Yes, E-bikes Are Bicycles (With Some Exceptions)

Recent data suggests growth in e-bikes’ popularity in North American markets, but questions still remain.

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Image courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists

Image courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists

E-bikes have seen steady growth in popularity worldwide as an affordable, efficient, and sustainable mode of transportation. According to Navigant Research, global sales of e-bikes topped 32 million units in 2014 and are expected to hit 40 million by 2023.

With more e-bikes on the roads than cars, China still leads the pack by a mile in global e-bike usage. However, sales are taking off in other parts of the world as well. Europeans purchased 1.3 million e-bikes in 2013 and an upward trend is expected to continue, even as auto sales plummet and regular bicycle sales remain stable.

While e-bikes’ popularity has surged worldwide, North Americans have so far been slow to get in on the trend. Concerns about cost and safety, as well as a misperception of e-bikes as “not real bikes” has contributed to a relative lack of enthusiasm for the technology in North American markets. A few states, such as New York, regulate e-bikes the same way as motorcycles, further adding to the confusion about whether an e-bike constitutes a bicycle or not.

However, new data suggests that a North American e-bike boom may finally be on the horizon. The League of American Bicyclists recently published a study entitled,“Electric Bicycles: Public Perceptions & Policy.” The League analyzed responses from 718 bicycle riders across the US on their perceptions of e-bikes’ safety, usefulness and desirability.

They found that a full 80 percent of respondents agreed that e-bikes offer a myriad of benefits, including the ability to increase the number of people using bicycles for transportation and the ability to functionally replace cars for a variety of trips.

Although respondents were generally supportive of the usefulness of e-bikes, there was some disagreement as to how they should be treated from a regulatory perspective. While 82 percent agreed that a classic e-bike with pedal-assist should be treated as a bicycle, that figure dropped to only 14 percent for the 50 mph (80 km/h) capable throttle-engaged bikes.

In a press release announcing the study, Ken McLeod, Legal Specialist for the League of American Bicyclists, said, “Moving forward, it is important to us to continue engaging in these conversations about how electric bicycles will impact what it means to be a bicyclist and how we can realize the promise of electric bicycles for bicyclists.”

From March 10-12, 2015, this conversation will continue at the National Bike Summit and National Forum on Women & Bicycling in Washington, DC. Hosted by the League of American Bicyclists, the annual Summit is “the premier bicycle advocacy event of the year.”

This year’s theme, Bikes +, will engage advocates, policy-makers, and community members in discussions of how the bike advocacy movement can work in tandem with other movements, adding value to a broad range of social goals.

The agenda includes discussions and plenary sessions on topics ranging from fundraising to advocacy through a gender lens. Maya Rockeymoore, the president of Center for Global Policy Solutions, will be there to discuss transportation equity in the US and abroad. Dr. Ellen Dunhman-Jones, urban designer and architect, will deliver a session on the role of the bicycle in retrofitting suburbia.

Last year’s Summit resulted in the establishment of a federal goal to reduce bicycle traffic deaths. This year’s Summit is thinking even bigger, asking Americans to envision how bicycling can add value to their communities and to their daily lives.

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  • Driftwood_WV

    I read the linked mini-report. I would like to have seen numbers on what people thought of a recumbent bike, recumbent trike and a more traditionally shaped e-velomobile, like a Mango or Rotovelo.

  • Mike Brown

    I live in Seattle. I own a Terra Trike Rover with a Bionx electric rear wheel. Seattle is so hilly (I am 57) that an electric assist kit is an excellent option. If Momentum would like some pics of my “contraption”, I would be glad to send them…

  • Elaine Bennett

    I ride a pedal-assist/throttle city e-bike. It is not a motorized vehicle according to Federal Electric Bicycle Law HR 727. It is a low-speed electric bike that tops out at 20 mph when using motor only. I ride it with my husband (on his non-electric road bike) for longer rides so that we can enjoy riding together, as well as for his safety. I dislike when he rides alone on longer rides. When going uphill, I can keep up with his pace using the assist. When going downhill, he goes WAY faster than I do. Honestly, it’s not the bike that is the problem in most cases, but the person who’s not minding the rules of the road and COMMON COURTESY–be that person on foot, on a bike, in a car or on a yak. Let’s be nice to each other and enjoy the path 🙂

  • Nina Sabghir

    I am currently in the country I hope to retire to (in 4-5 years). The hills here rival San Francisco and ebikes are very popular. As I get older, they become more appealing. Especially since I hope to continue minimizing my use of cars. I think this is true for many of us. Regulation should be based on speed. All traffic and safety rules should apply.

  • Troy Kasper

    e-bikes have a motor and thusly motorcycles, but due to horsepower should be regulated as a low power motocycle, much like scooters that do not require a motorcycle endorsement. The speed that e-bikes can obtain is not appropriate for most bikes paths and should NEVER be allowed on non-motorized off-road trails.

    • Ray Martinez

      I have a Tern bicycle with a Bionx motor. I use it mainly for commuting and it gives me the extra push so that I commute more often even when I’m a little tired, where on a normal day I would not use the bike. Most e-bikes, mine included, are limited to 20 mph. While I commute to work, I see people in road bikes and fast commuter bikes whizzing past me doing 28 mph+. Should we ban them?

  • James Rosar

    Bicycles enjoy many of the same legal protections as pedestrians because no additional power is involved. By adding power, danger and hazard are added as well. The extra responsibilities of licensing and insurance must be added at some discreet definition of a powered vehicle. 50cc has been a traditional definition regarding internal combustion, how about a doubling of watts available to a rider, perhaps 400 or 500 watts being sent to the motor?

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