December 6, 2022

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The Legal System

What is an e-bike? Advocates in Mass. want to update definition, legal framework in hope they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions

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A group of advocacy organizations backing legislation that would update the legal framework for electric bicycles says the mode of transportation could help Massachusetts meet climate-related goals.

The groups are backing two bills from Democratic Reps. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth, Steven Owens of Watertown and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, that aim to clarify the definition of electric bicycles in state law in an effort to further regulate their use.

Boston Cyclists Union Executive Director Becca Wolfson said the state will face a “catastrophic climate crisis” if it does not lower greenhouse gas emissions immediately and electric bicycles have the potential to address the issue.

“Transportation is our highest greenhouse gas emitting sector and the big focus on changing that has been on [electric vehicles]. And we know that a car is a car is a car and an EV will still create congestion,” Wolfson said at a virtual briefing Wednesday afternoon. “We struggle with the worst congestion in the Boston region. We really know that the electric bike can solve a problem that the electric vehicles can’t.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the bills set up classifications for electric bicycles. The Senate version sponsored by DiDomenico would set up three types of electric-assisted bicycles.

The first would cover pedal-assisted bikes with no throttle and a max speed of 20 miles per hour; the second covers bikes with throttle-activated motors and a 20-mile-per-hour max speed; and the third covers pedal-assisted bicycles with no throttle and a max speed of 28 miles per hour.

The class of the device would have to be labeled on the bike, specific regulations would be left up to the municipalities, and absent local regulations, classes one and two would be treated the same as a standard bicycle, according to the bill.

The goal, advocates say, is to differentiate electric bicycles from motor-operated mopeds, which under current law are considered a motorized bicycle just like e-bikes. MassBike Executive Director Galen Mook said the state has “really good” classifications around regular bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles.

“But especially in the past five or so years, we’ve seen drastic technological leaps and bounds in terms of what e-bikes are capable of doing, specifically around their batteries, and specifically around their motors,” Mook said.

The House version of the bill sponsored by Fernades and Owens differs slightly from the Senate version by not including language setting up the third class of e-bikes. Mook said that’s a concern for advocates because “we want to be able to call out that particular type of e-bike so that it can be regulated.”

“We do think that leaving the regulations up to local jurisdictions is the appropriate way to handle where bikes shouldn’t be ridden,” Mook said. “Both the House and the Senate did a really good job of adding in that there must be public notice, and a public process about instituting regulations.”

Both versions of the legislation received a favorable report from the Transportation Committee in April and supporters at MassBike and the Boston Cyclists Union are hoping lawmakers include similar language in any potential upcoming transportation or climate bill.

Owens said electric bicycles remove barriers for people because they can ride farther with more ease. A clear legal framework in state law, he said, would allow e-bikes to be included in bicycle share programs in cities like Boston.

“Clarifying the e-bikes in the law really activates some programs that can be done,” Owens said. “E-bike shares, for example, we know that Bluebikes here in Boston is really itching to move over, particularly in Cambridge, to support e-bikes.”

Electric bicycle supporters are also backing a bill by Sunderland Democrat Rep. Natalie Blais that directs the Department of Energy Resources to establish an electric bicycle rebate program of up to $500 for general consumers and $750 for low- and moderate-income consumers.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Blais said her bill seeks to create more equity in the electric bicycle purchasing process considering their often high cost.

“We know that there is a high purchase price for these e-bikes and that can be a barrier for e-bike adoption,” Blais said. “It would make e-bikes more accessible to many more people who would benefit from this transportation option. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to eliminate those barriers.”

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