.

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