Why Are E-Bike Regulations So Random?

Nobody is thinking about them in the larger transportation picture.

Probably Illegal in Ontario
Probably illegal in Ontario, Canada.

Solskin/ Getty Images

Simon Cowell could tell you something about e-bike regulation. Last year he was severely injured after being thrown from a vehicle that everybody called an e-bike but was in fact an electric motorcycle. He is better now and back on bikes, but recently told TMZ:

This is not what I would call an e-bike, what I had was basically a motorcycle with an electric engine,.. this one that I was riding on the weekend was a different kind of bike where you have to pedal, you can put the power on gently... I would say to anyone who is buying an electric bike, buy one where you have to pedal.

Cowell learned the hard way that there is a reason the vast majority of e-bikes in Europe have pedals you have to use, motors that are nominally 250 watts (peak power is much higher), and a top speed of 15.5 mph. These are standards developed in countries where lots of people ride bikes, and where e-bikes have to play nicely in the vast network of bike lanes. They have experience and deep knowledge, and you can go from country to country in the whole European Union and the bikes are subject to pretty much the same rules.

In North America, there are few national rules for e-bikes. In the United States, there are some federal safety standards, but traffic codes are regulated at the state level.

According to PeopleforBikes:

"Nearly 30 states have incorporated e-bikes into their traffic codes and regulated them similarly to traditional bicycles. However, approximately 20 states still have outdated laws that lack a specific classification for electric bicycles. In these states, electric bicycles are regulated under a patchwork of laws aimed at mopeds or scooters, or in some cases, it is not obvious how electric bicycles are classified at all. This creates significant confusion for consumers, retailers, and manufacturers, and it discourages the public from taking advantage of the benefits that electric bicycles offer." 
California bike rules

People for Bikes

PeopleforBikes created a model electric bike law that has been adopted by many states, setting up three classes of bikes. They might all look alike but they have different maximum speeds ranging from 20 to 28 mph, different controls, and are resulting in state laws that give them different rights and requirements. There is also a separate category for mopeds. There doesn't seem to be any logic to this and it seems to ignore all precedents set in countries where people know e-bikes, but at least it is a set of definitions that manufacturers, vendors, and regulators can use as a starting point. But it doesn't stop local and state weirdness, such as when New York City wrote its own rules that we described as "unfair to older or disabled riders, and long-distance commuters."

Meanwhile in Ontario, Canada...

Gazelle bikes in London Ontario
Illegal in Ontario.

Ben Cowie/ London Bicycle Cafe

In Canada, the federal government used to have limited regulation of "power-assisted bicycles." But in February 2021, Transport Canada threw up its hands in the face of all the new micromobility options and eliminated the regulation. Anders Swanson of Vélo Canada Bikes had complained to the prime minister that this was a step backward, to no avail:

"Federal de-harmonization would also create confusion among users across jurisdictions and worsen already serious existing industry import and export challenges. Establishing a patchwork of non-harmonized safety regulations will also inhibit micro-mobility adoption to move people and goods in provinces and territories across Canada during a difficult time and with the looming threat of a climate crisis."

In the province of Ontario, we are seeing Swanson's prediction playing out in real time, as the government introduces Bill 282, “The Moving Ontarians More Safely (MOMS) Act.” Ben Cowie of the London Bicycle Café walked Treehugger through the legislation, noting it appeared to be written by staffers who "don't know the difference between a 1000 watt motor and a 1000 Wh battery."

Bill 282

Province of Ontario Bill 282

For instance, they literally reinvent the wheel by setting a minimum wheel width of 1.37 inches and a minimum diameter of 13.77 inches. Cowie tells Treehugger that "your Gazelle e-bike is now illegal." That's because they took a number from the previous scooter legislation. Bike wheel rims are almost all less than 1.37 inches and tires are usually larger, and nobody knows what they are talking about. Then there is the diameter: 13.7 inches is a standard in the industry and the province just banned Bromptons, tricycles, recumbents, and adaptive bikes used by disabled people.

Many cargo and adaptive bikes would also be illegal under the 121-pound rule, which makes no sense anyway because Cowie says "every other vehicle on the road is measured by Gross Vehicle Weight, which is what really matters. Let's compare apples to apples."

Notwithstanding the legislation, Cowie is going to keep doing what he has always done: selling Class 1 e-bikes like the ones used in Europe, where the great majority of e-bikes are sold. He intends to ignore "unreasonable legislation that excludes 90% of the world's bikes." It's not like the police are going to be issued micrometers to measure rim widths.

He also complains: "It's bonkers how this is playing out. They are not seeing what is happening, that sales of e-bikes are doubling and tripling." Cowie notes the governments still see bicycles as "toys that don't belong on the roads."

Bikes and e-bikes are transportation just like cars; they are just lighter.

Anders Swanson on a bike

Anders Swanson

Swanson expressed his frustration with bike regulation in general in a tweet to Treehugger: "Yes, there are a few things to work out. Trade regulation harmony is a real issue, but generally, we just need to copy the places that figured this out already, keep it consistent across the country and then incentivize the heck out of e-bikes of every kind. The quicker the better.”
He goes on to suggest that this is part of a much bigger problem of the larger transportation picture, and how bikes and e-bikes have to be part of a continuum based on weight and carbon footprint.

"The ins and outs of regulation distract from the real issue. On the spectrum from F-350 to ballet slipper, even the heaviest cargo bike is a godsend. Other countries have figured this out already and the pandemic made clear what people love. Canada should adopt a vision of transport in which you end up with the right infrastructure ready for the lightest vehicles. Think about it: if Canada/Ontario or the Yukon or whoever wanted to usher in a low carbon future, you would think it would set itself up to prioritize transport by weight. By default, anything lighter than what we’re currently using for the same trip would win out. And by the way, like magic, you start to tackle the real safety issue which we’re all ignoring."

He calls for unified regulation of transportation based on addressing everything this way. We’d calibrate all policies aimed at reducing the weight (vehicle type) and kilometers (land use) and speed (law/design). In that world, he says, an e-cargo bike is the first thing people need to solve simple problems like “how do I get these little monsters home from daycare uphill and grab a melon.”

Swanson is in the "bikes are climate action" territory here—that bikes are transportation and can be part of the climate solution if anyone would pay attention.

"Here’s a question: Have you seen Canada’s overall transport plan? Or Ontario's plan to reduce the average vehicle weight per trip taken? No, you haven’t because those plans aren’t there. That utter lack of clarity is how we can simultaneously have this how-big-can-you-build-an-SUV-before-its-technically-an-armored-personnel-carrier arms war, where cars get complete amnesty while somehow bring gaslighted into believing it's some dad taking his toddler and a pumpkin home from the store in an e-bike that deserves to be scrutinized”.
Emissions by transport mode


Swanson is right: We shouldn't be writing bike and e-bike legislation in a vacuum. It should be regulated by the departments and ministries of transport at the national level because bikes are not toys. They are part of the transportation system, somewhere between his ballet slippers and cars. They are among the most efficient and low-carbon solutions we have.

The mom in the SUV and the mom with the cargo bike are doing the same thing—getting their kids and melons home from daycare; moving people and things from point A to B—and it is the low-carbon cargo bike that should be getting priority.