Over the past few years, electric bike popularity has significantly risen in America. While e-bikes have long been a staple of daily commuting in China and Europe, they took longer to catch on in the States. And the increase in prevalence hasn’t occurred without naysayers.
Many people don’t like the idea of electric bikes on streets and especially on mountain bike trails.
The debate, while multi-faceted and complicated, basically boils down to whether or not e-bikes should be treated as bicycles or as motor vehicles.
Current legal standings over electric bike use are vague at best. While e-bikes are legal for sale under federal law, it’s left up to the states on where they can be ridden, which has led to a hodgepodge of differing laws varying from county to county.
To Electric Bike or Not to Electric Bike: That is the Question
The debate over whether or not e-bikes should be treated as bicycles has many different arguments on both sides, although there are clearly more benefits than negatives.
Those who argue against electric bike use on mountain trails typically stand behind one of two arguments. They either believe that e-bikes will lead to a wave of e-bikers flooding the trails like some Blood Meridian-esque tribe of hipsters and elderly, or they argue that the speed of electric mountain bikes will lead to physical degradation of the trails.
Both arguments lack merit. Pedal assist technology is extremely unlikely to inspire a world of iPhone-gazing technophiles to suddenly fall in love with the call of the wild. And as far as the physical degradation of trails argument goes, the evidence suggests otherwise.
According to Blue Ridge Outdoors, “A study conducted in western Oregon by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), Bicycle Products Suppliers Association, and People for Bikes found soil displacement and erosion from e-bikes were comparable to mountain bikes, while dirt bikes took a much higher toll.”
This makes complete sense. Most e-bikes only travel up to 20 mph and use the same types of tires as regular mountain bikes.
But not everyone is against e-bikes. The benefits of e-bikes are being defended by enthusiasts ranging from the elderly to bicycle deliverymen. E-bikes allow older cyclists to stay in the game longer, giving them the assistance they need for steep hills or on hot days.
Many also argue that e-bikes open up cycling to people who may not have been able to previously participate in the activity due to health issues and injuries.
But nevertheless people continue to gripe about sharing their nature with those using clean electric-motor assistance.
Electric Bike Legislation Arises in State Governments
The debate over how to categorize e-bikes under the law has led to new legislation appearing before state governments.
In Colorado, according to Denver Channel, “A state bill, scheduled to be signed into law next week, will define categories of e-bikes to help with regulations. The bill divides electric bikes into the industry standard categories: Class 1 (the fastest growing) is pedal-assist with a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour; Class 2 provides assistance regardless of whether the rider is pedaling up to 20 miles per hour and Class 3 ceases to provide assistance at 28 miles per hour.”
This bill still doesn’t dictate where e-bikes can and cannot be ridden. That will be left to local governments. But it does provide direction.
In Idaho, elderly citizens have raised the e-bike question to little affect. According to KTVB, “[Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise] King created legislation this year defining pedal-assist bikes as being different from motorcycles, but didn’t introduce it. She had heard from people who were worried the pedal-assist bikes would damage trails. Boise officials had concerns about the impact on the Greenbelt and public trail system.”
California has also passed legislation that breaks down e-bikes into three classes distinguishing low power (less than 20 mph) from higher power pedelecs (over 28 mph).
While much of this legislation seems to be moving things in the right direction, we also see cities like New York cracking down on e-bikes. So far, in 2017, NYPD has confiscated 687 illegal e-bikes off the streets – more than all of 2016!
What’s sad is many of the riders punished by the NYPD and forced to pay a $500 fine are delivery workers who use the e-bikes to speed up their trips and increase their low-paying job earnings by getting a few more tips.
In this case, e-bikes help the community and economy. The NYPD is making criminals out of innocent hard-working people.
The debate will likely continue on for some time. But the clear benefits of e-bikes for the disabled, elderly, environment, and economy are sure to win out in the end.