Are Silent E-bikes and E-scooters a Cause for Concern for People with Hearing Loss?

By Sheila C. Serup

With the soaring fuel costs and expansion of multi-use pathways in most Canadian cities, electric bicycles and scooters are becoming popular as accessible transportation. The growth of e-bikes and e-scooters is accelerating, and likewise concerns for personal safety are increasing.

This summer, I experienced two very close calls with e-bikes. The first as a hiker when I did not hear the approach of a mountain bike, despite checking behind myself frequently. The rider was genuinely apologetic after we chatted about it. During the second incident, I was bicycling and preparing to turn left into a parking lot. I checked my blind spot on my left, and as I began the turn, an e-cyclist accelerated and shot past me. Others with me had not heard them either.

Through this article, I hope to open the conversation with you, and see how Canadians with hearing loss can enjoy the outdoors, whether walking or cycling.

Users are attracted to e-bikes and e-scooters for many reasons, including the fact that they are battery-powered and therefore mostly quiet. E-bikes can speed quickly and take riders up steep hills and cover great distances without requiring much effort. With this, they are a practical vehicle for commuting in traffic-congested cities where there are bike lanes. As well they provide riders with mobility challenges the freedom to explore parks, pathways and back country trails where permitted.

As they are so silent and accelerate quickly, pedestrians and cyclists can be fatally unaware of the approach of e-bikes. In China, they have been called the “Silent Killers” because many times a pedestrian will walk in front of an electric bike without hearing it.

Often, a pedal cyclist is not expected to be passed while travelling at high speed and does not hear the motor driven bicycle behind. An unexpected maneuver by a pedal cyclist such as dodging a squirrel or avoiding a bump on the bike path can result in a serious collision with an e-bike travelling at higher speeds and unable to react.

Is the lack of noise from e-bikes and e-scooters a safety concern for people with hearing and with hearing loss?

Different types of e-Bikes and e-Scooters

There is a wide variety of e-bikes and e-scooters on local trails and paths. E-bikes are electric or power-assisted bicycles that generally do not exceed 500 watts in output or 32 km/h in speed (speed limits vary from region to region.) E-scooters are under 500 watts in output and generally do not exceed 20 mph. Mobility aids can vary in design and function and may be ridden on pedestrian routes such as sidewalks.

Regulation Falls to Provinces, Territories and Municipalities in Canada

E-bikes and e-scooters are posed to become the future of two-wheeled traffic. As vehicles are not federally regulated, provinces and territories and local municipalities can create laws and guidelines for the use of e-bikes and e-scooters. The requirement for e-bikes and e-scooters to have bells and horns varies across the country. Safety programs also vary. In Canada, the use of e-bikes and e-scooters generally do not require an operator license, registration, or insurance.

Internationally, other countries such as Northern Ireland require riders to have a moped license, registration, be taxed and have insurance. In Holland, up to a third of bicycles are now battery powered.

E-bikes are accepted for use in 10 provinces, and most provinces do not require a license, plates or insurance to own or operate. The following is a sampling of some of the different guidelines for the use of e-bikes and e-scooters from coast to coast in Canada.

  • Vancouver allows electric-assisted bikes and electric kick scooters on protected bike lanes.
  • Calgary permits e-bikes (pedal assist) on bike lanes and shared pathways. Shared e-scooters are permitted on sidewalks and bike lanes. Calgary requires e-bikes and e-scooters to be equipped with a bell or a horn. It encourages safe passing when cycling or riding a scooter when approaching others from behind by using your voice to say “passing on the left” or using a bell. Behaviors such as riding in the wrong lane, failing to follow the rules of the road, failing to yield before entering a roadway, sidewalk or pathway can result in fines. Additionally, e-cyclists can be fined for interfering with pedestrians or riding on the sidewalk where they are prohibited.
  • Edmonton ensures that shared e-bikes and e-scooters (Shared Services) will be equipped with working bells or horns to alert pedestrians before they are overtaken.
  • Toronto requires e-bikes to have a bell or horn.Pedelecs,” or pedal-assisted e-bikes which require pedaling for propulsion are treated as bicycles in the municipal code, and only if they weigh less than 40-kilograms. Likewise, pedal-assisted cargo bikes are also considered bicycles. In Toronto, standing electric kick-scooters are not permitted in bike lanes, sidewalks, or multi-use trails or paths.

The rules vary in each municipality. These are commonly posted on their websites, and guidelines specifically outline which e-bikes and e-scooters are permitted on certain types of pathways.  Please check the website of your municipality for more information.

There is very little information about how pedestrians, cyclists and recreation users with hearing loss or vision loss can protect themselves when enjoying shared trails and pathways.

Be Aware and Be Safe

Parks and recreation facilities are intended to be enjoyed by all Canadians. For pedestrians and bicyclists with hearing loss, it becomes important, more than ever, to be aware and practice personal safety tips when using shared paths, sidewalks and bike lanes.

Pedestrians: Walk on the sidewalk or path. If a shared pathway has a centre line, walk on the left side facing oncoming bicycle traffic.

Cycling: Ride single file and stay as far right as possible to allow others to safely pass. When using a crosswalk, be alert to traffic from e-bikes and e-scooters.

Pedestrians or cyclists wearing headphones should keep the volume low to hear others around you.

Please share your thoughts

Is the lack of noise from e-bikes and e-scooters a safety concern for people with hearing and with hearing loss?  How can municipalities, provinces and territories create awareness and public education programs to include Canadians with invisible disabilities such as hearing and vision loss?

Please share your experiences and thoughts with me at sserup@chha.ca   I would love to hear from you as there may be opportunities for local or provincial advocacy over the winter to improve safety on the trails and sidewalks next summer. Thank you.