What you need to know about e-bikes and the law
By Bob Mionske
For cyclists who ride for fitness, electric-assist bicycles, or e-bikes, may seem to miss the point. But when it comes to pedaling for transportation, more people might decide to get around on two wheels if they had access to one of these motorized machines. However, where and even whether it’s legal to ride an e-bike depends on a complex mix of federal, state, and local laws. Here are some of the rules involved.
Under federal law, if an e-bike has pedals that the rider can use to power the bicycle without the assistance of the electric motor, a motor of less than 1 horsepower, and a top motor speed below 20 mph, it is defined as a “low-speed electric bicycle,” and legally is considered a bicycle. But if the e-bike does not meet those requirements, it is classified as a motor vehicle. The federal law does not apply to e-bikes that are owner-assembled from a kit or from scratch—but some states do regulate such models. However, even when e-bikes are legally considered bicycles, federal law specifies that they may not be used on bike paths that have been built with the assistance of federal funding, unless a state or local law specifically permits e-bikes on bicycle or pedestrian paths.
E-bikes are also regulated by each state. When checking the specifics of your local laws, consider these questions.
Is it legal to ride an e-bike?
Not everywhere. For example, it’s not permitted in New York state, regardless of maximum speed or motor size (although a bill on hold in the state legislature aims to legalize e-bikes). New York City specifically prohibits e-bikes, and police are increasingly strict about enforcing the rule.
How fast can the e-bike go?
Some states, including Connecticut, Maryland, and Montana, allow higher maximum speeds than the federal limit.
How powerful can the motor be?
Several states allow horsepower greater than the federal maximum. Arizona does not regulate motor power at all.
Is a helmet required?
In Georgia, New Hampshire, and Oregon, riders under 16 must wear one. In California, Connecticut, and Iowa, helmets are required for all e-bike riders.
Is there a minimum age?
It varies. For example, it’s 14 in Alabama and New Hampshire, 16 in California, Illinois, and Iowa, and 18 in the District of Columbia.
Do you need a license?
It’s required in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Tennessee.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
This article, Power to the People, was origially published on Bicycling on OCtober 15, 2012.