Clearing up e-bike legislation in the U.S.

May 26, 2015

Morgan Lommele, e-bikes campaigns manager


New York State Senator Martin Malave Dilan at an e-bike demo day. (Image: New York Bicycling Coalition)

If you live in Michigan, for example, and ride an electric bicycle, you could be breaking the law. First, your e-bike is technically a moped, according to state law. Second, you have to have a valid license to ride it, third, it needs to be registered (although it’s impossible to register an e-bike), and fourth, if you are between the ages of 15 and 20, you have to wear a helmet.

Even though federal law was amended in 2002 to distinguish between e-bikes that can travel 20 mph or less and motorcycles, mopeds and motor vehicles, about 30 U.S. states still have confusing regulations around them. Either the bikes are technically classified as mopeds or motor vehicles, or they have equipment, licensing or registration requirements that cause problems for riders. 

When considering the number of people who would ride electric bicycle if it were simpler, PeopleForBikes and the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association saw a clear need to join forces to fix the legislation state by state. Two major efforts are in California (where e-bikes are regulated as “motorized bicycles” with restrictions that bar their use on most bicycle paths) and New York (where e-bikes are considered “low-powered motorcycles” and it is illegal to operate them on public roadways).

Despite our efforts, we found that many state legislators still didn’t know the difference between a moped and an electric bicycle, so we figured it would be best to give them a ride. In April and May, California Bicycle Coalition and the New York Bicycling Coalition hosted e-bike demo days with the latest e-bikes from Currie Tech, Bosch, and others. If you’ve ever ridden an e-bike, you know that they are fun and give you a little extra zip to get further in your commute or errands. We wanted to bring this awareness to state legislators so that they could understand that e-bikes offer an opportunity for people who wouldn’t otherwise see bicycling as a practical option.

Bills in California and New York are currently in their respective state legislatures, with pending votes. Thanks to the PeopleForBikes/Bicycle Product Suppliers Association partnership with local advocacy groups, we’ve been able to make the case for streamlining state regulations so that e-bikes are essentially treated like regular bicycles.

With clear rules on how and where to ride an e-bike, everyone stands to benefit. Local bicycle shops and manufacturers will see increased business and their customers will no longer be confused; people who already ride e-bikes can more easily understand where to ride; and last but not least, new bicyclists who may be discouraged from riding a traditional bicycle due to limited physical fitness, age, disability or convenience will have new transportation alternatives.

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