E-BIKES ARE COMING: Improving Our Dangerously Incoherent Policies

Look down the street.  It’s not just cars, trucks, buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  There is a whole spectrum of new two and three wheeled things on the roll – stand-up scooters, in-line skates, skate boards both manual and motorized, Segways, “personal assistant mobility devices”, electric-assist pedal bikes, motorized cargo bikes and pedicabs, mopeds, mini-motorcycles, “smart wheels” that fit onto regular bikes, exploding hoverboards, and other things joining the motor scooters and motorcycles already there.  And next year there will be even more as several industry sectors – bicycle, moped, and scooter manufacturers in particular – gear up to serve the growing market of bike-interested but less-physically fit adults and aging boomers.  In fact, the vehicles are a positive addition to our transportation mix – we all benefit when more people use small, personalized, pollution-free methods of getting around.  In addition, in dense urban areas, e-bikes can serve as delivery vehicles, reducing the need for pollution- and congestion-causing larger cars or trucks – as is happening in places like New York City. The category is already hot in most of the world and business forecasters say it’s about to take off in the US as well.  Building on the revived legitimacy and popularity of bicycles, these new machines use less fuel than cars, let riders avoid traffic jams, are relatively cheap, and are fun to use.

But there are questions. The machines aren’t cars, and the riders don’t always feel comfortable in the midst of traffic.  So should they be allowed to ride in bike lanes – or on sidewalks? What about cycle tracks and off-road mountain bike trails?  Where should they be able to park – on the sidewalk, in a bike rack?  How fast should they be allowed to go?  Should riders – under age 17 or perhaps of any age – be required to wear helmets?  At what point, in terms of potential speed or size, should front and/or back lights – and maybe a rear stop light -- be necessary?  Are any of them vehicular enough that riders should have to be licensed, or that the machine should be registered and the public protected by mandatory liability insurance?  Should any type of machine be prohibited?

CURRENT LAW

Current law in Massachusetts, as in most other states, is a hodge-podge of illogical, contradictory and even nonsensical regulations and overlapping definitions.  We’ve got “motorized scooters” and “motor scooters”, “limited use vehicles” and “mopeds”, “motorized bicycles” and motorcycles.  Drivers of “motorized scooters” have to have a driver’s license but can only be on the road during daylight hours; their machines can’t go above 20 mph, have to have visible stop and turn signals, but are confined to the far right of a road and can’t “take the lane” even when overtaking.  Mopeds can go out at night even if they don’t have lights, but they have to have an automatic transmission and can’t go above 25mph.  If you can go faster than 40mph, you’re considered a motorcycle even if you are a motor scooter.  (See Chapter 90, section 1 of the General Laws for current laws.)

On the federal level, the only current federal definition of e-bike is the single-class definition from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (two- or three-wheeled, fully operable pedals, electric motor of less than 750 watts or 1 h.p.), which technically applies only to the manufacture and first sale of an e-bike, not its use and operation. (US Code 2011, Title 15 -Commerce and Trade, Chapter 47, Section 2085).

Because there is so much profit waiting to be made, business groups have begun pushing for the passage of new laws that create space for their products, even if it doesn’t clean up the rest of the mess.  California has, as usual, led the way.  The key move is to create a three-tier hierarchy of e-bike “classes”.  Class I is electric pedal assist: either by default or when intentionally turned on an electric motor augments a turning pedal until the bike reaches 20mph.  Class II allows the electric motor to move the bike without pedaling, again up to 20mph.  Class III allows electric pedal assist up to 28mph.  California riders of all three classes don’t need driver’s licenses and their vehicles don’t need to be registered or insured – a major facilitator of sales.  Class I and II can use any bicycle facility, on-road or off. Class III can use anything but a “Class I bike path” – essentially a fully separated bike lane or path.  Riders age 17 or under have to wear helmets (as is true for regular bicycles) as do all riders of Class III machines who also must be at least 16 years old. 

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

These new categories and rules have the great virtue of simplicity.  And promoting the use of e-bikes as well as appropriate other small vehicles provides numerous social and personal benefits.  The problem is that these rules were designed by business groups with the primary goal of being able to sell as many products as possible by putting as few restrictions as possible on either purchasers or uses. As proposed and now getting passed, these new laws are at best inadequate and at worst dangerous.

The distinction between Class I and II are business categories without current significance for regulatory purposes – the irrelevance of their differing power sources is shown by the fact they have the same speed, usage, and regulatory limits.  E-bikes of all three classes are visually almost identical, making it very hard to enforce the “bike path” exclusion of Class III.  In fact, should any of these machines be allowed on bike lanes and cycle tracks?  Some people feel that low-speed, pedal-assist bikes should be simply treated as bicycles.  On the other hand, mountain bike advocates feel that no motorized bike of any kind should be allowed on non-smooth-surface off-road (mountain bike and hiking) trails at all – it’s simply too dangerous and violates the most basic norms of the sport.

David Watson, former Executive Director of MassBike and now consulting via WatsonActive, points out, “There is an inequity issue embedded in the California registration system: because police cannot tell what type of e-bike you have (or if it even is an e-bike) without stopping the bicyclist, this regulatory framework effectively creates a pretext for police to stop anyone on a bike. Such pretextual stops (in general, not bike-specific) have historically disproportionately affected people of color. This may not be a major issue until the price of e-bikes comes down and it becomes a real option for lower income people who need motorized transportation, but that time is coming.”

In fact, it will not be difficult for anyone with a bit of expertise to over-ride or thwart the speed limit controls of any of these machines, allowing them to go much faster while still appearing to be the same machine.  (It is even easier to modify fossil-fuel motors whose speed limits are often based solely on restriction of fuel flow.) And there is no easy way for police or anyone else to visibly see a difference between the legal and altered versions. 

Do we want these faster vehicles in bike lanes, cycles tracks, and off-road paths?  The Dutch Cyclists Union has been pushing to get bikes over 30 kph (about 25 mph) off their cycle tracks and into the general travel lanes.  The Dutch position seems to imply that some bike facilities should have their own speed limits, with faster riders (both manual and motor powered) who can be assumed to be more skilled moved to the regular road.

MOUNTAIN BIKE DILEMMA

Watson, a mountain-bike enthusiast, points out, “Mountain bike advocacy is built on the principle of non-motorized use. The Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) currently prohibits motorized use on most of its trails statewide (302 CMR, Definitions and Sections 12.12 and 12.14), and the New England Mountain Bike Association supports that. The California law effectively makes it legal to ride e-bikes everywhere bicycles can be used, including natural surface trails, and gives regulators the ability to opt-out. While mountain bike advocates generally prefer an ‘open unless marked closed’ approach, for e-bikes at least some advocates want a ‘closed unless marked open’ approach. There is significant disagreement among mountain bike advocates nationally.”

It’s good that the passage of regulations similar to the new California laws will help promote the use of electric machines rather than fossil-fuel ones with their noise, pollution, and (typically) greater power/speed.  But their presence should not be ignored and these reforms don’t help anyone deal with the multitude of other two and three-wheeled devices, both electric and fossil-fuel-powered, that are also appearing on our streets in growing numbers.

While electric vehicles are inherently less environmentally destructive than fossil-fuel machines in terms of their air, water, and noise pollution (assuming less environmentally destructive methods of original electricity generation and non-toxic battery technologies), they are still machines requiring resources to create and having physical bulk.  It is a mistake not to address the manufacturing and recycling issues raised by the entire spectrum of bicycle-like machines – fossil fuel, electric, and manual.  

ANOTHER APPROACH

The national Transportation Research Board’s Subcommittee on Emerging Vehicles has been discussing these rapidly evolving technologies and issues for several years.  It is likely that they will have useful insights to share.  But in the meantime, as California’s actions prompt cities and states to begin their own efforts to deal with the problems, it should be possible to devise a simple set of categories and appropriate regulations that deal with the full range of current and probable future vehicles – self-driving bicycles excepted.  In fact, it is not clear that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and local police have legal authority to regulate many of these machines without statutory clarification through new laws.

A healthy bicycle dealer business climate is highly desirable.  However, there are rumors that some retailers in the growing e-bike world are not letting customers know about the current regulatory ambiguities nor informing buyers that the products they are purchasing may have restrictions on their use (or be outright illegal). Some bike shops are selling e-MTBs and not telling the buyers that there are virtually no legal trails to ride them on in MA.  Retailers should be held responsible for the validity of their marketing claims.

To set a baseline, new legislation should recognize that some types of machines and motors are simply too dangerous or polluting of air, water, or noise level to be allowed.  The state should set safety and health emissions and operational requirements for all of these two and three-wheeled, relatively small, vehicles – which, hopefully, will prevent any use of 2-stroke machines that are the noisiest, dirtiest, and least fuel-effective.  We should also adopt a European-style “extended producer responsibility” (a.k.a. “full life-cycle responsibility”) strategy that makes manufacturers at least partially financially liable for the final disposition of their products – encouraging them to use recyclable materials and encouraging a market in those materials.  

While we’re at it, one current Massachusetts law, passed in one of the Legislature’s famous late-night sessions, allows mopeds (“motorized bikes”) to use bike lanes.  These machines, like any motorized vehicle capable of moving faster than the average (much less the beginner) bicyclist should be kept on the road, not in a bike facility.  This law, like several other past attempts to impose quick fixes that end up creating more problems than they solve, should be repealed.  Other city and state regulations, such as those about Segways, motorized wheel chairs, and other “personal assistance mobility devices” deserve their own examination separately from e-bikes.

Ultimately, we need a better – yet simpler – way to categorize and regulate these evolving machines.  From a public safety perspective, the key issues are the machines’ effects on the environment and on other road users.  This suggests dealing with them based on the type of engine, their size, and most importantly their speed.  Using those criteria, they seem to fall into three or four groups.  The following is meant to be a starting point for discussion.

1. LOW-POWER ELECTRIC MACHINES: BICYCLES, STAND-UP SCOOTERS & BOARDS (<15 OR 20 MPH).

(Perhaps include Pedicabs and Delivery Trikes in this category as well)

(Perhaps create a subcategory for fossil-fuel propelled vehicles – all of which are, currently, engine-propelled machines – that meet all the other criteria of this category.) 

DEFINITION

  • To provide flexibility for possible future technological and therefore regulatory developments these could be further divided into (a) electric, pedal assist and (b) electric, engine-propelled. 
  • This category includes electric “smart wheel” bikes.
  • The assisting engine can be either always on (automatic) or require specific in-use activation to change from pedal-power-only to motor-assisted.
  • The machines can have either two or three wheels, but limited to a bike-like width and length.
  • Has some combination of engine power, vehicle structure, and gearing that is not easily modifiable (e.g. battery size, flow of power from battery to engine, or gears) that prevents the vehicle from going above 15 mph (or perhaps 20 mph)

OPERATION

  • Does not require driver license, registration, or insurance.
  • Under 17 must wear helmet (similar to bicycle rules)
  • Allowed on all public ways where bicycles are allowed, on-road standard and separated bike lanes, protected bike lanes, and cycle tracks.
  • Allowed on off-road pedestrian, bicycle, and smooth-surface multi-use paths.
  • Cannot use sidewalk when motor-assist or motor-only is on.  Can use sidewalk if in pedal-only mode in places where bicycles are also allowed, but must yield to pedestrians.
  • Not allowed on non-smooth-surface off-road (mountain bike and hiking) trails

PARKING

  • Can park at all bicycle-legal locations.

2. MOPEDS AND LOW-POWER SCOOTERS (<35 MPH)

(for in-town travel)

DEFINITION

  • Includes both electric and fossil-fuel motors, either pedal-assist or only-engine-propelled; assist can be either always on (automatic) or require specific activation.
  • Has two or three wheels
  • Has some combination of engine power, vehicle structure, and gearing that is not easily modifiable (meaning more than a preset “governor” or “throttle” or other adjustable limitation on fuel flow) that prevents the vehicle from going above 35 mph.
  • Perhaps set cylinder size limit (e.g. 50cc)
  • Must have turn & stop signals that allow hands to stay on handlebars

OPERATION

  • Must have a valid driver's license or learner's permit.
  • Must be registered & insured & inspected
  • Must wear helmet.
  • Can drive on all public roads except limited access or express.
  • Not allowed on sidewalks or other pedestrian-facilities.    
  • Not allowed on bike lanes, cycle tracks, or other road-related bicycle facilities.
  • Not allowed on off-road pedestrian, bicycle, and multi-use paths and trails.

PARKING

  • Municipal option to allow parking on sidewalk, on other legal bike stands, or just on street.

3. FULL-POWER SCOOTERS AND MOTORCYCLES (>50 mph)

(capable of highway travel)

  • Includes both electric and fossil-fuel motors
  • Two or three wheels.
  • All other motorcycle regulations apply

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Thanks to David Watson, Cara Seiderman, and Jackie Lender for comments and information.

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Related Previous Posts:

> BETTER BIKE LANES:  Improving on What Got Us Here

> THE ENVIRONMENTAL CLIMATE STORM: Transportation, GHG Emissions, and the Carbon Tax

> TRAFFIC CONGESTION: Why It’s Increasing, How To Reduce It

> VULNERABLE ROAD USER PROTECTION:  Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful

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  • commented 2017-02-16 13:37:54 -0500
    From Steve Winslow via email:

    I am a bit torn on e-bikes.. I do see their value in communities where hills pose a barrier to average cyclists… but I am always concerned that it is human nature that a large portion of people will go as fast as you can on any motorized vehicle because you don’t have to exert yourself..

    Perhaps a simple rule – if its flat and you ain’t pedaling – you should not be on a sidewalk, cycletrack or bike path. I’ll give a bit more slack for painted bicycle lanes.

    For one example of an E-bike local ordinance, here is one from Tempe, AZ:
    <http://documents.tempe.gov/sirepub/cache/1207/jt5ydzv4mtrndxuapw3u3ojp/2214217502162017101038623.PDF&gt;
  • commented 2017-02-10 16:19:36 -0500
    Why do we not talk about different classes of travel lane. By this, I mean that any of the vehicles you mentioned would be allow on, say bike paths, as long as they do not exceed a reasonable speed with and additional requirement that they can or cannot be powered by fossil fuel. I can’t imagine anybody complaining about an ebike traveling 12mph on the Minuteman Trail. Yet, at times, it is dangerous for and vehicle to travel 25mph on the Minuteman Trail. Seems like we need to address capacity (speed and volume) as well as propulsion. Same would go for off road. And should there be requirements for minimum speed on road where there are alternatives like painted or separated lanes. Infrastructure should go hand and hand here.
  • commented 2017-01-31 11:34:41 -0500
    This post has clearly hit a nerve — I’m getting lots of feedback and I know it’s being actively forwarded (please continue to do so to any list you’re on!).

    Dave: you’re right — 30kph is about 19mph, and the Dutch push to keep faster vehicles out of cycle tracks sets a higher bar. And I agree with your position that we have to maintain road access for those who want to (and can) go fast enough to take the lane in moving traffic.

    Don: You raise a huge issue for future urban planning, smart growth, and zoning reform — the general range of e-bike users will be longer than the 5 miles used as an average maximum for purely muscle-powered bikes. Does anyone know if advocacy or professional groups are beginning to brainstorm about this?

    John: I like your suggestion to allow very short spurts above the 15 or 20 mph general limit, although I’m not sure if overheating the engine is the best method to achieve this. And I’d be worried that any control that allowed temporary sprints could be too easily hacked to allow permanent speeding.

    Given the huge social advantages of expanding both manual and e-bike use — environmental, traffic flow, use of public space, public health — we need to welcome their use. But that is not a reason to avoid regulation or even prohibitions where appropriate. Anyone who has tried to cross the street in developing country cities knows that the widespread ownership advantages of unregulated adoption can be totally overwhelmed by the huge number of injuries, the increased air-water-noise pollution, and the recreated congestion it brings. (Yet another argument against capitalist libertarianism.) Like autonomous vehicles, we need to shape the technology and the market if we hope to ride these innovations towards a better future.

    Steve
  • commented 2017-01-27 13:14:25 -0500
    Great as usual, Steve. One quibble: 30kph is under 19mph, not “about 25mph.” So a 30kph limit is even a bit more restrictive than California’s 20mph distinction. That said, I like the idea of speed limits on separated facilities, as long as faster, more experienced (or power-assisted) riders have access to the regular road.
  • commented 2017-01-26 09:33:32 -0500
    One other impact of e-bikes is we should look at the current planning models for bike commuting. At present most planners seem to follow guidance of US-DOT that bike commuting is limited to 5 miles. I think that model may be flawed without e-bikes, but with them it certainly needs tuning.
  • commented 2017-01-26 09:15:40 -0500
    Good thoughts, Steve. These issues need attention. As you say, in Massachusetts, the laws regarding low-powered motorized vehicles are very incoherent and even self-contradictory. I have had a post about these laws online for three years now and it has gotten many responses — largely, from people who already are using low-powered motorized two-wheelers (electrical or gasoline-powered) and are unsure about their legal status. Many of these people depend on the vehicles for daily transportation. The post is here — http://streetsmarts.bostonbiker.org/2014/08/29/massachusetts-motorized-bicycle-and-motorized-scooter-law-a-mess/

    As to your comment that “new legislation should recognize that some types of machines and motors are simply too dangerous or polluting of air, water, or noise level to be allowed” — I note that Taiwan, where motor scooters are a major element of the transportation mix, banned the sale of two-stroke ones a couple of decades ago, and the air pollution when I visited in 2002 was only, well, unhealthy, not immediately deadly. Certainly, also, internal-combustion engines have no place on paths whose users — and neighbors — expect to enjoy clean air, peace and quiet. I’m troubled about the faster classes of e-bikes on paths too. There’s already enough of a problem with bicyclists who are physically fit but don’t have the sense to moderate their speed or take to the roads.

    Unintended consequences may occur with any kind of legislation regulating types of vehicles, where and how they may be used. I can point to an unintended consequence in your suggestions for bicycles and low-powered vehicles: “[h]as some combination of engine power, vehicle structure, and gearing that is not easily modifiable (e.g. battery size, flow of power from battery to engine, or gears) that prevents the vehicle from going above 15 mph (or perhaps 20 mph).” Taken literally, this would require a bicycle to have a brake which cuts in at 15 or 20 mph. Fit bicyclists commonly do 25 mph on level ground. Being able to sprint is a safety issue, for example, often making it possible to cross an intersection before the traffic signal changes. I’m getting old, my average speed is under 15 mph, but am I to be denied these benefits, not to speak of the joy of descending at speed and for once not having motorists wanting to pass me?

    The more usual wording of laws prohibits an e-bike from traveling above 20 mph under motor power. An even better — but more complicated — provision would be to allow higher speeds under motor power only for short sprints. Actually, that would be easy to implement as a design issue, with an electric motor small enough that overheating protection would kick in if it is used too long at high power.
  • commented 2017-01-26 08:39:31 -0500
    Thank you for this comprehensive piece. As someone who owns two low power stand up e-scooters (less than 15mph) i’m pleased to see you recommend that these can continue to ride in bike lanes.
  • commented 2017-01-26 08:26:54 -0500
    I used to look down upon e-bikes until I met a woman who told me she lived on a hill (mountain?) in Vermont and had just purchased one. Now, she rides to town and goes to the Post Office, the Bank, The Cheese Store, ….. and can get home. Previously, she could not make it home which necessitated driving.

    My biggest concerns are speed (should there be a 15 mph limit so they are forced to fit in with traffic) and operator training so that e-bike riders know and follow proper rules and etiquette.
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