When does an electric bicycle become a motorcycle?
There are more and more options on the market that blur the line between bicycle and motorcycle, thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive batteries. But how much “power assist” can a bicycle have before it is a motorcycle? Can you ride an electric moped on a bike path? Or in the bike lane? Do you need a license?
What about the increasing number of off-road focused electrics? Can you ride them on mountain bike trails? Are there environmental concerns? Are park rangers going to chase you out of the forest for having too much fun?
While the law is still being written, and in some states there is none at all, we tried to compile a few important facts you should know before buying or going riding.
Five Tier System
There is no federal law that covers the street legality of electric bicycles, that is handled on a state by state basis, but there is a three tiered definition of what is an electric bicycle from the view of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. If a bicycle with an electric motor doesn’t fit there, it falls under Department of Transportation moped or motorcycle rules. Because electric vehicles can’t be classified by engine displacement, and are often rated in kilowatts instead of horsepower, there is still some fuzzy areas here.
Below is a chart from the Calbike based on the State of California laws, which are a good example.
Tiers one and two are both limited to 20 miles per hour when under electric power, though a tier one bike can go faster with pedal assistance from the rider. They follow all the same rules as a regular bicycle and can be ridden on bike paths. A tier two electric bike just does away with the pedals. They are typically also limited to 750-1000w or 1-2 horsepower, depending on the state.
Tier three electric bikes max out at 28 mph, and must have pedal assist, but are restricted from certain bicycle only paths and riding areas. They are not quite mopeds, but in California (and 11 other states that follow this system) you do need to be 16 years old and wear a helmet to ride one. Most states don’t require you to have insurance or a license to ride any of these three types. There is a rundown of which states follow which law on the National Conference of State Legislatures page.
The next rung on the ladder is classified as a moped, though in many states no pedals are required. Mopeds are typically limited to just 30 mph, but with just motor power, and cannot have a clutch. These electric mopeds typically have between 2 and 4 horsepower, or up to 2000kw, though in some places there is just a maximum speed. Mopeds often can use a bike lane on the road, but must obey all traffic laws, and can’t ride on limited access roads with faster speed limits. You typically have to have a license plate, a drivers license, and sometimes a motorcycle endorsement, but many states have an easy to get moped endorsement. AAA has a rundown of moped licensing laws on their site.
The electrified bicycle industry is so new that there are tons of players out there making all sorts of machines, some of which do not fit neatly into these laws. If you see a bike labeled “for off-road use only” that is typically because it does not meet federal D.O.T. or C.P.S.C. rules. Some bikes have several switchable modes, allowing the rider to change between different max power levels, but this is not exactly legal under the three tier system, especially if there is a unlimited mode that can exceed 28 mph.
Electric motorcycles must meet all the requirements of internal combustion motorcycles, meaning license, insurance, helmet, etc. There are some very exciting products being brought to market by start ups and engineers trying to be the Tesla of the motorcycle industry, and even Harley-Davidson is getting into it.
Zero has been making electric motorcycle the longest and is still at it, with their fastest most advanced bike yet just announced, the SR/F. Energica is a recent emegre to American roads, but are also the official bike of the electric class of MotoGP, MotoE. The winner of the Pikes Peak hill climb, and title of fastest ever electric bike, is Lightning, but the production version of their LS-218 is only just hitting the streets now.
Electric off-roaders are becoming a viable alternative too, even with Alta recently biting the dust. Zero started out with a off-road style street bike, and they still sell their FX electric dual sport bike. KTM recently introduced their Freeride-e which has lead to 10 electric motocross riding parks being open around Europe. And catching clicks and eyeballs around the internet is the stylish Cake Kalk with 15,000 watts (20hp) and a top speed of more than 40 mph.
Unfortunately, off-road regulations for electric bikes have not caught up to on-road regulations. In states that don’t have some sort of off-road registration, you can trust that you can ride anything and not run afoul of the local sheriff or park rangers. California has an established and complex process of granting “green stickers” to off-road vehicles, to both track them in case of theft, and to fund trail and riding area upkeep and improvements. Many other states have followed California’s lead, and Clymer is based there, so we did some research into off-road registration for electric bikes.
A representative from the California Parks Department (who enforce the off-road laws) had this to say in an email: “E-bikes are a rabbit hole… but what may seem on the surface as a loophole actually makes non-conforming e-bikes effectively illegal. Delfast is a manufacturer that hoped to utilize a loophole, that turned out not to exist in the U.S… it seems they have changed since their initial startup. I will retract my previous assertion. They used to describe speeds of 40 mph or more on some models and user-changeable modes to make them “legal” for local jurisdictions. This would not have been legitimately legal in the U.S.” All Delfast electric dirt bikes now have both pedals and a speed limited to 28 mph, making them a type 3 electric bicycle.
So before you drop a large sum of money on an electric bicycle/moped/motorcycle, check with your local law enforcement or parks rangers. We still have emails out to the National Parks Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and will update this if we get more info.