By Collin Hodges, NYBC Program Coordinator
Bicycling is a wonderful way to get around. But what if you aren’t in great shape, or consider yourself too old, young, or physically impaired to view bicycling a practical way to get around? Or even more simply, what if you’d like to arrive at that summer meeting without sweating through your shirt in the process?
Electric bicycles could provide a solution to such problems. They have the ability to take the physical strain off of commuters who would like to use their bicycle more, but might opt to drive in the face of such inconveniences.
One might argue that exercise through the physical exertion inherent in bicycling is one of the primary advantages of commuting by bike, and that electric bicycles would dampen that benefit. Realistically, however, not everyone is able or willing to put out that sort of exertion on a daily basis. It is also important to note that electric bicycles can generally be powered by pedaling, running the electric motor, or a combination of both. The majority of models in the US cannot be operated solely with the electric motor, but all can be powered exclusively by pedaling if the rider so chooses. This would give a commuter the flexibility of pedaling for the majority of a trip, but using the motor to help conquer that formidable hill that lies just at the end of the route. One need look no further than hilly cities like San Francisco, the daunting bridges of New York City, or the rolling terrain of upstate New York to imagine how this could be helpful to the average Joe, not to mention the young, the elderly, or even people just struggling to get into shape for regular cycling.
What about the bicyclist’s claim of energy efficiency? While electric bicycles have a larger carbon footprint than their traditional counterparts, they are still sixteen times more energy efficient than the average automobile, and six times more efficient than most rail transit systems.
Still, before you rush to buy stock in these magical contraptions, their legal status must be removed from the state of limbo that currently stymies their widespread use. Specifically, the issue is their treatment as motorcycles under New York State law, and motor scooters in New York City. This is in contrast to federal law, wherein an electric bicycle is officially defined as a “two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 hp).” This means that in New York State, electric bicycles are generally considered unregistered motor vehicles and subject to the same laws and penalties as automobiles. In New York City, electric bicycles that do not have the ability to be operated solely by its motor (pedal-assist bicycles) are legal, but those that do have that ability (motor-assist bicycles) are subject to fines and impoundment.
These classifications are especially problematic in light of the fact that electric bicycles are not permitted to have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), meaning that they cannot be registered with the DMV and are thus inherently illegal for use on public roads throughout the state. That technicality aside, legally equating them with automobiles is dubious at best. Even when powered solely by an electric motor, these bicycles have a top speed of under 20 mph and extremely low horsepower ratings, which makes them no more dangerous than a traditional bicycle. Overall, the potential for electric bicycles to widen the audience for bike commuting cannot be ignored, and NYBC has joined Transportation Alternatives and other electric bicycle supporters to advance legislation that corrects these legal inconsistencies.
In fact, several bills have recently been introduced in the New York State Assembly that seek to resolve the electric bicycling issue and bring New York into closer conformity with federal standards. One is bill A01618, first introduced by Assemblyman David Gantt (Assembly District 137) in 2005, which states that electric bicycles should not be considered motor vehicles provided the motor features a maximum output of 1,000 watts. Safety standards would conform to those applicable to traditional bicycles, and electric bicycle operators would need to be at least 16 years old. Bill S01357B sponsored by Senator Martin Dilan (D. 18th Senate District), is similar to Assemblyman Gantt’s bill. The only differences are that the maximum power output would conform to the federal standard of 750 watts, and there would be a helmet requirement for riders between 16 and 18 years old.
NYBC and its partners recently met with the offices of Assemblyman Gantt and Senator Dilan to drive home the importance of passing an acceptable bill regardless of minor distinctions. In the absence of such a bill, even more New Yorkers could receive hefty fines for operating electric bicycles in the coming year. Bolstering the effort, Assemblyman Rafael Espinal (Assembly District 54) introduced bill A05058 earlier this month, which is identical to Senator Dilan’s bill.
If New York is to move forward as a bicycle-friendly state, then the legal muddle around electric bicycling must be clarified. NYBC is proud to work closely with trusted allies to pass a much-needed electric bicycle bil in the 2013 legislative session.
 Stieber, Zachary. “Electric Bikes in New York May Be Legal, or Maybe Not.” The Epoch Times, 9/17/12.
*Cover image courtesy www.thirteen.org