Hardly any other vehicle is more capable of having a positive effect on the turnabout in traffic policy than the speed-pedelec. Yet, while the sales figures in Germany are stagnating at a low level, one in seven e-bikes in Switzerland is now one of these faster models. One reason for this is that the fast e-bikes are allowed to use cycle tracks – but the solution is by no means as easy as it might appear.

In November 2019, the first cycle track in Germany on which S-pedelecs are permitted opened in Tübingen. The additional sign “S-Pedelec frei”, allowing the use S-pedelecs, was set up in agreement with the state government of Baden-Württemberg. The ruling is tolerated but not official. At the beginning, the approval referred to a tunnel for pedestrians and cyclists, where the speed is limited to 30 km/h. According to the city authorities, this was necessary because of the large volume of traffic and the high frequency of pedestrians crossing. Plans exist for an approximately 50-kilometre network of routes for S-pedelecs crossing the city. Is this a solution for the whole of Germany? A survey in the trade magazine SAZbike shows that 79 per cent of bike manufacturers and 41 of cycle retailers are in favour of Tübingen’s approach.

“It is above all the legal framework that is preventing the spread of S-pedelecs in Germany. Until issues such as the use of cycle tracks by the fast e-bikes and questions concerning the compulsory wearing of helmets have been resolved, the S-pedelec will not be able to establish itself”, says Anja Knaus, press spokesperson for the e-bike pioneer Flyer. In Switzerland the legislation is friendlier, and use of cycle tracks is allowed. This is why a lot of commuters use the fast electric bikes. Another example is Belgium. Here S-pedelecs are not classified as mopeds, but instead a separate category of vehicles has been created – a unique development within the EU. In urban areas, S-pedelec riders are free to decide for themselves whether they ride on the cycle track or road, while outside of towns they have to use the cycle track. There are also tax incentives, and sales figures are rising steadily as a result.

In the person of Markus Riese, Managing Director and developer with the E-bike supplier Riese & Müller, the S-pedelec has a strong supporter. Riese sees the current restriction on usage as a barrier that is promoting car traffic. Even on short journeys, commuters would rather have a second car for the journey than ride an S-pedelec. “S-pedelecs would make it possible to shift much more car traffic over to the bicycle, which would then trigger a real snowball effect”, states Riese confidently. A conceivable option from one viewpoint would be speed limits for S-pedelecs, as practised in Tübingen, as well as harmonisation of the controlled speed within urban areas. One problem here is that the S-pedelec is being squeezed into an existing regulatory corset of vehicle categories, without considering the precise requirements. This is why an experiment is currently underway at European level involving LEVA EU to draw up a type classification procedure for S-pedelecs with its own regulations.

“Safety in traffic is also a matter of consideration and tolerance. Those who ride an S-pedelec responsibly adjust their speed to match the conditions."

In Switzerland, however, the discussion is taking a turn in precisely the opposite direction. Local politicians there are talking about the problems that the sharp increase in S-pedelecs is posing for urban traffic. The great differences in speed between cyclists and pedestrians in some cases is reportedly increasing the risk of accidents. Use of cycle tracks by S-pedelecs is to be prohibited or restricted. “Safety in traffic is also a matter of consideration and tolerance. Those who ride an S-pedelec responsibly adjust their speed to match the conditions”, Knaus points out.

Although the bikes can provide support up to 45 km/h, riders generally travel more slowly in many situations. Added to this is the fact that the motor is only permitted to add four times the power produced by the rider’s legs. Consequently, on uphill stretches support from the motor may even be rather low, which suddenly makes the S-pedelec rider slow. Outside of urban areas, a ban on using cycle tracks is therefore pointless – a view shared by the German Cyclist’s Association (ADFC). On the other hand, the association points out that road racing cyclists have long been demanding an exemption from the obligation to use cycle tracks because the differences in speed to other cyclists lead to hazardous situations. In fact, the discussion is only just beginning.