PeopleForBikes Answers Ten Commonly Asked Questions About eBikes

Adventure Cycling Association

January 17, 2018 – Morgan Lommele manages the joint partnership between the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and PeopleForBikes to improve access for people who want to ride electric bicycles.

Adventure Cycling keeps seeing more and more about eBikes, and we’ll bet you are too. Today on the Adventure Cycling blog, we’re sharing PeopleForBike’s answers to our 10 questions about eBikes.

1. What is an eBike?

Electric bicycles (eBikes) are quite similar to traditional bicycles, but have a low-speed electric motor that provides a pedal-assisted or throttle-assisted boost of power. They extend the range of trips where a bicycle can be used, extend the range of any ride, allow current bicycle users to bike more often and farther, and provide a new recreation option for people who want to bike. eBikes vary widely in terms of shape and size — commuter, cruiser, cargo, touring, fat bike, mountain bike, tandem, recumbent, and others. These low-speed eBikes are as safe and sturdy as traditional bicycles, and move at similar speeds.

2. How do eBikes work?

There are three classes of eBikes currently in the marketplace:

• Class 1: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed greater than 20 miles per hour.

• Class 2: A bicycle equipped with a throttle-assisted motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed greater than 20 miles per hour.

• Class 3: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed greater than 28 miles per hour. Class 3 eBikes are equipped with a speedometer.

3. What makes eBikes different than motor bikes, since they both have motors?

eBikes resemble traditional bicycles in both appearance and operation, with a small electric, emissions-free motor no greater than 750 watts (one horsepower, equivalent to the power of a hair dryer). Mopeds, scooters and other motorized vehicles have a much greater power output and are generally internal-combustion-engine vehicles with emissions and associated noise.

4. Is it easy to tell if someone is riding an eBike vs a regular bike? Are they faster or noisier than normal bicycles?

eBikes have a battery that is generally visible on the down tube. This is usually the only indication that someone is riding an eBike. Apart from a low humming from the eBike motor, eBikes do not make noise.

Speeding on eBikes has yet to be identified as a significant problem. The research is mixed and somewhat inconclusive thus far with regards to the typical speed of eBikes and how much that differs from traditional bicycles. Clear signage and public etiquette education are the best ways to encourage all trail users to travel at safe speeds.

5. Where are eBike users allowed to ride, and where are they restricted? Is this changing?

In states that have passed the three-class system and in states where eBikes are defined as bicycles in the state’s vehicle and traffic laws, eBikes are generally allowed to ride wherever a traditional bicycle is allowed. Each state has its own traffic laws, so it’s best to consult your state’s eBike laws to understand where an eBike can ride and where there are restrictions. There is an effort to streamline eBike laws in all 50 states so that in the future, eBike laws are clear and consistent across states.

6. Is eBike use growing? How many people ride eBikes in the U.S.? How many in Europe?

A 2014 eBike industry analysis estimated about 210 million eBike users worldwide, and 200,000 sold in the U.S. that year, a number that is growing significantly each year. In the U.S., eBikes have seen the largest sales increase of any bike type. In 2017, eBike sales grew by about 75% in dollars and volume over 2016 (through traditional bicycle retailers). Asian and European eBike markets are more robust, and in 2014 were estimated at 25 million and 7 million eBikes, respectively. Most major U.S. bicycle brands sell eBikes, and bicycle manufacturers have moved or are positioning themselves to move to the U.S. to capitalize on the growing market.

7. Do eBikes expand opportunities for people who wouldn’t normally ride a bike to ride? Who is typically drawn to ride an eBike?

Reasons for purchasing an eBike vary, with some looking for an inexpensive and more sustainable commuting mode and others looking for a less physically demanding bicycle option or help bicycling through hilly areas. eBikes may also provide a more attractive and feasible choice to take short trips.

Generally, the two biggest groups of eBike riders are those in the 45–65 age range (due to both physical limitations and more disposable income for an eBike price tag) and those in the 25–35 age range (people living in urban areas who seek an alternative transportation option). eBikes also provide a new transportation and recreation option for people with mobility limitations.

8. What are down-sides/challenges to eBikes? Have there been issues related to differing speeds on bike paths or other types of conflicts between trail users?

There is concern among many in the U.S. that when used on multi-use pathways, eBike riders will travel faster than 20 mph under motor assist, jeopardize safety, and impact other trail users’ enjoyment. Since eBike riders typically travel similarly to traditional bicyclists, these concerns are disproved once eBikes enter the “mix” of trail uses. Some studies have already been performed that evaluate how eBike and bike riders interact on trails. In Colorado, the City of Boulder studied eBike use on shared paths and observed minimal conflicts between trail users, no observed crashes, no negative verbal interactions, and safe passing.

However, some trail users (especially singletrack users) are concerned that allowing eBikes on non-motorized trails would open the trail up to either restricted access or further motorized use.

9. Can you ride an eBike across the country? What are some of the challenges you might encounter, if any?

eBikes are a great way to ride across the country, and there are more and more models available that have built in racks, touring equipment, and lights. In general, the wattage of an eBike is correlated with the load that it can safely carry. Some eBikes with higher wattage (750 to 1,000 watts) cans carry up to 500 lbs of cargo, but again, the features of each model vary.

The biggest challenge to eBike touring is battery life. Battery life varies depending on the make and model of the bike, but battery performance is improving across the industry. It would be advisable to bring a spare battery for longer rides, and keep the battery charger handy for recharging in the evenings (and, if camping, ensure that there is an available outlet). Although many bicycle dealers have trained staff to work on eBikes, ensure that there are shops along the way that could provide service and parts if needed.

10. How or where could I try out an eBike?

Stop into any local bicycle dealer that stocks eBikes, and inquire about trying an eBike! There are also eBike demo tours available in some cities.

Morgan Lommele manages the joint partnership between the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and PeopleForBikes to improve access for people who want to ride electric bicycles. This work involves coordinating strategic state-by-state advocacy campaigns; representing the bicycle industry in policy negotiations; building relationships with and between policy makers, non-profits, academia, and industry partners; and tracking electric bicycle-related legislative and policy issues. Morgan holds B.A.s in International Affairs, Sociology and German from the University of Colorado; and a M.S. in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Denver.

Top photo courtesy of PeopleForBikes | Photo 2 by Leslie Kehmeier


Have more questions about eBikes that weren’t answered here? Comment below and we’ll find the answer. Thanks Morgan for sharing your expertise!

BUILDING BICYCLE TOURISM is written by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on the growing national movement to build bicycle tourism, including economic impacts, bike friendly tips, multimodal travel, and resources for destination development and marketing.

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