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 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. 


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.


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.  


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.


(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.) 


  • 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)


  • 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


  • Can park at all bicycle-legal locations.


(for in-town travel)


  • 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


  • 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.


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


(capable of highway travel)

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


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


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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