E-bikes are starting to hit the streets in DC in much larger numbers; not just as part of dockless bikeshare, but personally owned bikes too. And with Uber's recent purchase of Jump, it's reasonable to expect the number to increase again if the pilot ends and DDOT allows more.
There are many reasons to support e-bikes; reasons that are similar to the reasons to support regular bikes. Surveys show they encourage people to drive less. They can improve mobility for people, especially in urban areas. They're better for the environment than driving. They're better for health than driving (and possibly using transit). They can reduce congestion. They can save you money.
For these reasons, and because they've been getting cheaper and more useful over the last 30 years, e-bikes - especially the pedelec types - are taking off, with some touting them as the "vehicle of the future".
Unfortunately, the current regulations and laws in DC are more restrictive than they need to be and largely out of date. At the DDOT budget oversight hearing in February, they mentioned that they're working on new regulations, something the Washington Post reported in April, so now seems like the right time for people to start thinking about them.
Electric bicycles have been around for more than a century, but the pedal assist or pedelec bike really only dates back to 1989, with the first ones going on sale in 1993. By 1997, they were already being seen as the next big thing when Lee Iacocca founded his own e-bike company, EV Global Motor Company. (EV has since gone out of business like so many others).
The current state of regulations and how we got here
First some background. In the US, there are often four classes of e-bikes ranging from Class 1, pedal-assist bikes like Jump Bikes to Class 4, which are mopeds or motorcycles that can go faster than 28mph. However, the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) is promoting a class system with only 3 classes.
1) A “class 1 electric bicycle,” is 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.
2) A “class 2 electric bicycle,” is 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.
3) A “class 3 electric bicycle,” is 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, and is equipped with a speedometer.
Under federal law, only class 1 and class 2 are "bikes". Those are the only types that NHTSA does not consider "motor vehicles" (despite having a motor). However the industry promoted rules would allow class 3 e-bikes (which can go up to 28mph) to be treated similar to bikes in a few ways, like being allowed into bike lanes.
In the US, both class 1 and 2 are limited to 20 mph (32 kph) with motor wattage of <= 750 watts, while in the EU, the limit is 15.5 mph (25 kph) with motor wattage <= 250 watts. Canada has split the difference with a 20mph limit and 500 watt limit.
The distinction between 1 and 2 was first adopted in 2015 by California, and since then elsewhere. Most states do not regulate class 1 and class 2 differently. The division was put in place so that individual trails and municipalities can regulate them differently if they want. There was concern that the power of a "throttle" could rooster tail on softer trail material, meaning they might not be appropriate in some places (like the C&O Trail) where Class 1 would be. However, the National Park Service counts e-bikes as motorized vehicles and they are not allowed on the C&O Trail. The BPSA would like to see that change.
The BPSA system also creates rules governing the use of electric bicycles, with safety as the top priority. Class 1 and 2 electric bicycles would be permitted to travel anywhere traditional bikes are permitted, as the maximum assisted speed of these devices is closely aligned with speeds traveled by traditional bicycles. Class 3 electric bicycles could be ridden on streets and roadways where traditional bicycles are permitted, including bicycle lanes, but would be restricted from
slower speed areas such as multi-use paths. Class 3 electric bicycles would also be subject to additional requirements, such as a minimum user age and helmet mandate. Electric bicycles would not be subject to any licensing, registration, or insurance requirements.
The 20 mph cut-off between class 1&2 and class 3 was first codified in the US in the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which defined the Electric Bicycle as "any bicycle or tricycle with a low-powered electric motor weighing under 100 pounds, with a top motor-powered speed not in excess of 20 miles per hour." That law allowed e-bikes on trails and pedestrian walkways. It also instructed the NHTSA to regulate them. At the time, some European countries already had limits of 25 kph. (The EU wouldn't adopt this limit until 2002). I don't know how US lawmakers settled on 20mph, but my theory is that they were writing a definition to match the European one and they decided to go up to 20 instead of down to 15.
In 2001, Congress passed a law that defined electric bikes so that they could be regulated as Consumer Products by the CPSC. It leaned heavily on the definition from the 1988 law, as noted in the committee report, and defined a low-speed electric bicycle 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."
Here again, it's unclear why they increased the power to 750 watts from the European limit of 250. Maybe it was because 1 h.p. seemed like a nicer number, but it's probably because 250 watts wasn't providing enough power. The original pedelec bike had a maximum power output of 235 watts and the UK already limited electric bikes to 200 Watts, so 250 likely seemed reasonable at first. But later people began to recognize that with older, weaker or larger riders; on hilly terrain, or with a large cargo bike; 250 watts wasn't quite enough power and so manufacturers began making more powerful bikes for consumers.
The committee report for the 2001 US law stated the reason for the law was to create more reasonable regulations.
If NHTSA were to enforce its regulations on low-speed electric bicycles strictly, the bikes would be required to have a number of safety features, such as brake lights, turn signals, automotive grade headlights, rear view mirrors, and license plates, that are prohibitively costly, unwieldy, or consume too much power for a low-speed electric bicycle. It is estimated that the application of motor vehicle regulations to power-assisted bicycles would increase the retail price of these bicycles by at least $200-$300 and make them less manageable and more unwieldy for consumers.
Of course, CPSC can only regulate bikes that are sold as electric bikes but a 2014 study out of Portland State discovered that
52 percent of e-bike owners converted their standard bicycle to an electric-assist bicycle (MacArthur, Dill & Person, 2014). These e-bikes were first purchased as a bicycle and later outfitted with an electric motor. Thus, CPSC is limited in its capacity to regulate the technology
That number is likely to have changed quite a bit in the last five years.
DC doesn't have a definition for "e-bike" and doesn't distinguish between the classes. Nor does it have a special category for scooters. In addition, there's some poor language that means they could reasonably meet multiple definitions and some regulations that don't make a lot of sense.
In DC, an e-bike could be a "motorized bicycle" which is "a vehicle with a post mounted seat or saddle for each person that the device is designed and equipped to carry; two (2) or three (3) wheels in contact with the ground, which are at least sixteen inches (16 in.) in diameter; fully operative pedals for human propulsion; and a motor incapable of propelling the device at a speed of more than twenty miles per hour (20 mph) on level ground." Motorized bicycles are not allowed in bike lanes or on the sidewalk, except to park. This is what DDOT says an e-bike is.
But, it could also be a "Personal Mobility Device" which is a motorized propulsion device designed to transport one person or, basically, a segway. That's a terrible definition because many things, including a motorcycle with only one seat, could qualify. [It would be easy to fix though by adding text so that it reads "...device, without a post mounted seat or saddle, designed..."] PMDs are allowed everywhere bikes are and nowhere they aren't, but you need to be 16 to ride one, they have to be registered, they can't go faster than 10mph, you can't ride with just one hand and you can't wear headphones in both ears when you ride them. So trying to call an e-bike a PMD would get most cyclists in trouble unless it was registered and they rode slow (which defeats the purpose a bit). The new e-scooters are defined as PMDs, which means if they aren't registered, they're illegal.
A class 3 e-bike is not a motorized bicycle in DC, as it is too fast. It could be a PMD (again, the bad definition) or a "motor-driven cycle", which is how DDOT said they would consider them. Motor-driven cycles are treated much more like motorcycles than motorized bicycles are. They require inspections, insurance, registration and helmets; and they aren't allowed on sidewalks, trails, or in bike lanes. The registration fee is half that for a car for the first two years.
In Maryland, they have a separate definition for an "electric bicycle", but they treat it exactly like a regular bicycle as long as it has pedals, the top powered speed is 20mph and the maximum power is 500W. There is no license requirement, no registration, no minimum age and no helmet requirement. They can be ridden on bike paths, but not sidewalks.
In Virginia, an e-bike would be an "Electric Power Assisted Bicycle" which again is treated very much like a regular bicycle as long as it has pedals, the top powered speed is 25mph and the maximum power is 1000W. There is no license requirement, no registration, a minimum age of 14 and no helmet requirement. They can be ridden on bike paths or sidewalks.
How should we regulate these bikes and scooters?
As the Washington Post reported in April, Washington, DC "and other Washington-area jurisdictions are among those taking steps to modernize and streamline policies advocates say are outdated, set unrealistic restrictions and confuse riders of bikes that can be run on electric power as well as by pedaling."
In the District, transportation officials say they are drafting rules to allow the pedal-assist bikes on trails and possibly sidewalks outside the downtown area, where conventional bikes are allowed. Montgomery adopted park rules last year that give the county discretion to open trails to e-bikes on a case-by-case basis, and Montgomery’s Parks and Planning departments are set to begin that process on less-used trails this year, moving gradually to the most popular ones, such as the Capital Crescent Trail.
Arlington does not have a policy regarding the use of e-bikes, but it is researching the subject.
The Fairfax County Park Authority said e-bike riders have asked for the policy to be changed to allow them on popular commuting trails. The authority is reviewing the pros and cons of the change and the possible conflicts with other trail users, spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said.
Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said the agency is tracking what surrounding jurisdictions are doing.
(PG County is not pursuing changes right now). There are some good ideas in there, and everyone should be looking at what rules will best meet regional goals of safety and mobility.
A recent report on e-bikes by the National Institute of Transportation and Communities discusses the various regulations for e-bikes in North America and is a good source for those who want to learn more.
Here are some changes I'd recommend,
First we need to rework our definitions
- We should fix the definition for a PMD as noted above by defining it as something without a post mounted seat or saddle
- DC, VA and MD should institute the BPSA-recommended 3 class system noted above. Yes, it is coming from the industry, meaning we should be skeptical, but it matches up with current regulations at the federal level and other states and doesn't seem unreasonable.
- We could leave the definition of "motorized bicycle" in place to cover non-electric, motorized bikes. If so, we should remove the part about the tire diameter lest people start putting gasoline motors on their Bromptons and terrorizing the good people of Cleveland Park. Leaving motorized bicycles only makes sense if we think we should regulate gas-powered bikes differently than electric powered bikes (and I think maybe we should).
- While we're at it, we should remove the definition for a "sidewalk bicycle" which is a bike with small tires. This was meant to be a way to allow kids to ride on the sidewalk downtown and keep them off the roads, but it also applies to people on folding bikes, like the Brompton. So we should just nix it, and say that children under 16 (or some other age) and their accompanying parents are allowed on the sidewalk in the CBD. I let my kids ride their "sidewalk bicycles" in the road, and so I'm not sure we need to ban them there. (If so, every bike to school day I've been involved in has been a rolling caravan of scofflaw cycling).
Once we have these new definitions, here's how I'd regulate them
- PMDs - I'd leave them mostly unchanged. I'd allow their use everywhere bikes are used and nowhere they aren't. I'd restrict them to those over 16 (though I'm open to a lower age if people who know more about segways and scooters show what the limit should be). I'd put in place the same helmet requirements as for bikes. If we're going to keep the speed limit - and that could be revisited too - then set the fine to $25, which is what the ticket is for speeding on a bicycle. I'd get rid of the registration requirement, and at least look at the two hand and no headphone rules (again, I'd want to hear from PMD-users/experts)
- I'd treat class 1 and class 2 e-bikes exactly like bikes, with the exception of disallowing class 2 e-bikes on unpaved trails.
- I'd treat motorized bicycles exactly like bikes, except that I would disallow them on all trails and sidewalks (for noise reasons I'd keep them separate from pedestrians).
- I'd treat class 3 e-bikes as California does, for lack of a lot of knowledge. That means mandatory helmets, disallowed on trails and sidewalks and no riders under 16 years old.
There are also some other changes necessitated by e-bikes, or that would be otherwise useful
- All provisions dealing with parking a bicycle also apply to parking a "motorized bicycle." This means that if you lock a Jump bike to a parking meter or bike rack for longer than 12 hours, you're violating the law. ["A person may secure a bicycle to a stanchion for a period of not more than twelve (12) consecutive hours, by means of a lock or similar device"] We need to be able to remove abandoned bikes, but otherwise I'm not sure I understand the utility of this rule. I'd recommend extending the time a bike can be parked in one place, perhaps as long as 30 days. Jump "touches" their bikes pretty frequently and can move them around when they do if that's important, though I'd probably just exclude bikeshare from this rule entirely.
- The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016 creates a limitation to the contributory negligence rule, stating that "The negligence of a pedestrian, bicyclist, or other non-motorized user of a public highway involved in a collision with a motor vehicle shall not bar the plaintiff's recovery in any civil action unless the plaintiff's negligence is a proximate cause and greater than the aggregated total amount of negligence of all of the defendants that proximately caused the plaintiff's injury." "Non-motorized user" means an individual using a skateboard, non-motorized scooter, Segway, tricycle, and other similar non-powered transportation devices. Ignoring that a segway is powered, it doesn't specifically talk about "motorized bicycles." I would change the definition of "Non-motorized user" to include individuals on PMDs and class 1-3 e-bikes.
This list may not be exhaustive, and it will likely need to be reviewed once we know more about e-bikes; but I think it represents some common-sense fixes and removes regulations that limit e-bike use with little to no benefit.