When Is a Bicycle Not A Bicycle?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 03 Oct 2012

When is a bicycle not a bicycle? When you add some form of mechanical assistance? If it can move without the rider pedaling? If it exceeds a certain power, weight or speed limit? If it just doesn't look like a bike?

This may seem a trivial question, but as riders around the globe are finding, the powers-that-be from Nanjing to New York, Taipei to Toronto, don't know what the difference is either. And because they don't, they have created a hodgepodge of conflicting regulations and ordinances that impact not only riders, but also cyclists, pedestrians, and motorist, as well as police departments everywhere these relatively new forms of personal mobility start appearing on streets and bikeways.

Take the case of Denise Baj of Ocean City, New Jersey who had her drivers license suspended for DUI. To get around town, she bought what is billed as an electric bicycle. However, when the police stopped and fined her, they did so because it is considered a 'motorized vehicle,' which, of course, she is not allowed to operate while her license is suspended.

The same thing happened to Thomas Mailman in Canada, who also lost his license for driving while intoxicated. Stopped by police, he was fined and ordered to court where the judge ruled Mailman's electric-assist bicycle fit the definition of a 'motor vehicle' under provincial Criminal Code. Mailman argued, fruitlessly, that he had checked both Canadian federal and provincial regulations before buying the e-bike, and neither considered it a motor vehicle.

And the problem is not confined to convicted drunk drivers. Take the case of the Chinese take-out stores in New York City. Until recently, their employees used conventional bicycles to make deliveries in the neighborhood. Then they began using electric-assist bicycles, or what I like to refer to as e-bikes. Suddenly, they could deliver orders faster and over a wider area with less fatigue. But it is also alleged that they did so with little regard to traffic rules, pedestrians, or other cyclists, creating what the city regards as a safety issue as well as a nuisance.

Technically, e-bikes are supposedly illegal inside city limits, though New York State considers them a legal form of transportation.

Clearly, municipalities, states, provinces, federal governments, the courts and law enforcement need to come to a consensus of how to treat these machines.

Are they bicycles or not?

A part of the problem stems from the fact there are basically two types of electric-assist bicycles. The largest segment generally conform to what a bicycle is expected to look like: two wheels, a tubular frame, handlebars, saddle, pedals, etc. The principle difference being the addition of an electric motor, which can take various forms from front or rear hub motors to centrally-integrated units built into the pedal assembly such as those being sold by Bosch. It's even possible to mount motors and batteries covertly inside the frame giving the bike every appearance of being a standard bike. It has been alleged that a winning European cyclist employed such a motor to give him an edge in at least one international cycling event.

The second type is a chimera of sorts. It more closely resembles your stereotypical moped or motorscooter. For this reason, I refer to them as e-mopeds.

Generally, they are heavier and don't easily lend themselves to being manually propelled, despite the presence of pedals, which their Chinese developers added so they would legally quality in China as bicycles. This classification meant owners weren't required to obtain a motorcycle operators license, registration and license plates, or liability insurance; saving the average worker a meaningful amount of money. This made them extremely popular across China where most of them are manufactured and sold, millions of them every year.

In the last decade, they found their way, in limited numbers, to North America. Europe has been a less productive market where more conventional motor scooters have long been the norm and EU-wide e-bike rules more clearly defined. Like more conventional e-bikes, e-moped's are restricted to a top speed of under 20 mph. Prices can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. The cheaper the machine, the less reliable it will be.

Because cycling is an important form of personal mobility in Northern Europe and not just recreational, European governments enacted regulations restricting not only the top speed of an e-bike, but also the size of the motor and when electric torque could be applied. This system became known as "pedelec."

When riding an pedelec in Europe, the electric motor can only provide additional assistance as the rider pedals. Sensors detect torque and speed and compensate only as needed. In other words, you have to pedal to get power, and that power is generally limited to less than 500 Watts peak, 250-350 Watts is normal.

In the US. the maximum is 750 Watts or 1 horsepower. Unlike Europe, it is legal to apply power without having to pedal. A twist or thumb throttle is handlebar-mounted very much like a motorcycle. New 'hybrid' systems just now entering the US market allow the rider to switch from throttle control to pedelec assistance. The maximum allowable speed in throttle mode is under 20 mph, although kits are available that can easily double this speed, but don't get caught on the street with one.

The trouble with electric-assisted bikes and low, but fully-powered e-mopeds is that they are perceived as posing a threat not only to pedestrians, but to other cyclists, especially when sharing dedicated bikeways. As a consequence, city ordinances that restrict "motorized vehicles" from bike and pedestrian paths and trails, in theory, can be applied to both e-bikes and e-mopeds. Where the level of cycling is comparatively low, there have been few instances of interpretations of such ordinances as specifically banning electric-assist bicycles, of either class. But as cycling increases, the issue is being raised: Do we allow them to share our dedicated bikeways or not?

One approach to getting a handle on this question is coming up with an agreed-upon definition of what is a bicycle, which brings us back to my original question: When is a bicycle not a bicycle?

EV World asked its readers if e-mopeds should be regarded as bicycles for regulatory purposes. 341 readers responded. Of those 69% (236) said "Yes." 21 percent (72) said "No." Ten percent (33) indicated they weren't sure. To help them understand what kind of vehicle we were asking about, we included a photo of a typical scooter-style e-moped, complete with pedals. So, the majority felt they should be classified as bicycles and, presumably, accorded the same privileges enjoyed by conventional bicycles.

Clearly, because e-mopeds, in particular, are under-powered, they shouldn't be forced to compete with regular vehicular traffic, but also because they are heavier and can offer higher sustained speeds than regular bicycles, they also pose a risk to cyclists on dedicated bikeways, including bike lanes and paths if operated inappropriately.

So, what to do about this new form of transportation? It doesn't make sense to ban them outright since they do provide value, especially as they provide a viable option for getting more people out of their cars when making short trips. It wouldn't be wise to restrict them to competing with two tons of steel and rubber on our streets and highways. Such a move would be tantamount to a death sentence for far too many riders. Certainly, allowing them on sidewalks isn't an option. For the moment, giving them access to bikeways is the only viable option. Requiring them to be licensed would provide some level of public control, as well as provide owners with a government mechanism for following up on cases of theft and vandalism.

Somehow we need to find a way to accommodate them, because they will become an increasingly important part of our post-petroleum, urbanized world

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