States may look to leaders in regulating electric bicycles

By Brian Lutenegger

Electric bicycles (e-bikes) are becoming more popular as more options become available. So far, ten states have updated their laws to reflect this trend and accommodate the technology. An additional 20 states have defined e-bikes but have not fully defined their operation under law. The remaining states have no e-bike laws at all. So far, the technology and its adoption have been outpacing legislation. It is now up to states and localities to determine how to best regulate them. Examples from Utah and especially California offer best practices for other states to emulate.

E-bikes are expanding in popularity. Between 2014 and 2017, sales tripled, resulting in a $64.9 million industry as of October 2017.  It is clear that this technology is changing how bicycles are defined, and states will need to update their laws and regulations to meet this new demand.

One challenge is that there is more than one type of e-bike; in fact, there are three:

  • Class 1 (Pedal Assist / Pedelec) is the most common and has a motor that assists the rider as they pedal. In the U.S. these generally have a top speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 2 (Throttle) has a throttle like a motorcycle or scooter that doesn’t require pedaling.
  • Class 3 (Speed Pedelec) e-bikes are similar to Class 1, but they have a higher top speed of up to 28 mph and may require the rider to be licensed in many areas.

While every state regulates motorized devices, the existing language does not always explicitly apply to e-bikes. For example, they may reference gasoline-powered motors and ignore the electric rechargeable motors these bikes use. In New York City, e-bikes are classified as motorized scooters, which are not street legal. They are often used by food delivery workers who may receive a steep fine. Legislation is in the works to legalize e-bikes in New York City. Other places may classify e-bikes as motorcycles, which can travel at a far higher speed than the fastest e-bike. Thus, existing laws have not kept up with this technology.

A Utah law that took effect in 2016 divided electric bikes into classes similar to the above, making them subject to traffic laws governing regular bicycles and prohibiting those under 16 from operating Class 3 e-bikes. Utah later passed a bill banning open alcohol containers from e-bikes while in operation.

California’s e-bike law, passed in 2015 (AB 1096), clearly defines requirements for each of the classes of e-bikes described above. Most critically, it regulates e-bikes like bicycles and not mopeds, ensuring that both e-bikes and non-electric bicycles follow the same traffic laws. It also exempts e-bikes from the registration, licensing, and insurance requirements that apply to motor vehicles. The legislation also defines that most e-bikes may legally operate using existing bicycle infrastructure, prohibiting only Class 3 e-bikes from bike paths and protected lanes on roadways. The California legislation offers a set of best practices for regulating e-bikes that other states may want to emulate.

The regulation of e-bikes is not without its challenges. It may not be immediately clear, other than observing top speed or whether the operator is pedaling, which class an e-bike belongs to, and therefore which regulations apply. Further, an e-bike does not necessarily travel faster than a non-electric bicycle in all situations.

It is clear that e-bikes are coming and it is clear that they will be popular. As use of this technology becomes more widespread, states and localities must catch up the definitions and regulations that apply to their usage to ensure public safety.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.