Electric bicycles (AKA e-bikes) are the latest self-transport ride-share option slated for unveiling in Boston. It hasn’t been smooth-sailing in every city, but entrepreneurs and visionary traffic planners in Boston, Somerville, Cambridge and Brookline are moving ahead with big plans for e-bikes. Ultimately, the goal is an altered traffic landscape with smaller, safer, cleaner transport alternatives to motor vehicles.
Boldly declaring gas-powered cars are going the way of the covered wagon, MassDOT leaders at a recent global transportation summit said they were on board with prioritizing multi-modal transport, particularly those that are eco-friendly. Hundreds of millions of cars in the U.S. clog roadways and degrade are quality, designated now as the No. 1 climate change contributor in the U.S. Plus, despite technological vehicle safety improvements, they’re quite deadly, especially where pedestrians and bicyclists are concerned. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports bicycle crashes involving cars are rising sharply, in a single recent year killing more than 800 riders and injuring at least 45,000.
Boston in on the forefront of the multi-modal movement, and city officials recently announced an e-bike pilot program in the spring.
E-bikes can provide a burst of energy to keep the wheels rolling when the rider’s at rest.
They are enormously popular in other countries, though not without some fits and starts. The biggest complaint in Israel, for example, is young, unlicensed teens on e-bikes carelessly racing through streets, weaving in and out of traffic and generally behaving as if they were on motorcycles. Enforced rider age-restrictions is expected to be part of Boston’s e-bike pilot program.
But even this doesn’t resolve the biggest question Boston bike attorneys have, which is, “Where do e-bikes fit?”
The problem is e-bikes aren’t easily classified
Regulatory Hurdles to Unveiling E-Bikes in Boston
Let’s start with this: Safe traffic is predictable traffic. We all know the car turning left tuning left at the traffic light absent a green arrow must wait for oncoming traffic to pass safely before proceeding. We all know so we anticipate and time our responses accordingly. E-bikes throw a wrench in that predictability because we haven’t clearly defined them.
It doesn’t clearly fit into any existing vehicle mold, and even if we tried, rules for traditional bicycles, motorcycles, motor scooters and motor bikes do vary. Do electric bike riders need to be at least age 16 with a driver’s license, as with motor scooters? Are they free to ride at night, like those on self-pedaled bikes and motor bikes, or like motor scooters, do they need to park it from dusk to dawn. Do they have to abide a speed limit of 25 even if they don’t have a motor?
Plugging them immediately into the traffic matrix of Boston and suburbs without more guidance from the state (which the City of Boston has requested) is forcing a square peg vehicle in a round peg law.
Crashes, obviously, are the biggest risk. Some common e-bike crash scenarios reported in the last year occurred as a result of conflict in bike lanes. Examples:
- E-bikes (up to 28 mph) and pedal bikes (average 12 mph) sharing narrow bike lanes, leading to collisions between the two riders.
- E-bike or traditional cyclists crash or swerve left, in the path of oncoming traffic.
- E-bike or bicyclist crash or swerve right, thrown into curbside fixed objects like concrete curb, parked vehicles or pavement.
It raises the question of whether the two modes of travel are compatible in the same lane or if they might need their own or if e-bikes should be strictly relegated to the road with motor vehicles. Separate lanes would require additional traffic engineering and investment and would reduce space for cars – but MassDOT has declared this the end goal anyway. Some have argued that isn’t necessary to have all systems in place before launch if we set a speed limit more aligned with bicycles. Most e-bike riders aren’t in it for the race, and the quick bursts of power are primarily for getting over hills.
E-Bikes Aren’t Brand New – Why Are They So Complicated To Regulate in Mass.?
Electric bikes sort of flipped the script on the Commonwealth when it came to vehicle classification. There is no “electric bicycle” in Massachusetts law. Traditional bicycles are only ever self-propelled by statute, and they go 12 mph on average. E-bikes can be either peddled or powered by electric throttle, and reach top speeds of about 28 mph (though all Bird E-bikes and scooters are capped at 15). Electric bikes have no gas like a motorcycle, nor are they anywhere near as fast, loud, big or highway-worthy.
The only remaining vehicle classification provisions that might work are:
- Motorized bicycles/ Mopeds. MGL Ch. 90 sec. 1B, covering motorized bicycles/ mopeds expressly covers refers to gas-fueled, two-wheeled vehicles at top speeds of 35-40 mph (max legal speed in Massachusetts being 25). Mopeds can share most roads with motor vehicle traffic and also bicycle lanes (not safe) but must stay off recreational bike paths. Moped operators must be at least 16, have a valid driver’s license and wear a helmet.
- Motorized scooters. MGL Ch. 90 sec. 1E, is more aligned with electric bicycle descriptors (20 mph top speed, same location restrictions as bicycles) but the law only mentions gas – not electric. Only someone over 16 with a valid license can operate, assuming they have a helmet, no passengers and it isn’t between dusk and dawn.
E-bikes don’t align neatly with either. The motorized scooter statute probably makes the most sense based on vehicle description, but absent legislator intervention, e-bike riders are held to far more stringent standards than traditional cyclists – mandated driver’s license and helmet requirements and nighttime riding restrictions.
Electric Bicycles in Boston Offer More Options, Access and Safety in Numbers
Once the regulatory framework is in place, e-bikes will ultimately be a great addition to the Boston bike-share network riders. They can ease physical demands of going uphill or a long stretch, opening access to some who physically couldn’t or otherwise dare venture into the city on two wheels. It’s an extra boost of confidence for new riders. Further, traffic safety experts widely concur: The more bicyclists on the pavement, the more cautions the motorists. Drivers more often tend to slow their speed, double check their blind spots and just generally be more alert when bicyclists are a common sight.
Autonomous devices that are compact, easy-to-ride and inexpensive will reduce car traffic and ease congestion. Fewer cars also means less vehicle wear-and-tear and (hopefully) fewer crashes. More bicycles might mean more bike-to-bike crashes – which needs to be considered. If dividers or distance can be placed between traditional bicycles and e-bikes and larger motor vehicles, most bike-to-bike crash victims will probably walk away negligible injuries, even when one’s electric.
Boston Bicycle Crash Attorney Andrew Fischer, in addition to decades advocating for the rights of injured cyclists, has spent nearly as long helping lawmakers craft smarter state bicycle laws, city ordinances and local multi-modal infrastructure. More cyclists were encouraged to enter the fray. And while crashes do still happen (most caused by negligent drivers), the proliferation of bicycling has made all riders safer. Electric bicycles can have the same effect because from the driver’s seat of a car, truck or bus, the profile difference between a self-powered bike and a motorized one is negligible.
If you or someone you love has been injured in a Boston bicycle accident (we prefer the term “bike crash”), call for a free and confidential appointment at 617-777-7777.
US transit system ‘ripe for disruption,’ tech leaders say at Boston conference, Oct. 12, 2018, By Mary C. Serrezes, The Republican
More Blog Entries:
Bike Lane Safety Improvements Could Prevent Serious Boston Bike, April 4, 2018, Boston Bicycle Attorney Blog