By Cory Bilton.
It could have been a television commercial. On my way home from work one night this week, I was riding on the Custis Trail heading west up the hill from Rosslyn. For those unfamiliar with this particular hill, it’s a long slog; Google Maps reports that it is about 1 mile of distance and 161 feet of elevation gain from the trail when it leaves the Potomac, to the top of the hill where Lee Highway crosses I-66. Not the steepest hill on my ride home, but a little grueling. I typically ride up the hill with as much vigor as I can muster and so by the time I reach the top I’m completely out of breath and dripping sweat. On Monday night this week, near the top of the hill (and near dead), I was passed by a woman wearing office clothes pedaling a bicycle and showing no hint of any effort or discomfort. And when I say she passed me, I mean, she whizzed past me.
The woman was riding an electric bike, or e-bike. For the most part, an e-bike looks just like a normal bicycle. But an e-bike is equipped with a small, battery powered electric motor that assists the rider, particularly on uphill climbs. The motor is not supposed to replace pedaling, like with a moped, but rather just to supplement pedaling. The day after my encounter, an article in the NY Times remarked on the growing popularity of e-bikes in bike-loving Europe. Although I haven’t seen many e-bikes in the Washington, DC area, I think they could become a hit.
But what is an e-bike in the eyes of the law? Are e-bikes bicycles or motorized vehicles of some kind? Here is the current legal status of e-bikes in our area:
In DC, the city council passed the Motorized Bicycle Amendment of 2012 specifically to remove any uncertainty about the status of e-bikes. The effect of this legislation was that in DC there are three types of motorized two- or three-wheeled vehicles: (1) motorcycles, (2) motor-driven cycles, and (3) motorized bicycles. The key distinction between the three is speed. If the motor can propel the vehicle no faster than 20 mph and has pedals, it’s a motorized bicycle. If the motor is less than 50cc and cannot propel the vehicle faster than 30 mph, it’s a motor-driven cycle. If the vehicle can go faster than 30 mph by motor alone, then it’s a motorcycle. 18 DCMR § 9901. From these definitions, most e-bikes would be merely motorized bicycles in Washington, DC.
The distinction is important. A person riding a motorcycle must have a valid license with a motorcycle endorsement and must maintain registration and insurance just like any other motor vehicle owner. The requirements for a motor-driven cycle are the same as for a motorcycle except the rider is not required to have a motorcycle endorsement on her license, just a valid drivers license. For motorized bicycles however, there are no licensing, registration, or insurance requirements. So an e-bike in Washington, DC is a motorized bicycle, and is treated the same as a regular bicycle. But if a e-bike exceeds 20 mph, it becomes a motor-driven cycle, and if it exceeds 30 mph, it becomes a motorcycle.
In Maryland, new legislation will go into effect on October 1, 2014 that specifically addresses the status of e-bikes. Currently, an e-bike in Maryland is considered a moped: a bicycle operated by human power with the assistance of a motor of less than 1.5 brake horsepower. Md. Transportation § 11-134.1. Mopeds have numerous licensing and registration requirements in Maryland. However, a newly passed law, SB 378, will soon remove e-bikes from the moped category. Starting October 1, 2014, an “electric bicycle” will be a vehicle designed to be operated by human pedal power with electric motor assistance, where the motor has power of 500 watts or less, and is capable of 20 mph or less when powered by the motor alone on a flat surface. Md. Transportation § 11-117.1. Electric bicycles will not be required to fulfill any licensing or registration requirements. So in the very near future, e-bikes will be treated just the same as bicycles in Maryland.
In Virginia, the key phrase used to describe e-bikes is “electric power-assisted bicycle,” which is defined as a vehicle with no more than 3 wheels, that has pedals for human propulsion and an electric motor of not more than 1,000 watts. This definition would encompass most e-bikes. In nearly every statute I can find, the Virginia code treats electric power-assisted bicycles just the same as regular bicycles (there is one statute that doesn’t reference both, permitting noise ordinances that might prohibit loud e-bikes but not noisy bicycles). Neither bicycles nor e-bikes have any licensing or registration requirements in Virginia.
While I did not review all county-level laws for this post, I did find an unexpected law in the Arlington County Code that affects e-bikes. A part of the County Code creates bike trails in Arlington, such as the Custis Trail. But one of the provisions in this section says: The use of such off-street paths by persons operating vehicles other than bicycles is prohibited and violations of this section shall be a misdemeanor. “Vehicle” as used herein means any motorized vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, electric motor, or other electrical device. … Arlington County Code 14.2-64.1(B). Although this is probably rarely, if ever, enforced, my reading of this code section says that e-bikes are not permitted on bike trails in Arlington.
It is clear that the state legislatures in our area want e-bikes to be treated the same as regular bicycles. The flurry of new laws in both Washington, DC and Maryland to remove any impediment to e-bike ownership is also clear indication of the pro-bicycling attitude that is taking hold here. While committed cyclists may not switch to e-bikes, there is a large group of people around our city who would find e-bikes an attractive alternative to traditional bicycles. The lady that passed me going uphill this week looked like she was enjoying herself, while I was toiling away.
Please review my disclaimer.