The e-bike industry is emerging from a legal fog. They have been making and selling bikes that had no home in the vehicle code, creating confusion for shop sales staff and buyers alike. There is no question that many of these bikes perform well but where they could be ridden has not been clear. AB 1096, signed by CA Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, removes much of the ambiguity surrounding e-bikes (at least in California) which until now were essentially lumped in with mopeds.
The bill that becomes law in 2016, establishes a 3 tier classification in California for low speed electric bikes.
Class 1: A bike that must be pedaled to receive electric assistance and the motor has a cut off at 20 mph. For the most part, these bikes can be ridden on any paved surface where a regular bicycle is allowed.
Class 2: A bike that has pedals and a throttle with an electric assist cut off at 20 mph. They too can be used on any paved surface where a regular bike is allowed.
Class 3: Like a class 1 but has an electric motor cut off at 28 mph. These bikes would be restricted to streets or bike lanes. Bike paths would be off limits. Riders must be 16 and must wear a helmet.
E-bikes will be required to have classification stickers by 2017. The bill leaves room for local governments to pass ordinances that could put additional access restrictions on e-bikes.
“The real win for the people who use these things is no longer will they be restricted on trails that say no access to motorized vehicles”, said Larry Pizzi, chair of the e-bike committee for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. BPSA along with People for Bikes and the California Bicycle Coalition led the charge in the California state legislature for e-bike classifications.
Pizzi says the passage of the e-bike bill in California is a major victory because the state makes up 30 percent of the e-bike market. And with California in hand, it makes getting similar legislation passed in other states less of a chore.
“California sets a lot of these kinds of standards that wind up being followed by a lot of other states”, said Pizzi. “We hope this will become model legislation that other states will begin to use to craft regulations around electric bikes.”
The industry currently has its eyes on New York where e-bikes are essentially illegal. The empire state requires e-bikes to be registered as a vehicle yet the bikes do not come with vehicle identification numbers.
E-bikes have been taking off in parts of Europe. Sales have been strong in northern Europe but due to economic struggles in the south, e-bikes have yet to catch on in countries like Spain and Italy. The European Cycling Federation reports that in Germany, where traditional bike sales were down 5.5 percent, e-bike sales were up 8 percent and now represent 11 percent of the market. The German Postal service delivers mail using 6,200 e-bikes. The Netherlands has seen a 9 percent sales growth in e-bikes accord to the ECF. BMW is making an e-bike while other companies are trying to offset the higher cost with zero percent financing.
While Europe has been a nice nugget for the growth of electronic bikes, manufacturers and their suppliers say the United States is the mother lode.
“Bicycle dealers and bicycling enthusiasts throughout the country have much to celebrate with this bill,” said Claudia Wasko of Bosch e-bike systems. Bosch makes electric motors for several e-bike brands.
“We expect other states with outdated electric bikek legislations to follow in California’s footsteps and update to a similar 3-class structure,” Wasko added.
The difference between a Class 1 and a Class 2 bike may seem like next to nothing but Pizzi says it’s an important part of the measure that could eventually lead to e-bikes having access to natural surface trails. Dirt paths and fire roads are the next frontier for e-bikes. But mountain bike advocacy and land managers are uncomfortable with the idea of a bike with a motor and a rear wheel that could peel out and possibly scar trails. Pizzi says their field testing has shown that while a throttled bike can produce quicker, dirt spraying accelerations, a Class 1 – pedal only e-bike responds similarly in loose traction situations to a traditional bike.
E-bike access to trails is years away but the debate has already started. On one side are the mountain bikers who want to protect epic loops and on the other an industry wanting to meet customer demand and potential growth. Pizzi says e-bike riders will mostly stick to fire access trails and multi-track trails, “They’re not necessarily looking for a gnarly, singletrack experience. They just want a place they can ride away from traffic.”
The e-bike industry is looking to capitalize on its momentum with an Electric Bike Expo tour. Six bike-friendly markets over six months however no stop east of the Mississippi. The E-bikepalooza will be headlined by Trek with performances by electric bike mainstays like IZIP, Yuba and Haibike. The tour starts in January in Tempe, Arizona. The expo is open to the public.
Image courtesy IZIP.