When I first learned that police in Germany were stopping VanMoof bikes and taking them off the road if the maximum supported speed had the ability to exceed 25km/h, I found it quite ironic. After all, this was the same country where I used to go as a young man to drive 260km/h on the Autobahn and get a thumbs up from the very same police. So I started digging deep into the regulations and history of e-bikes. A few important questions kept coming to mind. Why has progress been so limited? Why are we stifling rather than encouraging an exciting transportation breakthrough? Why are we putting the brakes on one of the world's fastest-growing markets? At VanMoof we feel so strongly about this because we want to get the next billion on bikes by making bike commuting as accessible as possible. One of the ways to do that is to reassess current EU regulations which class all light electric vehicles capable of going faster than 25km/hr as mopeds. For hundreds of millions of people the current assistance limit of 25km/hr is a big restriction and makes cars seem much more attractive. This in turn perpetuates congested urban spaces and polluted city air. But let’s rewind.
Tech outpaces regulations
The reason I’m writing about this is that over the past months we’ve had a number of cases in Germany of our riders being stopped by police for simply having the ability to exceed the 25km/h limit EU default setting by switching to the US country setting in our app (the USA allows assisted support up to 32km/h for all Class 1 e-bikes). We are making a change on November 17 to avoid any discussion on adherence to these laws. But I want to share here the reason we think the laws need to be modernized. The current EU rules date back to the 1990s and were established with limited rationale. Officials relied on what they knew – the moped. This makes little sense as the mass and velocity of an e-bike is significantly lower than a moped. But back then not many people had ever ridden an electric bike. If you spotted one it was most likely in and around small towns in the Netherlands where myself and my brother grew up. The bikes themselves were clunky and the technology rudimentary. A heavy battery pack retrofitted onto the back of an even heavier modified bike. At the time they were used mostly by elderly people as an assistive mobility device. We have come a long way since then. E-bikes have evolved and are mainstreaming as a high tech, mass appeal mobility option, especially for those living in cities with a commute problem to solve.
Car’s unchallenged urban supremacy
Back then, cars dominated our cities – just as they do now. They continue to be prioritized over every other mobility model, despite car use and ownership in cities trending down. Cars take up too much space and are gridlocked 95% of the time, yet most major global cities are still undeniably car-centric. When cars take up so much of our public space it makes cities far less liveable. It also makes them far less breathable. Toxic air in many of the world’s top cities has forced authorities to introduce congestion charges and license plate lotteries. Even switching just a fraction of car users to e-bikes will help tackle some of these huge contemporary challenges. For a brief moment earlier this year we were able to see urban landscapes free of traffic. That’s what our future cities can look like if we all drive fewer cars. But getting people out of cars and onto bikes means being able to offer a real alternative. Lower average speed is already seen as a limitation by many people when considering that change. A 25km/h limit means it is harder for e-bikes to compete with cars, especially for those with commutes of more than 10km. And these are the areas where e-bikes can make the biggest impact on quality of life.
We should not settle for less
Let’s keep focused on the big picture. We believe that smart decisions by those in power can nudge many more people to discover the joy of commuting by bike. The transformational potential of e-bikes, combined with less cars on the road, will make cities cleaner and more vibrant. One in three people who switch do so because of how they shrink cities, the savings on travel time and the more predictable commutes. Outdated regulations make it easier for people to choose a car for shorter commutes. This only preserves the status quo, limits overall adoption, holds back progress in cities, and puts pressure on already overcrowded public transport. We believe our riders – and all riders – deserve a smarter, cleaner future and a more diverse mobility mix, with laws that reflect that diversity and unleash that potential.