They’re fast. Pedestrians are furious: ‘fat’ ebikes divide Australian beach suburbs | Electric vehicles

If you frequent coastal towns or suburbs around Australia, you might be familiar with the sight of large, speedy ebikes zooming along the footpath. Fat bikes, as they’re commonly known, have been described as the monster trucks of the cycling world. With wide, thick tyres and seats big enough for two, the electric bicycles are designed to handle sand and off-road terrain.

But they have also garnered a cult status among young people, who are using them to get around with friends, take their surfboard to the beach and commute to school.

The bikes are popular among teenagers aged 14 to 19, with the bestselling model retailing for $2,770. Their uptake has benefits – taking cars off the road, giving young people freedom and time outdoors – but there are concerns over safety for both riders and pedestrians.

Harold Scruby, the chief executive of the Pedestrian Council, points to a lack of regulation and the illegal modification of fat bikes beyond the parameters of a bicycle, which essentially makes it like “riding a motorbike on a footpath”.

He believes the “technology is going to outstrip the infrastructure and the legislation and the ability to enforce by light years”.

“And now it’s happening and suddenly because police and governments haven’t been enforcing it, and they haven’t been ready with the right regulation and enforcement regime, it’s literally out of control,” Scruby said.

The mayor of Sydney’s Northern Beaches council, Sue Heins, said the speeding in particular was an “accident waiting to happen” and that it is “a matter of time” before a pedestrian is hit by a fat bike and killed.

In fact, there have been incidents already. A three year old was left with a broken leg after being hit by a teenager on a fat bike in Sydney’s south in April.

The Northern Beaches council has this week launched an education blitz on the use of ebikes on public roads and pathways. In New South Wales, anyone under 16 can legally ride bikes on the footpath but the council has received more than 80 complaints about speeding, near misses and injury – which the mayor suspects is “only the tip of the iceberg”.

Manly Bikes owner Francisco Furman on a fat bike. He says he has refused to sell the ebikes to the parents of children as young as eight. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

“[The speed is] obviously frightening people as they were walking along,” Heins said, as well as the “element of surprise” because the ebikes are “so silent and quiet”.

“It’s just a great way to get out and about and, of course, we’re happy that there are less cars on the road [but children’s] lack of understanding of basic road rules, or that element of surprise and unpredictability around people, was one of the issues we decided we really needed to address.”

The mayor of Sutherland shire in Sydney’s south, Carmelo Pesce, described a similar situation in Cronulla, with teenagers riding fat bikes through the mall and along The Esplanade, and the council receiving “numerous, numerous complaints” regarding speed.

“I’ve witnessed it myself. I’ve seen kids travelling up one-way streets the wrong way with no helmets, doubling two people, and they’re travelling at a speed of 40km/h,” he said.

NSW police said they have been working since last May to educate young people on the risks and have issued 244 cautions. A spokesperson said that “in some cases, police took riders home and spoke with their parents”.

The owner of Manly Bikes, Francisco Furman, said he has had to turn young people away on numerous occasions who have asked for illegal modifications. He has also refused to sell fat bikes to the parents of children as young as eight years old.

“I saw the kid jumping on the bike and she couldn’t even touch the floor,” he said.

Furman believes education is key to tackling the issue of electric bikes on footpaths. He suggested schools could play a role in checking that bikes have not been modified and ensuring helmet use, or that police could give safety talks to students.

He also said parents should be educated about the potential risks to ensure their children are complying with the law.

The rules and regulations on the use of ebikes differ between states and territories, but there is a common thread: ebikes must be pedal-powered primarily and cannot have more than 200W of power or up to 250W if the ebike is a pedelec – meaning the motor will cut out once the speed hits 25km/h and it needs to be pedalled rather than using a throttle. In NSW, however, a pedelec can have up to 500W of power.

There are concerns the fast ebikes are being ridden on footpaths by children without any kind of licence. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Anything modified above these parameters would be considered a motorbike, with riders needing a licence. But because the main cohort using these bikes is children, it opens up “all kinds of issues” when it comes to regulation, Heins said.

“It means that even if someone is hit by a bike, can they claim personal injury insurance?” she said. “There’s a whole black hole here where yet again, innovation has moved at such a speech that legislation and regulation hasn’t kept up with it.”

Some states have unique laws. In Western Australia you must be at least 16 to ride an ebike with the motor engaged, and in Victoria, only children 13 and under can ride their bike on the footpath.

The issue seems to be less common outside NSW. Northern Territory police have never issued an infringement for ebikes or escooters and the Tasmanian Department of State Growth said there were only two instances of an ebike being involved in a crash with a pedestrian in the past 10 years.

Scruby from the Pedestrian Council wants a major review, including tougher penalties and a national regulatory approach.

“Anyone riding a NSW-approved pedelec – 500W – crossing the state line, like Albury to Wodonga, will automatically be riding an unregistered, uninsured motorbike. And the repercussions of that, if they hit someone, would be like riding a motorbike on a footpath and hitting someone and causing grievous bodily harm,” he said. “It’s a jailable offence.”

The chief executive of Bicycle NSW, Peter McLean, said there was no single solution and that it is “less to do with what you’re riding and more about how you’re riding”.

“It’s about the regulation at a federal government level – little bit at the state. It’s about the educational awareness, it’s about the infrastructure, it’s about the common sense as well,” he said. “I hate to not have the silver bullet, but there really is a dozen different answers to this complicated problem.”

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