The past few years have seen a marked increase in the number of electric bicycles (or “e-bikes”) in the U.S.
This primer deals specifically with low-speed electric bicycles as defined by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. E-bikes are most frequently “pedal-assist” or “muscle-assist,” meaning the rider must be pedaling for the electric motor to engage. E-bikes may also come equipped with a throttle that allows the bike to be propelled without pedaling.
The bicycle’s low-speed electric motor provides a boost of power to climb hills, extend the range of trips where a bicycle can be used, allow current bicycle users to bike more often and farther, provide a new recreation option for people who want to bike and in general, extend the range of any ride.
Low-speed e-bikes are as safe and sturdy as traditional bicycles and move at speeds similar to conventional bikes. E-bikes are emissions-free, low impact and operate silently. E-bikes vary widely in terms of shape and size, but the different types closely align with those of regular bicycles. E-bikes resemble traditional bicycles in both appearance and operation and do not function similarly to mopeds, scooters and other motorized vehicles.
According to a 2018 bicycle industry analysis, e-bikes sales increased 83 percent between May of 2017 and May of 2018, and e-bikes made up 10 percent of overall bikes sales in the U.S. for that time period. While the Asian and European e-bike markets are more robust, industry advocates hope to continue to expand U.S. e-bike sales.. Most major U.S. bicycle brands sell e-bikes, and bicycle manufacturers have moved or are positioning themselves to move to the U.S. to capitalize on the growing market.
Electric bicycles cost on average $2,000 - $3,000, versus a $1,000 average investment for a mid-range traditional commuter bicycle. An investment in an electric bicycle is appealing to those who are looking to replace short trips typically made by car, therefore the investment can be justified if the buyer factors in the reduced cost of car maintenance and fuel.
Reasons for purchasing an e-bike vary, with some looking for a cheap commuting mode and others looking for a less physically demanding bicycle option or help bicycling through hilly areas. E-bikes may also provide a more attractive and feasible choice to take short trips. According to U.S. Department of Transportation survey data, half of all trips in the U.S. are three miles or less in length, a distance widely regarded as bikeable for most adults and even more feasible for electric bicycle riders. Seventy-two percent of those trips are currently made by cars and fewer than 2 percent by bicycle. E-bikes also provide a new transportation and recreation option for people with disabilities and those with physical limitations.
E-bikes have even been embraced by the nation’s rapidly expanding bike-share systems. In 2011, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville launched the country’s first electric bicycle sharing system, with two bike-share stations on their campus. In 2015, Birmingham, Ala., unveiled a citywide bike-share system with 100 e-bikes in the fleet of 400 bikes, in the hopes the program will attract more novice riders. With the aid of private funds, Utah has unveiled a small electric bike-share system at their State Capitol complex. Richmond, Va., will be unveiling an electric bicycle sharing system soon. Dockless bike-sharing systems are also rapidly integrating e-bikes into their fleets; companies such as JUMP Bike and Motivate now offer dockless e-bikes in cities such as Austin, Denver and Sacramento.
State legislatures have begun to grapple with how to differentiate and define e-bikes and regulate their operation and equipment standards on roadways and trails in their respective states. One challenge is the distinction between other motorized vehicles such as scooters and mopeds, and the burgeoning market and interest in e-bikes as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly transportation option.
E-bike Safety Research
When faced with an e-bike bill, legislators and stakeholders by and large first question the safety, speed and allowed areas of operation for an e-bike. As part of a 2015 survey of Americans regarding their opinions about e-bikes, 72 percent of respondents stated their top concern was safety. With respect to speed, the research is mixed and somewhat inconclusive thus far with regards to the typical speed of e-bikes and how much that differs from traditional bicycles.
One study from Sweden found average travel speeds for e-bikes to be over 5 miles per hour faster than for traditional bicycles (14 mph versus 8.7 mph). However, a study of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s e-bike sharing system did not find much difference in the average travel speeds and the average top speeds for e-bikes versus traditional bikes and stated in its finding that “With few exceptions, riders of e-bike behave very similarly to riders of bicycles.” A 2016 study examining the relative probability of an e-bike versus a conventional bike to be involved in a traffic conflict did note that there was a higher risk of conflict at an intersection for e-bikes, because of higher speeds approaching an intersection. Otherwise, the study found little or no difference with regards to risk or actual conflicts.
Cultural norms, law enforcement of speed limits, physical infrastructure and other factors all likely play a role in bicycling speeds and other bicycling operation decisions made by conventional traditional bikes and e-bikes and it is clear further research is needed.
An e-bike that meets the federal definition of an electric bicycle and is subject to product safety standards for bicycles.
Federal Role, Definition and Actions
At the federal level, a 2002 law enacted by Congress, HB 727, amended the Consumer Product Safety Commission definition of e-bikes. The law defined a low-speed electric bicycle as “A two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.” The federal law permits e-bikes to be powered by the motor alone (a “throttle-assist” e-bike), or by a combination of motor and human power (a “pedal-assist” e-bike).
Significantly, federal law only specifies the maximum speed that the e-bike can travel under motor power alone. It does not provide a maximum speed when the bicycle is being propelled by a combination of human and motor power, which is how e-bikes are predominantly ridden. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has clarified that the federal law does allow e-bikes to travel faster than 20 mph when using a combination of human and motor power.
This law distinguishes, at the federal level, e-bikes that can travel 20 mph or less under motor power alone from motorcycles, mopeds and motor vehicles. Devices that meet the federal definition of an electric bicycle are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and must meet bicycle safety standards. However, as a 2014 e-bike law primer notes, this federal law only applies to the e-bike’s product standards and safety.
State traffic laws and vehicle codes remain the sole domain of states and state legislatures. In other words, the manufacturing and first sale of an e-bike is regulated by the federal government, but its operation on streets and bikeways lies within a state’s control. Thus, many states still have their own laws that categorize e-bikes with mopeds and other motorized vehicles, require licensure and registration, or do not enable them to be used on facilities such as bike lanes or multi-purpose trails.
State Legislative Scan
There has been a steady stream of legislative action at statehouses regarding e-bikes since 2015. State legislation has focused on three dynamics:
- Revising older state laws that classify e-bikes as mopeds and scooters and may include burdensome licensure, registration or equipment requirements.
- Creating three-tier classification systems for e-bikes depending on their speed capabilities.
- Refining more recent e-bike laws that could benefit from further clarification and detail.
The District of Columbia (D.C.) and 44 states in some manner define an electric bicycle:
Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. All these states have different laws regarding the operation of electric bicycles. In the remaining states, electric bicycles lack a specific definition and may be included within another vehicle class such as “moped” or “motorized bicycle.”
In Mississippi, there is no clear designation for an electric bicycle, but an attorney general opinion indicates that an electric bicycle would be considered a bicycle. While Kentucky also lacks a definition for e-bikes, the Department of Transportation passed an administrative regulation in 2015 that brought e-bikes within the scope of the state’s bicycle regulations.
Three-Tiered E-Bike Classification System
Twenty-six states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming) have created a three-tiered e-bike classification system intended to differentiate between models with varying speed capabilities. These states have almost identical defining language for e-bikes, as well as similar safety and operation requirements.
New Jersey and West Virginia both established a two-tiered classification system. In New Jersey’s case, the definition only includes the first two tiers of classification. The legislature then modified its “motorized bicycles” definition by stating that such device is one that operates in excess of 20 MPH with a maximum motor-powered speed of 28 MPH. This would generally meet the definition of a “class three” e-bike. In West Virginia, the law provides for “class one” and “class three” e-bikes, but not the “class two” classification e-bike that can be propelled solely by a motor up to 20 MPH.
|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 miles per hour.
|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 miles per hour.
|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 miles per hour and is equipped with a speedometer.
Any device outside of these definitions is not considered a low-speed electric bicycle that would be regulated as a bicycle.
At least 25 states and D.C. have some sort of helmet requirement for e-bike riders and passengers. These often apply to riders under a certain age.
States with a three-tiered classification system typically exempt an e-bike from registration, licensure and insurance requirements to differentiate between e-bikes and other motorized vehicles such as mopeds and scooters.
All 26 states with a three-tiered classification system require an e-bike to be affixed with a label that states the classification number, top-assisted speed and motor wattage.
Overall, at least six states—Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota—require a license to operate an e-bike, typically because they still fall under the designation of another motorized vehicle classification with licensure and registration requirements and have not had a distinct e-bike law created. Utah and Vermont are examples of states that have recently eliminated e-bike licensure and registration requirements. Some states, including Alabama and Alaska, that define e-bikes in some manner still nonetheless require an operator’s license to ride an e-bike.
Assuming the continued robust growth of the e-bike industry, state legislatures will likely continue to grapple with defining e-bikes, clarifying operation, safety and equipment standards and further distinguishing from motorized vehicles such as mopeds and scooters.
For further information on e-bike laws, research, news and industry updates visit People for Bikes.