Electric Bikes: Where do they belong?

They’re powered vehicles. No, they’re bicycles with some assistance. Let them on the trails. Keep them off the trails. The arguments on both sides are vocal, and the question persists. How do you classify the many different types of electric bikes currently for sale? It’s not fair to lump them into one or two classes, but the classifications created certainly need clear guidelines for the bike builders. Until that happens, the arguments will continue.

Recently, I’ve taken a greater interest in electrified forms of transportation. At the same time, I’ve also gotten into mountain biking. There’s a convergence there I didn’t expect as more and more bicycle makers are building e-bike models. These are pedal bikes that have a battery and small motor, which can be used to provide assistance while pedaling. On the mountain bike e-bikes I occasionally see on the trail, there is no throttle. It’s an assist system that makes pedaling an easier task.

Hardcore mountain bike folks initially railed against these rides. But the tide is turning and more acceptance is being found. And for good reason. An e-bike allows for more trail coverage during a riding session, but it also allows for those who may be older and not as able to get out and ride. Or those with injuries or disabilities that would otherwise make pedaling quite difficult, it allows them to hit the trails and enjoy life.

There’s another type of e-bike that’s also making news. The throttle-powered electric bike, which exists in a space somewhere above or below a moped depending on the model discussed. These have throttles but also pedals, which means they can be ridden in a pedal-assist manner or simply by using the throttle. And they can get up to good speed too, with on-road legal Class 3 versions being capped at 28 mph and having “off-road modes” that let them push the speeds far higher. These are great forms of transportation and make a lot of sense for commuters in areas where a car might not be a necessity on a daily basis. Personally, I plan on adding a Super73 RX at some point in the future. It makes for a great errand runner, work commuter, track-side pit bike, and general electric fun mobile.

And it’s Super73 that wants to be part of the discussion helping shape electric bike classification and policy.

Recently, e-bikes made news because they were given the green light to be ridden through national parks. Some rejoiced at this notion, while others rolled their eyes and balled their fists. Some believe that these bikes should be (and in some places, still are) classified as motorized vehicles. Thus they’re treated like dirt bikes and motorcycles. If that’s how the bikes are classified, then they are clearly not going to be allowed on trails. Other areas have given them a wider berth and reclassified the pedal-assist bikes as non-motorized, which also doesn’t make sense. There’s definitely a motor in there. It’s just not a braap-capable two or four-stroke.

So how do we sort this out? Super73 wants to work alongside the PeopleForBikes organization to help lawmakers figure this out.

As one of the leading voices for the bicycle industry, the efforts of PeopleForBikes at the federal, state, and local levels have helped to push for bicycle and e-bike legislation reform, leverage private and public funding for bicycle infrastructure projects, and serve as a valuable resource for the bicycle and e-bike community. As a result of its advocacy, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation proposed new regulations (“rulemaking”) in early April regarding e-bike use on federal lands. If adopted, the proposed regulations could lead to the following:

  • E-bikes would no longer be defined as motor vehicles or off-road vehicles, but have a standalone, sensible, and modern definition

  • The three classes of e-bikes would be properly defined

  • E-bike riders would have similar rights, privileges, and duties as traditional bike riders

  • Agency officials would be authorized to allow e-bikes on roads, paths, and trails where they are currently prohibited

  • Local land managers would maintain significant control, in partnership with the public, to make access decisions

I think this makes a lot of sense. And it’s smart of them to want to get this properly sorted. Then you avoid the anger on both sides, when there’s a clear understanding of what we’re dealing with bike-wise and where and how fast those bikes can go. Personally, I think certain classes of e-bike are a great tool for a day on the trails or exploring our beautiful national parks. Should we allow electric dirt bikes on the same path as hikers and traditional cyclists? Of course not.  But pedal-assist bikes can help more people get out and enjoy the world around them.

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7 responses to “Electric Bikes: Where do they belong?”

  1. Pinkerton9 Avatar

    If there is a defined class of e-bike that operates in the same manner and speed as a regular bike, and still has pedals, there is no compelling reason to deny access to the same spaces as traditional bikes, with the expectation that they are used in the same manner as traditional bikes. There will always be people who feel entitled to blast down a shared bike-pedestrian path at 20+ MPH, whether on pedal power or batteries. The pedal bike enthusiasts for the most part know when to use the path, when to use the street, and how to behave on the trails, because enthusiasts by definition are highly interested in their pursuits. I can understand bike enthusiasts snobbery (:::nicer word::: skepticism) because there will be a learning curve for people who couldn’t pedal a bike over 15 MPH to save their lives (:::ahem:: to put it more nicely, casual e-bike owners), but that’s no reason to deny e-bikes the same freedoms. I agree that this does mean a lot to people with mobility issues, not to take away from that, this will be a great freedom for them. At the same time, we also need to get back to the notion that personal freedoms are wonderful, but they carry a weight of personal responsibility. (end soapbox)

    1. Jeff Glucker Avatar
      Jeff Glucker

      Well said

  2. Batshitbox Avatar

    Allowing more access to the trails means having more traffic on the trails. Can the trails handle the wear & tear? Will they become overcrowded? People like to go for a hike to get away from industrial technology, and will you trade that vanishing experience so that people with bone spurs can see the trees, too? What happens when someone with a bum knee gets all the hell the way up the hill and the scooter poops out? Now we have to get them both off the hill. An experience that was supposed to evade reliance on technology becomes industrialized.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act provides access to parks, but only as far in as the rangers think a disabled person should go. There’s a harsh-reality reason for that; the wilderness is not kind to the disabled. Once you sanitize it and make it civilized, it’s no longer wilderness.

    So no. No to one ore step in the march to push the frontier further and further away. No to conquering nature and bending it to man’s needs. Just no.

    1. 0A5599 Avatar

      I have a friend who competes in Iron Man triathlons. He was on a training ride and wiped out. He woke up at a hospital and doesn’t remember being evacuated by helicopter.

      I have to believe that was a significantly more expensive rescue than helping an ecyclist with a dead battery. Would your opinion change if ecyclists had to show proof of membership in some sort of road service plan before being allowed on the hill?

      1. Batshitbox Avatar

        Your pal was able to be airlifted because the first responders weren’t already busy carrying a moped down the trail.

  3. crank_case Avatar

    Europe already has pretty clear definitions of the point at which a “pedelec” (electric bicyle) becomes a moped, and therefore a small motorcycle, if perhaps a little on the restrictive side. A Pedelec is defined as:

    Motor power up to 250 W (continuous)
    Motor is active only when the pedals are turned
    Highest speed of 25 km/h (15.5 mph) with motor assistance

    The requirement of motor only active when pedals are turned seems slightly moot when the power and speed are already defined.If you go any distance, you won’t use motor control only anyway to save battery, but seems to have no real safety reason.15.5 mph might not seem much, but if you maintain that as a constant speed, going through a city and cutting through traffic, you’ll make surprisingly decent real world time on a journey. The rule has also left those electric kick scooter things in the cold, being technically illegal in a lot of Euro countries.

    As Pinkerton rightly points out, plenty of pedal only cyclists can exceed 15mph on tarmac and there’s a debate about whether there should be some allowance for “fast ebikes” as it might encourage using road bike style ebikes for longer commutes.

  4. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    As a mountain biker I can say that allowing e-bikes on MTB trails is the stuff of epic flame wars on par with the equally contentious arguments about dumbing down trails by removing obstacles or creating less technical lines. While I see e-assist as incredibly useful in urban areas on cargo bikes and commuter bikes and I am supportive of disabled riders ultimately I think motors and MTB trails don’t mix well. As with trail obstacle removal it misses the point that mountain biking is supposed to be hard. I would be open to some type of permit scheme to allow e-bikes for disabled riders on some trails but no way do I want a wide open system and I would only allow e-assist bikes on mtb trails. Throttle controlled electric bikes and pure electric bikes should be treated as mopeds and motorcycles with the same licensing, registration and trail access as gasoline powered vehicles.

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