Ebikes: A pedal is a pedal

A bill was recently introduced in the Idaho legislature that would treat a certain classification of electric bike as a plain ol’ bike.  This action spurred much needed debate about the legal status of ebikes in Boise, where their current classification as motor vehicles makes them illegal to use on the greenbelt.  I’m convinced ebike naysayers have no pedal to stand on.

The Boise greenbelt is a paved multi-use path along the Boise river that is enjoyed by walkers, runners, skaters, and cyclists for recreation, exercise, and commuting.  The most interesting argument I’ve read against ebikes on the greenbelt stated simply, “The designation non-motorized should mean something .”  Indeed, what does non-motorized mean for a bicycle?  This may seem counter-intuitive, but it can’t just mean no motor.   The essence of a motor is that it provides motive power to a vehicle.  When it comes to bicycles, a gasoline engine is a motor, but so is the human body.  One may perform better than the other but that only matters if trying to control variables to ensure a fair race, and travelling on the greenbelt is not a race.

Why favor one type of motor over another?  Because the “bad” type of motor envisioned on the greenbelt has undesirable traits or side effects.  The term “motorized” is really just a placeholder for these undesirable traits.  Considering the type of motors that existed when the prohibition was enacted, it’s easy to come up with the list of traits they represent: Noisy, smelly, too fast, and too easy (i.e. no exercise involved).  None of this is true for pedal-assist ebikes.  Technology has changed and our laws need to change with it.

Probably a better description of a bike for the purpose of regulation is “human-powered” rather than “non-motorized”.  But even here a pedal-assist ebike qualifies; it won’t go anywhere without human power.  I’m guessing an out-of-shape rider seeking fitness will expend more energy on an ebike than a fit rider on a high-end road bike.

I’m further guessing that most folks who oppose ebikes on bike paths have never ridden one. Pedal-assist electric bikes are bikes in every sense of the word, but with a built-in tailwind. They go a long way toward leveling the playing field between a strong rider and a weaker one, for example allowing my wife and I to enjoy riding together again.  The electric boost helps mitigate the three biggest reasons a casual rider might choose to drive a car or stay at home:  hills, headwinds, and long distances.  There is a slight whirring sound to some electric motors, but they are still as quiet as anything but a high-end road bike in perfect repair, and probably quieter than a typical cruiser.  You can get just as good a workout on an ebike but at a faster and more consistent speed. The benefits for folks with physical limitations are obvious but I think it is impractical and just plain silly to try to distinguish between those people and others who are physically able to ride a conventional bike but just want a boost.

Perhaps the most insidious argument against ebikes is fear of the “slippery slope”.  In this line of thinking, allowing ebikes on the greenbelt will lead to the use of electric scooters and motorcycles that travel way too fast to safely mix with pedestrians and conventional cyclists.  This conclusion ignores two critical points:  1) it is easy to specify in regulations and enforce in designs that ebikes not travel faster than a certain speed, generate more than a certain amount of power, and require pedaling to activate the electric assist.  And 2) we’ve already traveled down that slippery slope without even invoking electric motors:  conventional road bikes can travel significantly faster than any pedal-assist ebike allowed today on multi-use pathways (for example in California, where they already have ebike-friendly regulations in place).   With these regulations, a bike racer is far more likely to be an issue on the greenbelt than someone riding an ebike.  And by posting a speed limit, the responsibility for safe operation of the vehicle is shifted from the vehicle to where it belongs: the rider.

So on the greenbelt ebikes are slower than road bikes, quieter than cruisers, emit no pollution, increase utility for commuting and errands, and are a good, low impact form of exercise.  What then is the point of banning them?

Even if it was a good idea to prohibit ebikes, it probably isn’t practical to do so.  As technology improves it will become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a bike and a bike with electric assist.  At some point any law that bans them will be meaningless.  A good example of such technology is the Copenhagen Wheel, probably the first Bring Your Own Bike electric technology.  Here you start with your favorite bike and simply replace the rear wheel.  The battery, motor, and control system are all contained within the hub of the wheel.  Aside from a larger hub (and a bright red paint job!), it is externally indistinguishable from a conventional bike.

CopenhagenWheel.jpg

The proposed Idaho legislation restricts ebikes to 20 MPH and 750 watts.  I favor adding pedal assist to the list of requirements.  Pedal assist is where the motor is activated in response to the rider applying power to the bike via the pedals.  It would prevent reliance on throttle-style control systems that eliminate the need for human exertion and operate more like scooters or motorcycles.  One complaint I’ve seen about the power restriction is that 750 watts is way too much power.  It’s worth noting that 750 watts on any current ebike is very different than 750 watts on a racing bike.  There is a big difference in efficiency between the two vehicles that consumes a big chunk of that 750 watts.  Requiring that the electric assist stop after 20 MPH should mitigate any problem with excessive power.

Yet another argument against ebikes is that the greenbelt isn’t for commuting, presuming I suppose that commuting is all an ebike is good for.  Neither assumption is true.  Hang out on the greenbelt near downtown Boise on a nice weekday and count the number of commuters vs recreational cyclists.  If you think regulating vehicles on the greenbelt is difficult, try regulating intent.

Currently my interest in ebikes is mostly in the technology—I don’t need or want electric assist.  But after aging a few more years, who knows.  On the other hand, for my wife an ebike would mean the difference between riding and either driving or staying home.  It would significantly increase the amount of exercise she gets.  But she mostly rides on the greenbelt.  We probably won’t invest in electric assist until rational legislation allows her to use it without being considered a criminal.

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