Making Space for E-Bikes on the Streets and in the Law

Photo: Washington Bikes
Photo: Washington Bikes

Electric bicycles are growing in popularity. But the laws regulating e-bike use have to catch up. In many places there’s ambiguity about the types of e-bikes that are allowed, and where people can ride them.

An extreme case is New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD are exploiting confusing laws to enforce an all-out ban on e-bike operation, mainly targeting immigrant delivery workers.

In Washington state, advocates are working with state legislators to clarify the rules for e-bike operation on streets and trails. Some e-bikes are more powerful than others, and move too fast for bike lanes shared with slower cyclists. But overall, the goal of the advocacy group Washington Bikes has been to improve access to a healthy, low-emissions way to get around. Here’s the framework of the legislation, which replicates e-bike rules that other states have enacted:


Washington Bikes‘ Alex Alston explains why the organization is campaigning for this bill:

An 85-year-old with diabetes; a woman who suffered a stroke; a young family living car-free. These are the types of people who are benefiting from the growing availability and improved technology of electric-assist bicycles. Now, Washington Bikes is leading efforts in Olympia to ensure people like them will be able to use their e-bikes on trails and on-street bike lanes.

The e-bike industry has taken off in recent years, with e-bike sales up more than 450% since 2013, according to The NPD Group. As the e-bike industry has been fast to innovate and grow, current state law pertaining to e-bikes is outdated. SB 6434/HB 2782 will update Washington state e-bike laws to national standards and provide certainty for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. Arkansas, California, Colorado and others have already implemented this legislative update.

This legislation will ensure e-bike users can ride their bikes in safe and connected places. E-bikes are important for older adults, family biking, people with disabilities and people who want to ride, but may feel intimidated by a traditional bike. By flattening hills and allowing for ease of pedaling, e-bikes increase accessibility to getting around by bicycle and the health benefits that come with!

More recommended reading today: According to Sky News, a top police official in the UK says motorists should be fined for exceeding the speed limit by 1 mph. And Seattle Transit Blog discusses how to make the region’s suburbs more walkable and transit-oriented as they prepare for the arrival of light rail.

55 thoughts on Making Space for E-Bikes on the Streets and in the Law

  1. I think one solution is to have 20mph curb lanes (painted yellow) shared by all users, with pedestrians and wheelchairs (unless they’re souped up) on unimpeded sidewalks with better crosswalks. No need for wrong way cycletracks, parked on bike lanes, separate and unequal paths- bicycle facilities that will prove to be more hazardous, minimally provided and designed, and eventually injure or kill more cyclists than sharing the million miles of roadways in the U.S. with motorists and cyclists who have been educated how to do so safely.

  2. check out the article on Miami’s proposed gondola system. Seems like these could be human powered (again with electric assist) and quite a bit more affordable than even road embedded monorails, especially over hilly, ravine territory. Helicopters drop off the towers, so less permitting than carving roads through parklands? I’m thinking of the traffic jammed roads from Sausalito ferries to Muir Woods national park, then Stinson Beach natrional seashore.

  3. What looks like an e-bike today may not look like an e-bike in a year or two. If police officers start pulling over cyclists because they “believe” they’re on an e-bike, we’ll have harassment (and claims of harassment), opportunities for extortion and the risk of injury and death. And even if a bike is equipped with battery and motor, shouldn’t it be legal to operate with motor off? Yet, given the “go ahead” to target ebikers, will police be able to make that distinction?

    And perhaps the NYPD does not care. But the people they ostensibly “protect and serve” might.

  4. > What looks like an e-bike today may not look like an e-bike in a year or two.

    The technology isn’t changing THAT fast. And there is little chance that it will miniaturize to the extent it’s not possible to tell easily.

    I must stress AGAIN that class 1 e-bikes ARE LEGAL in NYC. In a well-run society (say, Europe) where class 1 e-bikes are legal but class 2 are not, things would be set up so the stores only sell legal e-bikes. Then the police don’t have to stop people on the streets, they can presume that any bike they see is legal. It’s much easier to police a small number of stores than a large number of those stores’ customers.

    But NYC is not Europe. There are already laws on the books that prohibit both riding and selling class 2 e-bikes in NYC. And yet, most of the e-bike shops continue to sell them; and most e-bike users continue to buy them, in spite of the legal risks involved. The e-bike shops have learned how to minimize the fines they receive, and even profit when an e-bike is confiscated. The e-bike users don’t understand the law and unnecessarily put themselves in legal jeopardy. And the “advocates” haven’t shown much interest in organizing people to comply with the law (i.e. stop selling class 2 e-bikes, and convert existing class 2 to class 1). Maybe they’re hoping to legalize class 2 someday? Supposed NYPD incompetence is commonly used as an excuse by “advocates” to perpetuate this insanity.

    The best way to address the issue would be for NYC to effectively police the bike shops; the current system of minor fines is clearly not working. If the shops don’t sell illegal e-bikes, then their customers won’t ride illegal e-bikes. But that would make too much sense…

  5. Even in that short clip the driver has several near misses with other motorists, pedestrians, obstacles and breaks traffic laws multiple times. Is this supposed to be a sales pitch? I’ve seen another video of a motorized recumbent with a fairing, that was doing 45 mph. Looked like death or disability was the most likely destination. And yet, some motorcycles and sports cars can hit 150+ mph and are sold legally, with no legal responsibility for the manufacturers or sellers?

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