Electric Bikes Are Stuck in Legal Limbo

What happens to a bicycle when it gets an electric motor? Is it still a bicycle? Is it a scooter? Or is a different beast entirely?

What happens to a bicycle when it gains an electric motor? Is it still a bicycle? Is it a scooter? Or is a different beast entirely, a patched-together monstrosity with no place on the road?

The legal answer to these questions depends on where the bicycle in question is being ridden. In some places in the United States (and in the larger world), an electric bicycle is treated exactly the same as a pedal-powered one. In other places, an e-bike is subject to additional restrictions. And in some places, like New York City, it exists in a legal limbo that keeps it off public streets altogether.

Right now, the tangle of laws governing e-bikes affects only a small handful of people. But the bikes are gaining in popularity. In New York City, legal restrictions aren’t stopping commuters and deliverymen from riding them. And the cycling community is warming toward electric-assisted bikes because they provide an opening for the less-than-hardcore to join the ranks of bike commuters.

On a federal level, the status of an electric bike is simple. It is not a motorized vehicle as long as it has operable pedals, its motor does not exceed 750 watts, and it moves no faster than 20 mph. States also have power over wheeled vehicles, though—from trucks down to bikes—and their ideas about electric bikes differ dramatically. Most places put the limit on their top speed between 20 and 30 mph. Some states require riders to have a license and to register the bike. Some states require a helmet. Others mandate that riders must be over a certain age.

But because e-bikes do not fit neatly into existing legal categories, in some places they’re banned altogether. The problem is that, legally, the bikes aren’t motorized vehicles, so they’re not allowed to operate as a car or motorcycle would. But they can’t be registered as bikes, either. The solution to that conundrum so far has been to ban e-bikes. New York state, for instance, has decided that electric bikes cannot be ridden on public streets, sidewalks, or parking lots. (They’re allowed on private property.) In some places, like Florida, gas-powered motorized bikes complicate the issue further, since they are considered motor vehicles.

In New York City, e-bikes have attracted more attention and acrimony as they become more popular, particularly with delivery people. Annoyance at the bikes has led to strange second-order effects, too: One local community board decided that it would automatically withhold its support for any establishment that used e-bike delivery.

A handful of shops in New York City are selling e-bikes, even though they’re not allowed on the streets. Niko Klansek, the CEO of e-bike startup FlyKly, says he tried contacting city and state officials about the legal tangle but received no response. His customers sometimes are hassled by police but report back that the tickets they’ve received (for riding an unregistered vehicle, for instance) are generally dismissed in court. And he found that other e-bike sellers weren’t interested in making a fuss and calling attention to the legalities of using their products. But the current situation is not sustainable, he says. “I would like that they do something about it,” Klansek says. “Not that they leave it hanging and nobody knows” what the law is.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user In_Zukunft_Wien

Julian Meehan

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