New Legislation Targets E-Bikes:The Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) is a nonprofit organization that helps local governments across Washington State better serve their citizens by providing legal and policy guidance on any topic. At MRSC, we believe the most effective government is a well-informed local government, and as cities, counties, and special purpose districts face rapid changes like ebikes and significant challenges, we are here to help.
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As Seattle prepares to make its dockless bike share program permanent, new legislation recently signed by Gov. Jay Inslee set statewide standards and regulations for riding using electric assist bikes (e-bikes).
Prior to the legislation’s passage, e-bikes were either treated like any other bicycle or, sometimes, like a motor vehicle, such as in RCW 46.61.710, which ties e-assist bicycles, mopeds, motorized foot scooters and motorized assistive mobility scooters together in some cases. E-bikes were commonly allowed in formal bike lanes and some multipurpose trails (except where prohibited by local jurisdictions) but not on sidewalks.
The new bill, Senate Bill 6434, tries to address the subtle distinctions between the growing number of electric bikes available today. It does so by dividing e-bikes into three classes based on the highest speed a rider can achieve and restricts rider use and access based on these levels:
In a Class 1 e-bike, the motor provides assistance when a rider is pedaling and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph.
In a Class 2 e-bike, a rider can use the motor alone (no pedaling) to propel the bike but the motor stops assisting when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph.
In a Class 3 e-bike, the motor assists when the rider is pedaling and stops when the bicycle reaches a speed of 28 mph. Unlike Class 1 and 2 e-bikes, this one has a speedometer and riders must be at least 16 years old to operate.
The table below provides a comparison of e-bike levels, access, and restrictions.
Level Type of Assist Max. Assist Speed Access Restrictions
Class 1 Pedal 20 mph Formal bike lanes, sidewalks, shared-use trails Helmet required
Class 2 Pedal/throttle 20 mph Formal bike lanes, sidewalks, shared-use trails Helmet required
Class 3 Pedal 28 mph Formal bike lanes only Helmet required, rider must be 16 or older
Ends:The new rules clarify that, in effect, all three classes are defined as bicycles and should be given many of the same rights to the road. In particular, Class 1 and 2 e-bikes will now be allowed on sidewalks and on multipurpose trails. Class 3 e-bikes, however, are restricted from sidewalks unless, as the bill notes, “there is no alternative (but) to travel over a sidewalk as part of a bicycle or pedestrian path (see SB 6434, Sec. 5).”
Local jurisdictions can still make their own rules regarding use of e-bikes and the new state law does not preempt existing rules. For example, King County Municipal Code, Sec. 7.12.295 currently bans e-bikes from the county’s extensive trail system because they are defined as a “form of transportation powered by an internal combustion or electric motor.” Unless the county amends this language to account for different classes of e-bikes, all types will continue to be banned.
SB 6434 also eliminates a minimum-age requirement for the slower e-bikes (Class 1 and 2), restricts motor output for all three classes to no more than 750 watts, and requires manufacturers to label the classification number, top electric-assisted speed, and motor output wattage.
How Will the Legislation Impact Bike Share Programs?
Seattle saw the introduction of e-bikes to its dockless bike share program in January when LimeBike, one of three bike-sharing companies operating in the city, added 500 e-bikes to its existing fleet of 4,000 non-electric bikes. Powered by rechargeable batteries and a 250-watt motor, LimeBike’s electric assist bikes can reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour and run more than 60 miles on a single charge. The city currently allows e-bikes on formal bike lanes but not on sidewalks or park paths.
A Seattle rider can access an e-bike simply by unlocking it with a smart phone but will have to pay $1 to unlock it and an additional $1 for every 10 minutes of riding. In contrast, a non-electric bike costs nothing to unlock and only $1 for every 30-60 minutes of use, depending on which company owns it.
Caen Contee, LimeBike’s head of marketing, has predicted that e-bikes would become “the most affordable, accessible form of ride share.” While this could be a considered a laudable goal, could it also result in more bikes being taken outside the city limits? Since the pilot program began last October, cities surrounding Seattle, including Bainbridge, Vashon, Renton, Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland have all reported instances of bike share bikes being ridden (and left) in their jurisdictions. Bike share operators are supposed to pick up bikes once they travel outside of Seattle, but when and how frequently is often an open question.
Bothell, which lies on the northern end of the Burke Gilman trail — a popular trail with cyclists, has embraced the bike share trend and is working with LimeBike on a gradual rollout of its own program. The eastside suburb of Redmond will also be doing a phased rollout using the same three companies (Ofo, LimeBike, and Spin) currently servicing Seattle's bike share program. Redmond plans to expand its bike share program if it proves popular with residents and if it is well run by the operators.
Also on the eastside, Bellevue just announced plans for a bike share program composed entirely of e-bikes. The city hopes to start a small pilot this May, limited to 400 total e-bikes. Unlike Seattle’s dockless program, which allows users to park bikes anywhere in the landscape/ furniture zone of the sidewalk, Bellevue’s designates specific, high-traffic areas — or hubs — for users to leave bikes, including activity centers and transit stations. Bellevue will also require bike share operators to rebalance the bike fleet each night, meaning moving individual bikes left in non-designated areas back to designated hubs. An October 2017 online survey conducted by the city showed that 55% of respondents would use a bike share program if one was offered.
Is your jurisdiction considering a bike share program? If you have thoughts about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.