Electric bikes give cops an edge

September 27, 2000

Heather Heilman

If only we'd had this when we were kids. Remember when you were 10 years old and it was the hottest day of the summer and you were trying to get your 10-speed up the biggest hill in the neighborhood? Sure, if you grew up in New Orleans, the hill probably wasn't much, but the heat was pretty serious and you were worn out.

What if you could have squeezed a little yellow lever that would have sent your bike cruising up the hill at 25 miles an hour or more, without even having to peddle? It would have been really cool. But the electric bike ridden by Tulane Department of Public Safety's Lt. Stanley Cosper Sr. is more than just a fun ride. It's a tool that can allow police officers or emergency medical technicians on bikes to get to the scene of an emergency quickly, quietly and with plenty of energy.

Cosper, who also serves as president of the Louisiana Police Mountain Bike Association, has secured a second electric bike for department use and hopes to see Tulane police and emergency management personnel on the bikes soon.

"It's an excellent tool for law enforcement," said Cosper, who fell in love with the bikes three years ago at a convention in Chicago. "It's fast, it's quiet, it gives you an edge."

Bicycles are useful for police because, unlike patrol cars, they can go just about anywhere. Traffic snarls, crowds of pedestrians and narrow alleys are no obstacle. Police officers even ride their bikes up and down stairs. And in the aftermath of a hurricane, with debris in the streets and gasoline at a premium, bicycles may be the only way to go.

The only serious drawbacks are their limited speed and the amount of energy it takes to propel them. Electric bikes solve those problems neatly. Police in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Salt Lake City are already sold on them. They look like normal mountain bikes, and that's how they function most of the time. Riders use pedal power alone to get around, until they need to get across campus quickly or chase a bicycle thief. When they squeeze a little yellow lever on the handlebar, the bike speeds up on its own.

The rider doesn't have to peddle to keep it going, but if the bike is placed in high gear, the rider can continue to peddle and increase the speed even more. The motor, which electrically propels the rear wheel, is nearly silent. It's also environmentally friendly. Developed as an alternative to gas engines, the motor is manufactured by a company called ZAP (for Zero Air Pollution).

The motor produces no exhaust, but instead operates on batteries that can be recharged in any wall outlet. If you were to operate the motor continuously (which is not the way it's meant to be used) it would last between two and three hours. While new bikes already equipped with the motor are available, a motor can also be added to almost any bike that doesn't have rear shock absorbers.

For Cosper, the fact that the bikes are good for the environment is just a nice side benefit to their usefulness as a public safety device. Besides being helpful to police, he believes the bikes are the natural choice for Tulane Emergency Medical Service.

"The more mobile they are, the faster they can get to a scene," he said. "A couple of seconds can make a difference."

But Tulane EMTs are often away from the ambulance unit. If they each had an electric bike, they would always be ready to go. The EMT bikes would be equipped with basic medical equipment, possibly including defibrillators. On top of their speed and efficiency, the bikes are a real kick to ride. After dealing with endless parking complaints, maybe Tulane police could use a little fun at work. "If it makes the job more enjoyable, that's all right with me," Cosper said.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000