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E-Bikes an Essential Part of Nashville’s Mobility Future

Bicycle and transportation researchers in Nashville, Tenn., are pointing to the growing phenomenon of electric bikes as the Music City develops its multimodal approach to transportation.

B-Cycle bike rental rack in Centennial Park, Nashville
B-Cycle bike rental rack in Centennial Park, Nashville.
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The electric bike has become a crowd-pleaser among not only cyclists but also mobility and urban planning advocates who see it as a catalyst for building more bike infrastructure and addressing issues like traffic congestion.

Count the city of Nashville, Tenn., as one of many local areas that consider e-bikes a critical part of their transportation future.

“It’s taking bicycling out of this very niche, you might say, group of riders that are either Sunday riders or ... hard-core commuters, and expanding it a lot more across the board,” said Chris Cherry, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, during a March 9 panel organized by bicycle advocates.

The e-bike market has been booming, both before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The value of the e-bike retail market has tripled over the last three years, growing from $236 million in 2019 to $770 million in 2021, said Ash Lovell, electric bicycle policy and campaign director at PeopleForBikes, a national bike advocacy organization that works with federal, state and local officials.

Most notably, bike-share operations have been quick to transition fleets to electric amid falling prices for the bikes and the lithium-ion batteries that power them. In 2021, BCycle, a Nashville-based bike-share operation, transitioned its fleet to electric. At the same time, transit operations are teaming up with e-scooter and bike-share businesses. WeGo, the public transit system in the Nashville metro, recently announced a partnership with Bird scooters to share data to learn more about transit gaps.

“The thing that I’m most excited about when I think about how e-bikes can make Nashville a better city is the potential for bike-share … and shared mobility devices,” said Lindsey Ganson, director of advocacy and communications at Walk Bike Nashville, during the panel. “I think there’s a huge opportunity in Nashville for those first-mile, last-mile connections.”

In July 2021, Nashville introduced its new Department of Transportation and Multimodal Infrastructure (NDOT) as the city began implementing the Metro Nashville Transportation Plan. With an operating budget of more than $120 million and 42 additional staff, NDOT is set to become a fully multimodal department that puts safety and equity at the forefront, say officials.

“Nashville’s success as a city is reliant on a smart, future-oriented and performance-oriented department of transportation,” said former NDOT Interim Director Faye DiMassimo in a statement.

As Nashville plans for the future of transportation, e-bikes can help inform the placement of transit stations and mobility hubs and the planning and design of bike paths and other infrastructure, said Ganson.

“We have a lot of opportunity to integrate a bike-share fleet with our transit system and really expand our ability to move around the city,” Ganson said.

At a time when the United States is poised to greatly expand transportation infrastructure, the emergence of e-bikes is initiating conversations around bicycle infrastructure and urging policymakers to think more seriously about not only conventional bikes — which Nashville bike advocates playfully refer to as “acoustic bikes” — but also vehicles like electric-powered cargo-delivery bikes.

About two-thirds of the population “would love to ride a bike if many of the barriers that are in front of them are taken away,” said Cherry, adding that some complaints from commuters center on the distance being too far or the terrain being too severe. Safety and infrastructure are other issues that can keep people off bikes.

“I think the common goal here is that we see that there are definite benefits to getting people on bikes, and on e-bikes, across the board,” he added. “We want to try to knock down those barriers. And some of those barriers get knocked down by an e-bike.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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