Electric bikes (eBikes) are gaining traction as a means of transportation in the United States after enjoying years of popularity in Europe. Anyone can ride them, from the most seasoned bike rider to someone who hasn’t biked since childhood. They have the potential to expand bike riding to new audiences and keep people riding bikes throughout their lives.
But some confusion around how and where they can be ridden is dampening their growth potential and as an emerging technology, they require clear regulations to govern their use and create stability in the marketplace.
Lack of Regulation
In the United States at the federal level, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates eBikes for the purpose of product safety at the point of first sale. States decide how eBikes can be used. Over time, without clear guidance, states passed widely varying rules to govern their use - some treating them like human-powered bicycles, some treating them like motor vehicles, and everything in between. Some have no regulation whatsoever.
Taking Steps toward Clarity
Since 2014, with leadership team from PeopleForBikes, a national bicycle advocacy group, and the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, the bicycle manufacturers’ trade association, eight states have pioneered a standardized regulation for eBike use with a simple, straightforward approach known as the “3-Class” System. This model legislation defines three common classes of eBikes (based on speed, wattage, and operation), and allows states to decide which types of bicycle infrastructure each class can use (typically Class 1 and Class 2 eBikes are allowed wherever traditional bikes are allowed). It also requires eBike makers to place a highly visible sticker on the frame to indicate an eBike’s Class.
In 2016, California was the first state to adopt this “3-Class” approach, and since then other bike-friendly states such as Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Utah, and most recently Washington have followed suit, with Arizona, Ohio and Connecticut close behind. More states around the country should adopt this “3-Class” standard to eliminate confusion, enhance safety, and promote this green transportation method.
The three classes are defined as follows:
- Class 1: eBikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and have a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph.
- Class 2: eBikes that also have a maximum speed of 20 mph, but are throttle-assisted.
- Class 3: eBikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and a maximum assisted speed of 28 mph.
All classes limit the motor’s power to 1 horsepower (750W).
Classes and Access
Some states treat Class 1 eBikes like traditional mountain or pavement bicycles, legally allowed to ride where bicycles are permitted, including bike lanes, roads, multiuse trails and bike-only paths. New York City’s Mayor de Blasio recently announced the city will officially allow Class 1 eBikes. While New York City’s decision is unrelated to singletrack trail use for electric mountain bikes (eMTBs), we believe that Class 1 pedal-assist eBikes should have the same rights and responsibilities as traditional bikes and therefore also be allowed on non-motorized mountain bike trails, as is the case in Europe.
Class 2 throttle-assist eBikes are often allowed most places a traditional bicycle can go, though some states and cities are opting for additional restrictions (e.g. New York City & Michigan State). Class 2 may not be suitable for singletrack mountainbike trails - it has been shown that they pose greater physical damage to trails due to the throttle-actuation. Class 2 may be better suited for multi-use OHV trails designed for more rugged off-road vehicles.
Class 3 eBikes are typically allowed on roads and on-road bike lanes (“curb to curb” infrastructure), but restricted from bike trails and multiuse paths. While a 20-mph maximum speed is achievable on a traditional bicycle, decision makers and agencies consider the greater top-assisted speed of a Class 3 eBike too fast for most bike paths and trails that are often shared with other trail users.
Everyone stands to benefit from common-sense rules on how and where to ride an eBike. With clear regulation and updated state laws, law enforcement will understand what rights eBike users have and when to enforce the law, and easily identify the class of bike based on the sticker. Bike retailers can help their customers understand where each type of eBike can be used, boosting their sales. People who already ride eBkes will have easy rules to follow on where they can ride, and new bicyclists who may be discouraged from riding a traditional bicycle due to limited physical fitness, age, disability or convenience gain new transportation alternatives.