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Industry making steady progress on state e-bike legislation

Published March 11, 2020

Editor's note: A version of this story ran in the March issue of BRAIN.

BOULDER, Colo. (BRAIN) — PeopleForBikes entered 2020 with momentum toward eventually getting universal e-bike legislation passed in every state.

In just the past year, the bicycle advocacy group, with assistance from the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (which is now merged with the organization), helped get its “Model Legislation” passed in 12 states. In the previous four years combined, 11 states had adopted the legislation, including the three-class e-bike model. This year has gotten off to a good start, with New York coming closer to adopting e-bike legislature after a six-year battle.

Morgan Lommele, PeopleForBikes' director of state and local policy, credits several factors for the 2019 breakthrough.

  • Financial and technical support from the bike industry. 
  • PeopleForBikes legal and regulatory expertise.
  • State legislators’ understanding that opening up new venues to getting more people riding bikes is important.
  • The "bipartisan-ness" of the issue — state laws need to keep up to date with modern technology.
  • The small business/bike shop component, i.e., bad e-bike laws hinder e-bike sales at the local level.

“That was pretty huge,” Lommele said of last year’s success. “And this year, if we get 10-12, that will be a huge win, too.” 

Getting standardized e-bike laws passed in every state is important, according to PeopleForBikes, so that e-bikes are regulated similarly to traditional pedal bikes, and consumers and retailers are clear about their state’s e-bike laws.

“We look at what the law is for e-bikes and if it’s really bad,” Lommele said. “Like the e-bike tied to a motorcycle and not even technically allowed to be ridden in that state. That’s our first step. Defining them as a motorcycle is the most detrimental.”

Lommele said when a state considers an e-bike a motorcycle, it requires registration, which means producing a title and proof of insurance.

“An e-bike doesn’t have a VIN so you can’t bring it to the DMV and register it,” she said. “No states are proactively doing that, but that’s what we’re fixing: taking those bad laws off the books.”

To do that requires playing the political game, Lommele said. Sometimes lobbyists are hired, and working with “really great retailers” and education are key, she said. “Education is the biggest sticking point, but it’s also the part where we’re able to move past really quickly because we say a Class 2 e-bike is still a bicycle that has a governor that shuts off the motor; it’s not a motorcycle. The main distinction is it has to have operable pedals. It’s manufactured according to bike products standards. Even though you have a throttle, that throttle maxes out at 20 mph and anything above that is a motorcycle. Every single state we get that question, but it’s really easy to dispel that notion, especially when you ride one.”

The three-class model has simplified the U.S. e-bike market. Class 1 bikes provide electrical motor assistance only when the rider pedals and turns off when reaching 20 mph; Class 2 bikes feature a throttle-activated motor that turns off when reaching 20 mph; Class 3 bikes provide assistance only when pedaling and turn off when reaching 28 mph. PeopleForBikes says Class 1 and 2 bikes should be allowed where pedal bikes are and Class 3 only on roadways. 

“I don’t have any hard facts, but anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of suppliers that sales double or triple at the retail level once the law is on the books,” Lommele said. “It makes sense. If you walk into a store and you’re uncertain if it’s a bike or a motorcycle, and the laws are uncertain and you ask the shop guys, ‘Where can I ride this thing?’ there’s really no clear answer, and that can impede the sale. Imagine trying to buy a car and not knowing if it was legal on every street?”

Matt Devlin can attest to that. Devlin, the owner of Mad Dog Bicycles three hours outside New York City, has been hampered by the state’s confusing e-bike law. New York does not allow e-bikes but pedal-assist are allowed in the city.

“My potential e-bike customers are typically seniors looking for exercise,” Devlin said. “Most are completely unaware about the legality issue of riding within the state. I have had bicycle companies contact me to pick up their line of e-bikes that are either unaware of New York state laws or just ignoring it.”

After vetoing the state legislature’s bill in December giving all e-bike classes the same rights of the road as traditional bicycles throughout the state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his plan in January that is expected to be adopted by April. And while the legislation defines Class 3 bikes differently (throttle-assist with maximum speed of 25 mph), Lommele said she’s optimistic.

“I actually feel better about this (legislative) session than I did about any of the last five,” she said. “And if we only get the Class 1 and Class 2 defined, that’s not a home run, but, man, it would be a lot better than the current law that’s on the books.”

The Class 2 discrepancy centers on a modified throttle-assist e-bike favored by city food-delivery workers that is not in line with any of the classes.

“A good policy would encompass all three classes and then a separate definition for that type of e-bike,” Lommele said.

In addition to New York, Lommele’s optimism for law passage this year includes several Southeast states. Confidence comes from the successes of last year, which included Texas.

“It took some lobbying,” Lommele said of Texas. “I had to go down there and meet with legislators, but it’s bi-partisan. We have more Republican sponsors than Democratic. We don’t always talk about bikes first. You talk about the small-business issue. There’s really no rhyme or reason why a state is easier to pass than another state.

“We’re trying to hit the Southeast really hard: Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana. A couple states like North Carolina and Montana that we were hoping to get more traction this year, we’re going to have to wait until next year. It’s a long game. One of our main talking points is we need every state to have the exact same e-bike laws just for the fact that every state has similar driving laws and bike laws.”

Topics associated with this article: Electric bike, From the Magazine

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