No longer just for mechanical or electronics nerds, electric bicycles are now commonplace in everyday garages as well as the showrooms of all major bicycle manufacturers.
A quick look through Craigslist or the ads on a Buy, Swap & Sell site reveal at least a couple of pages of eBikes, as commuters and enthusiasts alike trade up for newer, more technically advanced models.
Although a patent for an electric bicycle (similar in style to a small motorbike) was first filed in 1895, the last two decades have seen their design and development improve significantly.
With longer battery life, more power and lighter frames, there is little not to like about the advancement in this field.
But does the addition of a motor change where you can ride this kind of bike? Do you need a license? What about registration? Are they bikes or are they vehicles? Where is the line drawn?
This jagged line is where things get interesting. Whether you need a license for a particular cycle depends on two main parameters:
- the specifications and combination of features your bike has (listed below), and
- the regulations in the area you want to ride in.
All of these factors vary widely by area, state and country, so you must make sure you know your bike (or any bike you plan on buying) so that you don’t end up inadvertently breaking the law and facing a hefty fine.
And if you think you can just fly under the radar because this might be too hard to police, keep in mind the scores of delivery riders in New York City that have been slapped with hefty $500 fines and had their electric bicycles confiscated.
Although there is an active bill in the New York State Senate pushing for change to the laws surrounding eBikes and eScooters, it is still considered illegal to ride these until such laws get passed.
While NYC might be the only state stipulating such harsh penalties and opposition to legalising these ‘motorized vehicles’, there are many other states with unclear or problematic regulations.
So, let’s make sure we’re informed about what we can know… the features and specs of your bike. Here we’ll look at
- your eBike’s power source,
- the maximum power output your bike’s capable of,
- whether you have pedal-assist or throttle-assist, and
- the maximum speed your eBike can achieve.
Once you know these things, you can reconcile them against your local laws and see if you’re ‘good to go’ as you are, or if you do indeed need to be licenced.
What powers your eBike?
Many bicycles powered by more than just human endurance fall into the category of being an eBike.
Generally speaking, if your ride uses petrol or diesel, there’s a fair chance it’s classed as a ‘motorized’ vehicle.
Depending on the engine’s capacity, you may or may not need a license.
In most states, if the output is over 50cc, you need to be licensed.
Specific requirements for each of the states and provinces of the US and Canada can be found via the Transport Research and Education Centre (TREC) at Portland State University, or on the Electric Bicycle Laws Wikipedia page.
While federal laws governing eBike product safety and standards do exist, the regulation and control of their use are left up to each state.
Some areas include bikes with small combustion motors into their electric bike laws, or because they haven’t further refined their definitions, class battery-powered bikes as motorcycles or mopeds.
Being fully aware of your eBike’s features and the laws governing your area is the surest way to avoid fines.
Maximum power output
Most eBike batteries provide their output in terms of wattage, the number you’ll need to know to determine if you have to be licensed to ride in your state.
The tables in the links above stipulate the maximum power output allowable in your state, so be sure to check them.
Now, what do you do if your bike has a lot of other information, but doesn’t specify the wattage?
Luckily there’s a simple formula to work it out.
As long as you know the voltage (V or volts) of your battery and the maximum amount of current (peak current) that flows through the controller from the battery to the motor, called the amperage (A or amp), you can easily find the wattage.
All you have to do is multiply the two numbers.
For Example: A 24V battery with 15amp peak current gives 360 watts of power (24V x 15A = 360W)
Your wattage is the first piece of information you’ll need to determine your licensing requirements. Second, is whether your electric bike can keep you moving without your input.
Is your eBike pedal-assist or throttle-assist?
Heres how to find out:
eBikes need to be pedaled, plain and simple. The motor only kicks in if it senses the pedals turning. These motors cut out when pedaling stops and also when their top speed is reached.
Throttle-assist bikes on the other hand, act more like a regular motorcycle or scooter, where the motor is engaged via a handgrip-throttle and pedaling isn’t necessary.
These electric bikes, too, often have an automatic cut-out feature built into the motor so that you can’t breach a maximum speed limit.
The third important factor is your eBike’s maximum speed capacity.
It sounds simple, but this can also get confusing, as some states list throttle-assist speeds (those gained by use of the motor alone), and others list pedal-assist speeds (the maximum speed reached with a combination of human and motor power).
The National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL), in its Legislative Primer on State Electric Bicycle Laws, focuses on the main category that eBikes seem to fall into – low-speed electric bicycles.
Low-speed electric bicycles, as defined by Public Law No: 107-319 (HR727) refers to
“a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.”
This definition makes understanding specific local laws much more straightforward for those states who have taken on the ‘low-speed electric bicycle’ description.
As these bikes, “shall not be considered to be a motor vehicle within the ambit of Federal transportation law.”
Meaning that the licensing and registration rules that govern other types of motorized vehicles, will generally not apply.
Once again, be sure to check the linked tables to find out what maximum speed capabilities apply to your state.
You might be thinking, “Well, I’m a pretty gun cyclist,” or, “I’ve seen how fast those pros can ride, how can they make sure we ride under a certain speed limit?”. Of course, many cyclists can reach speeds higher than the maximum limit specified above.
But concerning the law, the motor of your eBike needs to be capable of cutting out once you reach that maximum speed.
Stipulating classes of eBikes
They have gone a step further than just defining the difference between a low-powered eBike and other motorized vehicles, and have created three classes of eBikes.
These classifications delineate between pedal- and throttle-assisted bikes and the maximum speeds of which they are capable.
To date, 22 states have taken up these classifications and are using them to guide their legislation. Make sure to follow the links to see if your state is one of them.
Other potential licensing factors
It’s easy to get lost in the myriad details when determining if you need a license for your electric bicycle. Just don’t forget to consider the other factors that could land you with a fine if you forget about them.
Even if you don’t need a license, individual states and provinces can have minimum age requirements for eBike cyclists.
Some laws even delineate if you can ride your cycle on shared walkways, defined cycleways, or only on vehicular roadways. Knowledge of what your area deems lawful should be well known before you head out on your first ride.
Remember regular safety precautions
In addition to the actual laws, do keep in mind the general safety measures you can take when riding. Regardless of the legislation, a helmet is always a good idea, as are closed-in shoes.
The only people who don’t wear shoes on a bike are the ones who never grazed the tops of their toes on the gravel while skidding suddenly to a stop as a kid. And my guess is, they’ll learn the lesson pretty quickly!
Of course, lights and reflective vests, at night, work wonders to ensure you can see and are seen. Obeying standard road rules and using basic riding etiquette also ensures you not only get where you’re going but enjoy your ride.
Using the links in this document is an excellent start to knowing whether you need to be licensed to ride your electric bike in your area legally.
From there, you should definitely check your local vehicle code and state’s legislation.
The technology in this industry is changing rapidly. As a result, the types and capacity of standard-issue motors in modern eBikes is also ever-growing and changing.
We can expect, then, that the laws and policing of these will continue to change too.
To that end, I urge you to check what your local authority deems legal, and if you are traveling, be sure you know what’s acceptable at your destination.
You would hate to end up slapped with a fine for what is considered acceptable in your home state.
So, once again, there’s a lot of conflicting information, and it can be confusing to know where you stand. If you want to make sure you’re covered, check the references and stay informed.
Know the relevant facts, avoid the fines and enjoy the ride.