Opinion: The E-Bike Is Not a ‘Monstrosity’; Car Culture Is

Photo: Washington Bikes
Photo: Washington Bikes

Last week, Atlantic columnist Ian Bogost provoked the full ire of bike Twitter with the publication of his essay, “The E-Bike is a Monstrosity.”

Proponents of the most popular sustainable mobility solution in America did not hold back. The article was excoriated for comparing a vehicle that predates the automobile to the flash-in-the-pan Segway; for saying that it “feels just as likely that you might get mowed down by an e-bike as a taxicab” on New York City streets when, in fact, only 0.47 percent of pedestrian fatalities over the past 15 years involved any type of bicycle; and, notably, failing to mention the climate change impacts of the mode even once.

Picking apart the many misconceptions in Bogost’s article could easily overwhelm this article’s word count, so I’ll refer you to Twitter for the full breakdown.

What’s gotten less discussion, though, is the core of Bogost’s argument, which was obscured by a lazy, trollish headline (that, in fairness, didn’t really match the story). Wildly out-of-context concerns about pedestrian safety aside, Bogost doesn’t seem to view e-bikes as a monstrous threat, so much as a sort of unfortunate Frankenstein’s monster “trapped in the weird smear between pathetic, loser bicycles and pitiable, low-end motorbikes.”

The real problem with e-bikes, Bogost repeatedly insists, is that it’s unclear what the choice to ride one signifies about the people in the saddle — and, in the absence of a clear cultural consensus, he can only assume people are judging him for riding his e-bike, even if he’s not exactly sure what verdict they’ve come to. He writes:

Vehicles have symbolic value, like it or not. Cars denote freedom; commuter bikes imply, for better or worse, jerkitude or tweeness; motorcycles are cool; e-scooters are for douchebros. But e-bikes bear no clear character. They fall between the cracks. Even when I willingly tell people, “Oh, I got an e-bike,” I’m not sure if I’m bragging or revealing shame. Mmm, wow,” they respond, before changing the subject to something more interesting, such as the weather.

As an occasional e-biker myself, I can say that, at least personally, I do not share this experience, and people regularly stop me on the street when I ride to enthusiastically ask where they can buy a bike like mine.

But more to the point, as the director of the film and media program at Washington University in St. Louis (full disclosure, I attended graduate school there; go Bears), one would think Bogost would be a little more curious about where the “symbolic values” of these transportation modes came from — not to mention whether they’re harmful or worth promulgating.

The fact of the matter is, the image of the car as the machine of “freedom” that the author implies is universal didn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s been aggressively cultivated by automakers for more than a century, through a combination of lobbying and notoriously toxic advertising campaigns upon which the industry spent $35.5 billion in 2018 alone.

Sustaining that narrative costs automakers so dearly because very little about America’s automobile-dominated transportation system gives anyone a greater measure of liberty, at least if you don’t narrowly define “liberty” as “the freedom to drive.” In an auto-dominated transportation system, Americans do not enjoy the freedom to move without being subject to the constant threat of violent death in car crashes that killed 43,000 people last year alone; the freedom to breathe air free of automotive pollutants that drive the death toll up even further; or, particularly for people of color, the freedom to exist in public space without being persecuted for a universe of shallow pretexts created loosely in tandem with the rise of the car.

Of course, the “symbolic value” of the bike — at least the one that Bogost subscribes to — is the deliberate creation of car culture, too.

Two-wheeled transportation has been cast not just as the purview of the “twee,” the “jerks,” or the “pathetic losers,” but, variously, of the middle-aged man in Lycra and the snot-nosed kid, the gentrifying hipster and the lazy poor person, the scofflaw stoplight runner and the insufferable nerd who’s holding up traffic and deserves to be mowed down by motorists with important places to be. And to be fair, even among bike advocates, cycling can too easily be stereotyped as a silver-bullet solution to some of society’s most enduring problems; it’s what Dr. Melody Hoffman calls a “rolling signifier” that can easily morph into or a scapegoat, or a superhero, or something else entirely, depending on who’s looking and what their agenda is.

What Bogost misses in his fretting about the e-bike’s lack of a “symbolic value” compared to other modes is that he’s using a measuring stick that’s made out of rubber — and to the extent that it has any markings on it at all, even those units are deeply problematic.

When the essay notes, for instance, that an “e-bike sure seems like a way to cheat at exercise” and that it captures “all the downsides of biking…without the satisfaction of persisting in the face of adversity,” he implies that e-biking is less valuable for its decreased health benefits compared to bikes without pedal assist — but only the kind of blood-pumping, muscle-clenching definition of “health” that, presumably, is most relevant to him. By underselling the massive benefits of the mode for huge swaths of people with disabilities (give or take a brief acknowledgment that it “may indeed” be a boon to folks with “certain mobility issues”) he erases the psychological, emotional, and social health impacts not just of e-biking itself to the individual rider, but how our entire society can benefit when we shift the balance of our fleet away from cars.

When Bogost bemoans that conventional bike paths “don’t quite scale to the new swiftness of e-bikes,” he doesn’t mention that those paths could be bigger or more numerous — especially in our shared home of St. Louis, which has almost none of them — or that the roads adjacent to them could be designed for slower driving speeds, to safely accommodate whatever chimeric e-cycling inventions we come up with next.

And when he whines that his e-bike battery “whines at [him] when it engages” without even affording him the delicious sense of “power” signaled by a motorcycle exhaust pipe, he ignores the well-publicized planetary costs of that sonic thrill.

Ultimately, my beef is not with Ian Bogost’s article, or with anyone’s ontological discomfort with e-bikes or how they might be perceived for riding one. I don’t know him personally, but I do know that people who fear being bullied often preemptively become bullies themselves, often without even realizing they’re doing it. If he ever wants to go for a group ride in St. Louis with nice people who will definitely not judge him for his mode choice — and if he wants, maybe give him some friendly tips on how to make e-biking more comfortable — I honestly hope he reaches out.

What I do reject, though, is the idea that modes that don’t fit neatly into the ever-shifting boxes that car culture creates for them are doomed to fail, or at least to confuse the public. Because the real monstrosity isn’t the e-bike: its a transportation culture that treats the car as a do-anything machine, and leaves everyone else in the “weird smear” not just between intellectualized absolutes, but on the literal pavement.

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