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, the 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; and
- Refining more recent e-bike laws that could benefit from further clarification and detail.
The District of Columbia and 33 states in some manner define an electric bicycle: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. All of these states have different laws regarding their operation. 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
Thirteen states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Washington 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:
|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.
The thirteen states with a three-tiered classification system do differ in terms of helmet requirements. Connecticut has the strictest requirement, requiring operators and passengers for all classes of e-bikes to wear protective headgear. California, Ohio and Tennessee require the operator and all passengers of a class three electric bicycle, regardless of age, to wear protective headgear. Arkansas and Utah require operators and passengers of a class three e-bike under age 21 to wear protective headgear. Colorado and Michigan require helmet use for those under age 18 operating or riding on a class three e-bike. Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Washington and Wyoming’s laws include no helmet requirements for any class of e-bike.
E-Bike Helmet Requirements in States with Three-Tier Classification System
With regards to age restrictions to operate an e-bike, in California and Utah, an individual under the age of 16 may not operate a Class 3 electric bicycle.
In Michigan and Tennessee, the age limit is 14 to operate a class three e-bike, although in both states a passenger under the age of 14 is permitted to ride on an electric bicycle that is designed to carry passengers.
In Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Washington, a class 3 low-speed electric bicycle may not be operated by a person under the age of 16. However, in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and Ohio a person under the age of 16 may ride as a passenger on a class 3 low-speed electric bicycle if that bicycle is designed to carry passengers.
Utah has further restrictions for operating any class of e-bike for younger age groups. Those under age 14 may not operate any electric bicycle with the electric motor engaged on any public property, highway, path, or sidewalk unless under the supervision of the individual’s parent or guardian. Additionally, those under age eight may not operate an electric bicycle with the electric motor engaged on any public property, highway, path, or sidewalk.
Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming have no age restrictions to operate an e-bike for any e-bike class.
Registration, Licensure, and Insurance Requirements
Twelve of the thirteen states with a tiered-classification system exempt an e-bike from registration, licensure, and insurance requirements, another key way legislatures are differentiating between e-bikes and other motorized vehicles such as mopeds and scooters. However, Illinois’ law allows local authorities to regulate the operation of bicycles, low-speed electric bicycles, and low-speed gas bicycles, and require the registration and licensing of the same, as well as requiring a registration fee.
All thirteen states require an e-bike to be affixed with a label that states the classification number, top-assisted speed and motor wattage.
E-Bike Licensing and Operation
Overall, 17 states 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 Oklahoma and Wisconsin, that define e-bikes in some manner still nonetheless require an operator’s license to operate an e-bike.
E-bike Operation on Multi-Use Paths
Of the 33 states that explicitly define e-bikes, some state laws, such as in Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington, specifically allow e-bike operation on facilities such as bicycle paths or greenways, with the caveat that many carve out exceptions for localities to enact stricter operation regulations on such bike and pedestrian facilities. Georgia’s law simply states “Electric assisted bicycles may be operated on bicycle paths.” In Delaware, Florida, Iowa and Nebraska, electric bicycles are defined within the existing definition of a bicycle, therefore there is not a distinction when it comes to operation on trails. Vermont specifies that motor-assisted bicycles are governed as bicycles and have the same rights and duties applicable to bicyclists.
California and Tennessee’s laws only specifically disallow class 3 electric bicycle operation on a bicycle paths, but allow localities to opt-in and allow their use on such facilities. As noted above, their laws do allow localities to restrict the use of class 1 and 2 e-bikes on bike paths.
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.