Study Could Improve Safety for Cyclists, E-Bikes

Chris Cherry

Chris Cherry

A study by UT researchers could soon change the way electric bicycles are used and regulated.

Led by Chris Cherry, the group took one of the first in-depth looks at how the behavior of e-bike riders compares to that of traditional bikers.

While electric bicycle use has risen worldwide, safety and policies surrounding their use remain largely based off assumptions instead of facts, giving the UT study greater impact.

“We looked how riders of both modes of transportation behaved in a handful of different situations and found that with few exceptions their behavior was very similar,” said Cherry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Having nearly identical safety behavior as regular bike riders suggests e-bikes should be regulated in similar ways.”

The key to the study—conducted with Brian Casey Langford of the Center for Transportation Research and Jiaoli Chen, a doctoral student in geography—centered on how riders of both followed laws and safety measures. It was one of the first pieces of research to be conducted under LEVER, the Light Electric Vehicle Education and Research Center.

While finding that riders of both types of vehicles behaved the same was a nice breakthrough, the unfortunate discovery was that both behaved badly.

Using real-world riding data, the team found that the majority of riders regularly ran red lights and stop signs and rode the wrong way on roadways, regardless of the type of bike they were using.

“Those numbers were surprising,” said Cherry. “The lesson here is that encouraging compliance with the law is important for both, but also building bicycling infrastructure that is supportive of cyclists, so that it’s easier and safer to comply with traffic control devices.”

Use of e-bikes has increased steadily as the focus on green technology has risen, particularly in big cities and developing areas where the use of cars can be expensive, slow, and a contributor to air quality woes.

As e-bikes have become more prevalent, means of governing have been largely hit or miss, particularly because of the unknown aspects of their use, which is one of the reasons for the study.

Portland State University, a partner in LEVER, led a separate study that tracked differences in regulations across—and even within—the states. This research will support harmonizing those regulations.

“In New York, for example, they are illegal because they don’t consider them bikes or motor vehicles, so they instead simply prohibit them in many cases,” said Cherry. “By showing that their safety and use are similar to bicycles, a better way to regulate them can be found, which in turn can increase mobility for a number of people.”

Cherry’s team gathered the data by installing GPS collection devices on bikes used in UT’s bike share program over a two-year period.

In addition to safety behavior, that data also showed the team the routes most often taken by each kind of cyclist and how e-bikes can complement bike share systems. The Southeastern Transportation Center also funds a portion of the project.

C O N T A C T :

Kim Cowart (865-974-0686 or kcowart@utk.edu)