The eBikes cometh

Electric assist bicycles are growing in popularity, but without aligned thinking and sound legislation, are we ready for them?

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle. Over those two centuries, bikes have evolved–slowly. But with the advent of the electric assist bicycle, two-wheeled evolution has taken a disruptive leap forward. What does this mean for road cyclists, trail riders, mountain bikers and commuters? It means we need to rethink issues of access and cycling infrastructure to determine where eBikes fit in, or others will do it for us.

Right now you can purchase an electric bicycle through a host of suppliers–from bike shops to eBay to eBike specialty stores. In Europe and Asia you can find eBikes everywhere: on the road, in bike lanes, on trails.

The current state ... of confusion

Perhaps it's not surprising for a new, disruptive technology, but the first problem is that Michigan law and Michigan trails have no real provision for eBikes. EBikes are currently classified as mopeds under Michigan law. They are not bicycles because they are not solely propelled by "human power." Michigan law defines moped as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with a motor that does not exceed 100 cubic centimeters piston displacement, cannot exceed 30 mph, and does not require the operator to shift gears.

Since eBikes do not have internal combustion engines, it is possible to argue they do not fit within this definition, but without specific provision, it's where they are currently placed. As mopeds, eBikes must be registered with the Secretary of State. No insurance is required, but mopeds must have a headlamp and a rear stoplight. If operated on a highway, a moped must be equipped with front and rear brakes and a host of other equipment.

EBikes are currently not permitted on any nonmotorized trails under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which defines "motorized vehicle" as a device that is "propelled by an energy source other than muscle or wind."

Not all Michigan trails are DNR trails. So determining where an eBike is permitted requires contacting the entity owning or managing that trail. The best rule of thumb is: if a trail is posted or otherwise publicized as nonmotorized, eBikes are not permitted.

Meeting the eBikes

On October 9, members of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance (MTGA) and a panel of experts came together at the MTGA annual meeting to discuss laws surrounding eBikes as well as the pros and cons of allowing electric-assist bicycles on Michigan's nonmotorized trails. Panelists included: Kristin Bennett (Michigan Department of Natural Resources), Andrea Ketchmark (North Country Trail Association), Nancy Krupiarz (Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance) Bryan Waldman (League of Michigan Bicyclists), John Waterman (Programs to Educate All Cyclists), and Melissa Werkman (Michigan Mountain Biking Association).

Before the panel convened, attendees spent the morning trying out eBikes of all persuasions supplied by manufacturers and bike shops, including commuting, recreational, off-road and working (cargo) models. Most eBikes were pedal assist–you have to pedal in order for an electric assist motor to kick in. All were speed regulated, typically with a top speed of 20 mph. The electric assist was silent. You began pedaling and, with an effort that would usually propel you at 10 mph, you are quickly travelling at 15 or 18 mph. Stand out? Not much. With batteries and motors inside the frame, it was difficult to tell some e-models from regular bikes.

Easy answers? Not so fast.

It would seem that this is an easy yes/no question for trail users. Either you embrace the technology, welcoming the opportunity to go a bit farther and faster, or you simply retort: "What part of nonmotorized don't you understand?" If all of our trails were the same, it might be a black and white answer. But as we learned: it's complicated.

Let's start with the easy stuff: Most people would agree that eBikes make sense on the road and in bike lanes. They can get more people out of their cars. More cyclists = safer cycling. EBikes can extend commuting range and make two-wheeled errands and shopping easier. All good. But what happens when traditionally nonmotorized multiuse trails connect with roads and bike lanes as part of a bicycle commuting network? It gets complicated.

Even on purely recreational trails, many towns in the middle of a long rail trail would appreciate more people reaching them before they turn around and head back to the trailhead. We also discussed how the experience of our beautiful Michigan trails could be extended to as many people as possible, regardless of their abilities, with the help of electric assist bikes. Again, complicated.

On the other side of the equation, some trail advocates argue that many nonmotorized trails should simply stay that way. There are also very specific objections surrounding trail design and land access. The Michigan Mountain Biking Association, in a formally adopted policy, posits that long-fought-for access will be jeopardized, that eBike riders may make the trail dangerous for other trail users, and that singletrack mountain bike trails that have been designed specifically and uniquely for nonmotorized use could be damaged.

Some say it should be the local land manager's decision of whether or not to allow eBikes, but a checkered pattern of permissions from one trail jurisdiction to the next could further confuse the situation. With regard to assisting people of limited ability to access trails, opponents say electric bicycles are allowed right now due to the Americans for Disability Act.

Let's get our Act together

It's clear that eBike legislation is needed in Michigan to address licensing, regulation, and usage on roads and trails of all kinds. Some states, like California, have passed comprehensive legislation that classifies eBikes according to speed and other criteria and designates where they are allowed. For example, in California, 28 mph-capable eBikes are allowed in bike lanes, and low power, pedal-assist electric bikes can use bike paths except when prohibited by local law (link: The nonmotorized trail community needs to come together, thoroughly explore the eBike issue, and provide input for legislation that makes sense for all users, all cyclists, and all trails. This may not be easy. We in the silent sports community often spend more time fighting ourselves than standing together on issues that affect us. Together, we have a strong voice. If we are not willing, or too fractured, to speak as one, there are plenty of other voices that will happily chime in to draft eBike legislation–eBike manufacturers among them.

A few months ago one of our members was discussing this issue and its many complexities with a friend from one of Michigan's motorsports associations who chuckled and observed: "You nonmotorized folks don't get it. You spend all your energy arguing in public. Heck, we argue too, often and loudly, but we do it behind closed doors. When the doors open we speak as one. It gets us somewhere." We could learn a lot from that. EBikes just might be a good place to start.

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