New York Bicycling Coalition has launched a statewide campaign to win passage of legislation that would clarify the legal status of certain electric-assist bicycles under the state’s vehicle and traffic law. NYBC has long advocated for this legislative fix, but this year we are fortunate to have formed a partnership with the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association and People for Bikes, who are providing strong support for our campaign. We are also working closely with New York-based bicycle retailers who sell electric bikes. People for Bikes has a great and comprehensive page on Electric Bikes.
This is the first in a series of articles on electric bicycles. Stay tuned for continuous updates on our campaign and opportunities to get involved. In case you haven’t been following this issue, what follows will serve as an introduction to electric bicycles and the regulation of their use in New York State.
In 2002, federal law was amended to distinguish bicycles with low-power electric motors capable of reaching speeds of 20 mph or less, from motorcycles, mopeds, and motor vehicles. However the New York State Legislature never changed state law to conform with the federal definition. Accordingly, these bicycles are considered “low-powered motorcycles” by New York State law. Though it is completely legal to sell electric bicycles in the state under the federal law, NYSDMV considers it illegal to operate them on public roadways.
Electric bicycle (e-bike) use is growing very quickly across the world. In the U.S., the bike industry estimates more than 200,000 electric bicycles may be sold in 2015. 18 states have favorable regulations that provide a definition of e-bike and treat them as a bicycle.
NYBC wants more New Yorkers biking safely and more often, and electric bikes are increasingly recognized as a way to get more people out of their cars and onto a bicycle, because they appeal to people who want to bike but would otherwise not do it for because of physical limitations or other personal barriers.
What are E-Bikes?
Perhaps the best explanation of what E-bikes are and what they are not comes from a report released by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities in 2014, excerpted here:
Electric bicycles (e-bikes) are similar in geometry to human-powered bicycles but have a small electric motor that provides pedal assistance and allows riders to accelerate, climb hills, and overcome wind resistance more easily than manually powered bikes. E-bikes can be generally divided into two categories: bicycle-style electric bikes (BSEB) and scooter-style electric bikes (SSEB).
In general, BSEBs have an electric motor powered up to 750 watts that goes slower than 20 miles per hour. These bikes have working pedals that are meant to propel the bicycle with or without the help of the electric motor. We differentiate BSEBs from other vehicles based on their potential to be considered a bicycle—in geometry, weight, speed, and the ability to be pedaled.
SSEBs include electric scooters, mopeds, and even certain motorcycles. Although electric mopeds may have pedals, they are more of an appendage than a functional necessity. In fact, these scooter-like vehicles often feature a platform on which the operator can rest his/her feet. While many SSEBs are marketed and sold as “E-Bikes”, they are not considered “bicycles” by most people in the bicycle industry and the general public.
Though NYBC recognizes the value of scooter-style electric bikes (SSEBs) as a form of transportation, our campaign is focused solely on bicycle-style electric bikes (BSEBs), because our organization does not view scooter-style electric bikes as “bicycles” (this is consistent with the results of a national survey on E-bikes conducted by the League of American Bicyclists).
Benefits of E-Bikes
Bicycle-style electric bikes (BSEBs) benefit commuters and recreational bicyclists who may be discouraged from riding a traditional bicycle due to limited physical fitness, age, disability and/or convenience. They can serve as a “gateway” to traditional, self-propelled bicycling and are not in any way an impediment to fully self-propelled bicycling.
Many electric bicycle users report that they are able to increase the range and speed of their bicycle trips with less effort, and to boost their health through increased physical activity (riding an electric bicycle provides health benefits similar to walking).
E-Bikes also benefit the environment and local economies. Electric bicycles use green battery technology and have the potential to become an important addition to New York’s growing energy-efficient transportation system. And many small business owners are looking to electric bicycles to provide a cost-effective alternative to cars and trucks when used for equipment transport and product deliveries.
E-bikes are designed to be as safe as bicycles, at bike-like speeds and conditions. The federal standards are based on this assumption. E-bikes are widely available and have not compromised consumer safety. Almost 100,000 E-bikes have been sold in the U.S. since the CPSC standard was issued in 2009.
New York Bicycling Coalition is not aware of any significant increases in bike collisions, trail user conflicts, safety complaints to CPSC, or litigation around e-bike safety. More research is needed on U.S. e-bike safety, but it makes sense to say that large-scale problems would have already surfaced if there were fundamental safety flaws in e-bike design or use.
One study conducted at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2014 considered several behavioral factors that have relevance to bicycle safety: speed on roadways and shared use facilities, behaviors at intersections, and wrong way travel, and concluded:
While differences in behavior exist, and these differences have bearing on overall user safety while operating the two bicycle types, the differences are generally small and generally explained by other factors, unrelated to the bike itself. This infers that the advantages that users gain from e-bikes have little overall effect on user safety as compared users of regular bicycles. For instance, violation rates at intersections differ between the two modes, but the larger difference occurs between intersection types, not bicycle types. These findings have relevance to bicycle and e-bike policy, mainly in removing a misconception that e-bikes are intrinsically more dangerous than regular bicycles.
Specifically, the research found that the average speed of E-bike users on roadways was just 1.8 mph faster than that of regular bicycle users (8.3 mph and 6.5 mph, respectively). Additionally, researchers found that the average speed of regular bicycles on a shared use path was slightly higher than that of E-bikes on the same facility (7.8 mph and 6.8 mph. respectively).