E-Bikes on Paths

The senate version of the e-bike bill has been modified to better protect pedestrians. Please see this update.

A measure to regulate the use of electric bicycles (“e-bikes”) is pending before the legislature. I support moving this legislation forward to give more people access to cycling, but the legislation may need some refinement. I have been seeking input and I am very grateful for the respondents to my recent poll (reported below) and those who have commented on this post (I have read all the comments through March 30). I hope to finalize positions on the wrinkles of this legislation soon.

What are E-Bikes?

E-Bikes are bicycles that have both pedals and electric motors. Some e-bikes assist the rider when pedaling. Other e-bikes can propel themselves even when the rider is not pedaling.

Why is wider use of E-Bikes desirable?

E-bikes have the following advantages:

  • They allow more people to enjoy cycling and to get some of the health benefits of cycling.
  • They allow more people to commute by bicycle by extending feasible range.
  • They allow people who bike to handle heavier loads, especially on hills — carrying children or groceries, for example.
  • They are quieter than motorized bikes and scooters.
  • They are better for local air quality than motorized bikes and scooters — small combustion motors typically lack good emissions controls.
  • To the extent they reduce automobile use for commuting or errands, they help reduce carbon emissions.

Are there any risks associated with e-bike use?

In general, e-bikes often allow cyclists to go somewhat faster than they could otherwise go. Speed always carries risks. There is some data from injury surveillance systems suggesting that e-bikes are more likely to be involved in collisions with pedestrians than pedal bikes.

Who are the national advocates for E-Bike legislation?

Nationally, e-bike advocacy has been led by the trade association for U.S. manufacturers, suppliers and distributors of bicycle products which calls itself the “the People for Bikes Coalition“.

When e-bikes emerged in the 1990s, the first major regulatory goal for e-bike manufacturers was to establish that e-bikes should be treated as bicycles, not motor vehicles, for purposes of federal manufacturing regulation. A 2002 federal law created a class of vehicles, the “low speed electric bicycle” defined 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.

107th Congress — H.R.727

The 2002 law exempted “low speed electric bicycles” from the motor vehicle safety standards statute and subjected them to the consumer product safety commission’s regulations for bicycles. The CPSC’s bicycle regulations govern manufacturing quality, speaking to structural integrity, braking, steering systems, chain strength, reflectors, tires, etc. They do not speak to how or where bicycles may be used.

The second major regulatory goal for e-bike manufacturers was to assure that e-bikes could be used just as bicycles are used. In general, state law governs the use of vehicles. The trade association has developed a model law and has successfully advocated for its adoption in 36 states. The bill now before the legislature is essentially the trade association’s model law with appropriate Massachusetts terminology.

While many new electric powered mobility devices are emerging — electric skateboards, electric scooters, electric balance boards, Segways, etc. — the trade association has made clear that its sole priority is the advancement of its model electric bike legislation, urging manufacturers of other mobility products to advocate for their own product-appropriate legislation.

The trade association provides a valuable collection of resources to state level advocates. For more resources, see also the National Conference of State Legislatures.

What does the E-Bike legislation do?

Mirroring but adjusting the federal definition, the e-bike legislation — the trade association’s national model legislation as contextualized for Massachusetts — defines “electric bicycle” as follows:

“Electric bicycle” shall mean a bicycle or tricycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts that meets the requirements of one of the following three classes:
(a) “Class 1 electric bicycle” shall mean an electric 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.
(b) “Class 2 electric bicycle” shall mean an electric 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.
(c) “Class 3 electric bicycle” shall mean an electric 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.

Pending e-bike bill, Section 1.

See this Wired post for discussion of this classification with illustrations and examples.

Absent the passage of the proposed law many electric bikes could be defined as motor vehicles in Massachusetts, subject to licensing, to registration, and to exclusions from off-road paths. (The Registry of Motor Vehicles has by regulation exempted some electric bicycles from licensing and registration, paralleling the federal definition — see 504 CMR 2.05.)

Using the electric bike definitions, the pending e-bike bill in Massachusetts . . .

  • exempts e-bike riders from drivers’ licensing requirements (by carving electric bikes out of the definitions of motor vehicle, motorized bicycle, and motorized scooter);
  • exempts e-bike owners from registration requirements (by carving e-bikes out of the definition of motor vehicle);
  • gives e-bikes access to all roads and bike paths that are open to regular bikes — it does allow that a municipality or agency may opt to prohibit e-bikes (or some classes of e-bikes) on a path;
  • leaves unresolved the question of e-bike access on natural paths without a surface, but does make clear that municipalities and agencies may regulate access;
  • requires that e-bikes carry a permanently affixed label stating their power, class, and top assisted speed;
  • prohibits tampering with or altering e-bikes to increase their power without changing the label;
  • creates special rules for the faster Class 3 e-bikes:
    • no one under 16 can operate Class 3 e-bikes;
    • riders of Class 3 e-bikes shall wear helmets (but specifies that failure to wear a helmet shall not be used as evidence of contributory negligence in a civil action);
    • Class 3 e-bikes shall be equipped with speedometers.
  • allows the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to promulgate additional regulations;

This proposed treatment of electric bikes contrasts with the existing treatment of motorized bicycles (bicycles with gas motor assistance) and motorized scooters (a two or three wheeled vehicle which is propelled by a gas or electric motor but is not a motorized bicycle or a motorcycle). Under existing law, both of these similar vehicle types are limited to speeds below that of Class 3 electric bicycles, yet they require drivers licenses. (Motorized bicycles are limited to 25mph, but in their statutory definition they may be capable of up to 30mph.)

Additionally, under existing law, motorized bicycles are excluded from “off-street recreational paths” while all e-bikes would be permitted on paths under the proposed law (unless an agency or municipality decides otherwise). Many states that have passed e-bike legislation exclude some e-bikes (most commonly Class 3) from some types of paths, according to a survey by the trade association that is linked from its policy page. The Department of Conservation and Recreation proposed but has not adopted a set of regulations that would appear to exclude Class 2 and Class 3 electric bikes from paths.

Poll Results

You can still share your thoughts in your comments section further below. Thank you!

People should be able to ride e-bikes without a driver’s license.

Responses (N=824)Response %
Agree for Class 1 Only17%
Agree for Class 1 and 2 Only25%
Agree for all e-bikes36%
Not Sure5%

People should be able to ride e-bikes on shared use paths along with pedestrians and regular bicycles.

Responses (N=824)Response %
Agree for Class 1 Only23%
Agree for Class 1 and 2 Only27%
Agree for all e-bikes23%
Not Sure5%

Technical Observations about the Poll

In summary, the poll was representative of people on Will Brownsberger’s Office Mailing List — people who have chosen to follow news from Will Brownsberger. Within that list, the respondent group probably skews towards bike owners and e-bike owners. Overall, this survey universe is likely more permissive towards e-bikes than the general public.

  • The poll was open 49 hours — from 5PM on Monday, March 28 to 6PM on Wednesday, March 30.
  • Almost all respondents to the poll came from two similar mailings to Will Brownsberger’s office email list of 4000 people. It appears that most of those responding were original recipients of the emailing as opposed to secondary recipients of a forwarded email.
    • While the survey itself was anonymous, we do have Mailchimp data about the mail response and the source URL for people responding to the survey.
    • Of the 824 respondents, 79.2% came in with a URL including a code identifying the mailing. An additional 17.7% came in without the code in the mailing, but at hours consistent with the timing of the mailing. The balance of 3.0% came in through mailings to local google groups, a facebook ad, or from comment links.
    • It does not appear that the mailing was resent to any large number of other people — Mailchimp click tracking did not suggest any originally sent e-mail yielded more than 12 clicks (most 1 or 2) and a person could, of course, click the mailing’s link more than once to come back to the post.
    • There was no pattern of repetitive entries from a single IP address.
  • There were some survey logic problems during the first hour and twenty minutes in the question about bike ownership and use. Limiting the sample to only those respondents after that glitch was fixed (N=649), 10.5% owned e-bikes and 64.6% owned bikes. 10.5% seems high, although we have not located good data on e-bike ownership rates. Nationally, there are probably under 2 million e-bikes in the hands of consumers in the United States (reasoning from sales over the past few years). Even if Massachusetts had a disproportionate share, that would suggest that there are less than 100,000 e-bikes in the state and that the statewide ownership rate is under 3% — just a guess.
  • E-bike owners had more permissive attitudes than others. None of the 67 e-bike owning respondents (among the 649 after the fix) felt e-bikes should be prohibited from shared-use paths, while 22% of regular bike owners felt that and 41% of non-bike owners felt that.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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