By Douglas Shinkle
Recently I was riding my bike along a bike path up a steady incline against the flow of the river running next to me. Out of the blue a heavy bike with a trailer toting a small kid glided effortlessly past me.
“What in the heck” I asked myself? A closer look revealed a small electric motor on the bike that was steadily pulling away from me. I’ve just encountered an electric bicycle or “e-bike.”
A relatively new phenomenon, this is becoming a more common occurrence in the U.S. as e-bike numbers increase.
Many e-bike users want to arrive to work sweat-free or get a bit of extra help on a long ride. Low-speed e-bikes are nearly indistinguishable from traditional bicycles. They’re emissions-free, operate silently and move at similar speeds.
With about 200,000 e-bikes sold in the U.S. every year and that number growing, state legislatures have stepped in to clarify and refine existing laws that in some cases present a number of barriers to e-bike operation. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia in some manner define an electric bicycle.
In 23 states, however, they are currently grouped in with mopeds, scooters and other solely-motor powered vehicles. Given that e-bikes are “pedal-assist” and don’t operate absent human exertion, they are distinct from such vehicles.
A new NCSL webbrief on state e-bike laws examines state actions to enable their safe and legal operation on streets and paths.
Much of the recent state legislation has been focused on revising older state laws that classify e-bikes as mopeds and scooters and may include burdensome licensure, registration or equipment requirements. Other states are refining more recent e-bike laws to provide more detail on issues such as allowed areas of operation and equipment and safety requirements.
Seven states—California, Maine, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont—enacted e-bike legislation in 2015 or 2016.
Three states—California, Tennessee and Utah—created a three-tiered e-bike classification system intended to differentiate between models with varying speed capabilities:
- Class 1 electric bicycle: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph.
- Class 2 electric bicycle: A bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph.
- Class 3 electric bicycle: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 mph, and is equipped with a speedometer.
All three states exempt an e-bike from registration, licensure and insurance requirements. They also require an e-bike to be affixed with a label that states the classification number, top-assisted speed and motor wattage, to aid enforcement.
More states are poised to consider changes to their laws that currently govern e-bikes in 2017. Stay tuned, and don’t get jealous if that person hauling their bed on their bike passes you easily.
See NCSL’s new webbrief on e-bikes for more information on state e-bike laws.
Douglas Shinkle, NCSL’s Transportation Program director, is multi-modal (car, bike, feet, trains and ridesharing) and loves talking about it at social gatherings, much to the chagrin of his wife.