Electric Bike Law Basics
Electric bicycles are defined in the United States as light vehicles that can be powered by human pedal-power and/or by electric power. In order to be considered a “bicycle” rather than a “motor
vehicle”, US federal law specifies that electric bicycles are 2- or 3-wheeled vehicles that can’t travel faster than 20 (23 km/h) miles per hour under the power of a motor that is less than 750 w (1hp) when operated on flat terrain by a 170 pound rider. These vehicles are identified as bicycles, rather than motor vehicles, and require no additional licensing and/or registration. And yet, each state and city has additional laws regarding the use of electric bicycles on multi-use/bicycle trails and bike lanes on streets.
Electric bicycles that travel at speeds faster than 20 mph (23 km/h) and have motors greater than 1 hp are considered to be motor vehicles and must be licensed and registered according to state and local laws.
These electric assist systems are powered by rechargeable batteries that take anywhere from 3 – 6 hours to charge. Sealed lead-acid batteries will take the rider ~8 – 15 miles on a charge, and are the heaviest, but least expensive of the options. Lithium batteries (~15 – 50 miles on a charge) come in several different chemistry options, and pack more power into lighter, but more expensive solutions. Batteries can be stored on the frame of the bike in various locations (front rack, rear rack, seat or down tube, wheel hub). A motor provides the drive to get the rider moving. The motor can be found in the hub of a front wheel or rear wheel; near the pedals in a “mid-drive” system, or in the trailer with the power trailer or push trailer system.
Countries all over the world have had to establish laws about definition and use of electric bicycles. Each country regulates such aspects as the power of the motor, the application of the power (throttle controlled and/or relative to amount of pedaling), the speed, or the weight of the vehicle. In Europe, for example, EN 15149 governs the electric aspect of electric bikes and requires that the rider be pedaling to activate the motor. These types of electric bikes are called “pedelec” bikes. As in the US, individual provinces or states, and then municipalities, have jurisdiction over how the federal laws are applied, and determination over additional regulations deemed important for their government entities.
As electric bicycles or electric assist light vehicles become more popular means of transportation, cities, states, and countries will need to adapt policies to accommodate their increased usage. When gas/petrol prices go up, interest in lower-cost transportation increases. More than 120 million electric bicycles were sold in China and about 700,000 were sold per year in Europe in each of the past several years. Indicators are that electric bicycles are not only here to stay, but continue to be in higher demand.
What are your cities and states doing to encourage and allow this lower-cost method of short distance transportation? You can get some information through websites, but your best source is your city or state bicycle coordinator or transportation departments. It’s exciting to know that the laws are changing frequently as electric bike assist systems are becoming an economical, sustainable transportation option for more people.