Rhode Island is one of the few states in the country yet to pass laws regulating electric bicycles. A pair of bills before the Rhode Island General Assembly would change that. The companion bills before the House and Senate would make it clear that electric bicycles can be used on bike paths, and they would prevent municipalities from restricting their use any further.
Since they rolled off the assembly lines, electric bicycles have created a quandary for regulators.
Are they bikes? Are they mopeds? Should they be treated like motor vehicles?
Should they act like cars on roads? Should they act like bikes on bike paths? Should they even be allowed on bike paths?
The questions escalated here in the East Bay last summer for a number of reasons. First, the e-bikes are clearly proliferating, with more people buying, using and renting them every summer. An industry website predicts 40 million electric bicycles will be sold worldwide in 2023.
Secondly, a handful of high-profile accidents put a spotlight on safety issues, with some traditional bike path users complaining that the new contraptions go too fast and create too much risk for other users if they are not handled properly.
Rhode Island is one of the few states in the country yet to pass laws regulating electric bicycles. They are currently included in the list of “Motor and Other Vehicles,” but nothing further defines how and where they may be used. A pair of bills before the Rhode Island General Assembly would change that.
The companion bills before the House and Senate would enact a number of regulations (see separate box). They would make it clear that electric bicycles can be used on bike paths, and they would prevent municipalities from restricting their use any further.
The first point has been a matter of significant confusion and contention. Most of Rhode Island’s bike paths are regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and last summer a DEM spokesperson said e-bikes are not allowed in places where “motorized vehicles” are restricted — places like the East Bay Bike Path, Blackstone River Bikeway or other state properties. That was a policy perspective from DEM.
However, current state law makes it clear that electric bicycles are not “motorized vehicles.” Thus, police seem to have no power to restrict them on bike paths — it is a legal quandary.
Good for the envionment
One of the leading advocates for the electric bikes bill is Kathleen Gannon, board chair for the nonprofit Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition. Gannon and her group have introduced versions of the legislation for several years. They thought they had reached the finish line last year, when the full House of Representatives approved the legislation. The Rhode Island Senate, however, failed to take up the bill, so it never went forward. They are hopeful it passes this year.
“The bill is based on model legislation that has been used in 39 other states,” Gannon said. She believes Rhode Island is overdue in regulating these devices.
“These bikes are wildly popular, not just in Rhode Island but around the world. They’re selling like crazy,” Gannon said. “They really expand the opportunities for people to bike.”
The advocate community are fond of many aspects of the bikes. They argue the bikes are empowering for people who might struggle to use a traditional bicycle, such as the elderly or those with disabilities. They also point to the benefits of replacing fossil-fuel-burning cars with clean, electric bikes.
“These bike are here. People are using them. They are starting to become a true car replacement for many people,” Gannon said. She said people are not totally replacing their cars with electric bikes, but they are replacing some of their usage — choosing between the different modes of transportation, depending on the situation.
“Our mission is to encourage people to choose cycling more of the time. We want people to have true transportation options and transportation choices,” Gannon said. “These are all tools. Cars are tools. Bikes are tools. We want people to be able to choose the right tool for the job … Every car trip you can replace with a bike trip is good for the environment and climate change.”
Bikes replacing bikes
Critics of the e-bikes bill don’t agree. Though some people may be substituting electric bicycles for cars in large, urban settings, they don’t believe it is happening in the suburban neighborhoods of Bristol County or Aquidneck Island.
“They’re not replacing cars, they’re replacing traditional pedal bicycles,” said Barbara Robinson, a Bristol resident with a long and close connection to the East Bay Bike Path. Robinson’s father, the late Thomas Byrnes, was considered the “father” of the East Bay Bike Path. As a state representative from Bristol in the 1980s, he submitted legislation that eventually led Rhode Island to convert an abandoned railroad line into a 14-mile bicycle path running along the shores of Narragansett Bay from downtown Bristol to Providence.
Robinson today is both proud of her father’s legacy and a frequent user of the path. She bikes, walks and rollerblades on it often.
“I don’t think that, on the bike path, cars are being replaced by bikes,” Robinson said. “I am sure that conventional bikes are bing replaced by motorized bikes, which I do not see as an improvement. To see young, healthy people on the bike path using an electric bike, when they could be using a regular bike, is, to me, not an improvement.”
She acknowledges the benefits of e-bikes for those with physical limitations. Yet she sees far more dangers than benefits. “I just don’t know if people are thinking this through. I don’t think they know what it means to have Class 2 and Class 3 bikes on the East Bay Bike Path,” Robinson said. (See separate box for description of bike classifications.)
The dangers of speed
The top complaint about e-bikes is that they can go faster, more easily, than traditional bikes. “The big, heavy ones are dangerous,” Robinson said.
Class 1 bicycles are the closest to traditional bicycles. They are typically similar in shape, size and weight. Their electric motor engages only when the rider is pedaling, and they stop assisting when the rider reaches 20 mile per hour.
How fast is 20 miles per hour on the bike path? It’s what hard-core cyclists do quite easily when they hit an uninterrupted straightaway and have some room to let it fly.
“I can get my traditional bike up to those speeds,” said Gannon, “but I don’t do it often on the bike path, because conditions don’t allow it.”
Class 2 bicycles may be the most controversial — and according to the owners of a local bike shop, the most popular. Class 2 bikes have a throttle, similar to a moped or motorcycle, which can be engaged whether a rider is pedaling or not. They help riders deal with difficult terrain, hills or fatigue, or they can simply be ridden like a moped.
Mark DeStefano manages Bristol Bikes, which is located about half a mile from the southern end of the East Bay Bike Path in downtown Bristol. They both sell and rent electric bikes. Because of negative publicity around their use on the bike path, the company made the decision to dismantle the throttles on all of their rental bikes. DeStefano says that decision was based on optics more than safety.
“It seemed like a lot of the complaints that we were hearing about, that we were reading about, were situations where cyclists were moving along the bike path without pedaling,” DeStefano said.
That is definitely the case for critic Robinson. “I’m on the bike path all the time, and I have had to move out of the way many times,” she said. “They are going so much faster than you are used to.”
Robinson also believes the Class 2, throttle-enabled bikes invite bad behavior. “I saw a guy who was cruising along, not pedaling, smoking a cigarette while he was riding. It invites people who like to go fast, who like motors, and that’s not what the bike path is intended for,” she said.
Gannon actually agrees with the sentiments about bad behaviors on bike paths. “We call them multi-use paths, because that’s what they are,” Gannon said. “They’re available to everyone: people who want to walk their dogs, people who want to rollerblade, people who want to walk with their kids … So cyclists have to ride differently when other people are using the path.”
The fastest of them all
The final grouping of would-be-legal electric bicycles are the Class 3 devices. They do not have a throttle, so the rider must be pedaling to engage the motor, but the motor is more powerful than the entry-level Class 1 bikes. The engines on these bikes top out at 28 miles per hour — 40% faster than their Class 1 and Class 2 peers.
Robinson wants the General Assembly to ban the Class 3 bikes on bike paths. “The Class 3 are too dangerous. I just don’t see them as bicycles. Especially on this bike path, which is not that wide,” she said.
Robinson also questions why the state would allow children under the age of 16 to use any electric bicycles. The bill would restrict Class 3 bikes to 16 or older, but there are no restrictions for the other types of bikes.
“The bill says that children can ride Class 1 and 2 e-bikes, as long as they wear a helmet. I’m surprised by that,” Robinson said. “I don’t understand why people would want children riding these.”
There are also some machines that go beyond all these classes. They are big, heavy and can be loud. “You can hear them coming down the bike path,” Robinson said.
Gannon said sometimes critics see people riding those larger, heavier devices and equate them with all electric bikes. “There are some things that have the basic form of a bicycle but can go 60 miles an hour. This is not what we are talking about here,” Gannon said. “We don’t think that everything that has two wheels and a handlebar should be allowed on Rhode Island’s bike paths.”
DeStefano agreed that there are plenty of misconceptions out there. For instance, he said, not all Class 3 bikes are big and heavy. Pointing to a bike on the Bristol Bikes shop floor, he said, “There is no correlation between a Class 3 bike and weight.That Yamaha is a Class 3 bike and it weighs 43 pounds.”
He continued, “There is often no difference in weight between a Class 1 bike and a Class 3 bike. They’ve all got pretty much the same weight. Same thing with those Harley Davidsons over there. Their Class 3 bike and their Class 1 bike weigh exactly the same. The motors are pretty much the same size.”
The riders are getting younger
DeStefano said that when Bristol Bikes first opened shop nine years ago, there was a very clear market for electric bikes — Boomers.
“I would say 95% of the customers were Baby Boomers. These are people who used to ride, but now they’re in their sixties or seventies, and they want to be able to get out and ride more, but they don’t have the strength that they used to have. They may have had knee replacements or hip replacements, which prevent them from riding a regular bike like they used to,” DeStefano said.
However, they also see the customer base changing rapidly. “Every year that we’ve been in business, the people that are buying these bikes are getting younger and younger and younger,” DeStefano said. “We still have our core group of Boomers, but last year we were selling bikes to college kids, young professionals, teenagers even ... I think there has been a change in the culture around electric bikes. Where they first came out, people were saying, ‘that’s cheating.’ You know, what’s the point? And then they started to realize that bikes are not only for fitness, they are for transportation and for fun … When we were kids, we rode a bike. We didn’t ride it to get fit. We rode it because they’re fun to ride.”
DeStefano believes many of the e-bike critics don’t really understand the bikes because they’ve never ridden one. “Electric bikes are just misunderstood. People just don’t really get what they are. They think it’s more like a moped or a motorbike, and it’s not. They’re more bicycle than they are motorbike,” he said.
“What we found is some people who have criticized electric bikes over the years, well they’ve never ridden one, they’re just misinformed. Then when they ride one, they come back and they get it. They say, ‘okay. I understand now.’ ”
Gannon of the Bicycle Coalition also believe e-bikes have gotten a bad reputation in some circles. “These bikes are everywhere, and generally there have been very few issues. We have almost no issues with electric bicycles,” she said. “Normally, people walking wouldn’t even recognize an electric bike if it passed by them. They’re quiet. It’s our position that the battery pack does not change the nature of it. It’s still a bicycle.”
Robinson is not swayed. “If I was in charge, I would say no electric bikes at all on the bike path, unless you have a permit because of a disability,” she said. At the very least, if the General Assembly passes a version of the e-bikes bill, she hopes it bans the 28-mile-per-hour Class 3 bikes from using the state’s bike paths.
At press time, the full House of Representatives was scheduled to hear the e-bikes bill this week. The Senate version remained in committee and had not been scheduled for a hearing.