Getting Around on Two Wheels, with a Motor, Instead of Four

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

e-bike-

MassDOT’s sustainability initiative calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and for promoting transportation modes such as bicycling, walking, and public transit. Electric bikes are a viable, environmentally-friendly way to get around.

Electric bikes, also known as e-bikes, are bicycles with an electric assist motor attached to the frame. With some e-bikes, the motor supplements pedal power as needed; with other e-bikes, the rider can choose to not pedal at all. There are currently close to 230 million e-bikes worldwide. They are especially popular in China, which has over 200 million of them, in other parts of Asia, and in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. U.S. e-bike sales are small compared to sales in other parts of the world, but U.S. sales are growing. It’s estimated that 263,000 e-bikes were sold in the U.S. in 2017, an increase of 25% over the previous year.

As described on an e-bikes website, e-bikes “provide all the advantages of a regular bicycle: fun exercise, free parking, zero emissions, and freedom from gridlock, while eliminating one of the bicycle’s more serious drawbacks, lack of power.” Because of their power assist, including on hills and with longer distances, e-bikes can be an option for people who might otherwise not be willing, or able, to bicycle for certain trips. This includes people traveling to work who don’t want to get sweaty during their commute and have to change or shower at the end of their trip.  It also includes older people who would stop biking without power assist.

E-bikes are also environmentally friendly. Transportation researcher Mirjan Bouwman from the Netherlands has estimated that e-bikes are thirteen times more energy efficient than a typical four-door car and six times more energy efficient than rail transit. E-bikes are also less expensive than a car. A typical e-bike sold in the U.S. costs between $1,000 and $3,000. In some situations, families have decided to purchase an electric bike, in lieu of having a second car. One example of a versatile e-bike is the cargo bike.

Some bike sharing programs now have e-bikes, which can help make them more affordable and further increase their use. The first e-bike only bike share program in the U.S. started last summer in Park City, Utah. Another e-bike bike share will be starting this year in the cities of Davis, Sacramento, and West Sacramento, California. Some regular bike share programs, such as in Birmingham, Alabama, have expanded to include e-bikes. In Massachusetts, bike share programs currently exist or will be starting up this year, in a number of cities including Boston, Worcester, Revere, and Quincy. None of the Massachusetts bike share programs includes e-bikes yet.

As e-bikes have become more popular, some cities have restricted or prohibited their use, citing safety concerns. This has been the case in a number of Chinese cities, and in New York City as well.

In Massachusetts, a bicycle is considered a “low-speed electric bicycle” under Federal law (15 U.S.C. § 2085) that does not have to be registered with the state Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) if it meets all of the following criteria:  has as two or three wheels; has fully operable pedals; has an electric motor of less than 750 watts (one horsepower); and has a maximum speed of less than 20 miles per hour (mph) on a paved level surface, when powered solely by the motor.  “Low-speed electric bicycles” can be used on any roadways that bicycles can, and anyone under age 16 who is riding one is required to have a helmet.

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