Outdoors Blog

Should some electric bikes be treated as bicycles? Legislator says yes; Boise says no

Update: Electric bike legislation delayed to 2018.

Idaho Rep. Phylis King’s proposed bill adds one sentence containing 37 words to Idaho Code — a simple change to resolve a confusing problem, or so she thought.

“The consensus I found is nobody has any consensus,” King said.

King’s proposal would classify electric bikes as bicycles as long as they don’t go faster than 20 miles per hour or have a power output of more than 750 watts.

State Code doesn’t specifically address electric bikes, so they fall into the motor vehicle category. That makes electric bikes — a growing segment of the bicycle industry — illegal to ride on the Greenbelt and other bike trails and even in bike lanes.

“There’s tons of them being sold, lots of them in Idaho, and those bikers want to know, ‘Where can I take my bike?’ ” King said.

Doug Holloway, the director of Boise Parks and Recreation, says the city doesn’t want electric bikes on the Greenbelt except for riders who need them because of an injury or disability.

“We see some issues in intermingling the e-bike use with the general pedal-bike use,” Holloway said, “and a lot more thought would need to go into how those two would work together on the Greenbelt and in the Foothills.”

[Related: Electric bike delights — but where can it be ridden?]

The discussion is fairly new to Boise but the issue already has been hashed out elsewhere. About half the states have laws that treat electric bikes as bicycles. California, Utah and Tennessee have adopted a three-tiered approach that classifies bikes by their capability. In California, bikes that require pedaling but offer electric assistance up to 20 mph are allowed most places bikes can go, bikes with throttles and a maximum speed of 20 mph can go on paved/graded bike trails and bikes that require pedaling and travel up to 28 mph can utilize bike lanes (a model coming from Europe fits the latter category).

The confusion in Boise has been a hot topic at the Pedego Boise store that opened nearly a year ago on Parkcenter. The two primary customer groups are people who want to use the bikes to commute and run errands and older folks who want to ride at the speeds they could when they were younger, owner Nicole West said.

“The unknown is our biggest issue,” West said. “... The good (with electric bikes) outweighs the bad, and that’s what I hope at some point people realize.”

Boise is the only local government that has expressed concerns about the bikes, West said.

King, a Boise Democrat, ran into the same problem when she convened a meeting of about 30 stakeholders in December to try to come up with a legislative solution to a constituent’s concern about e-bike access. She said she’s been waiting for Boise officials to get behind a version of the language to no avail. She expects to request a printing of the bill soon — the first step in the legislative process. She hopes it would then get sent to the transportation committee, of which she is a member.

The bill would add one sentence to the definition of a bicycle: “The term includes an electrically assisted bicycle which does not have the capability to travel faster than twenty (20) miles per hour on a flat surface and a power output of no more than seven hundred fifty (750) watts.”

“My lowest expectation is to get it printed,” King said. “My highest expectation is to get it out there and get it in code. ... I want to at least get it printed and get the transportation committee to have a conversation.”

King has served in the Legislature for 11 years. Her district, No. 18, covers much of the Greenbelt corridor from Boise State to Lucky Peak Lake. She has received positive feedback from her colleagues, she said.

“They love it,” she said. “Nobody sees a problem with it. Why is the city of Boise not liking it? And they’re my friends.”

The city’s objections are similar to those raised in other locales: safety, speed and removing some of the effort from cycling. Holloway also doesn’t like that the law doesn’t include “unless otherwise posted” language that still would allow Boise to prohibit electric bikes on the Greenbelt. King says she’s open to adding such language.

“(The current draft) takes control away from how we manage our Greenbelt and our pathways and Foothills trails,” Holloway said.

He’d prefer to see a change that affects roads instead of paths.

“The more logical is how do we get these bikes out into bike lanes, legally into those areas,” he said. “That would be a more logical and safer location for them probably.”

Holloway expressed more openness to electric bikes in May, when he said the city might change its stance because most electric bike riders are only warned on the Greenbelt, the bikes are difficult to distinguish from traditional bikes, the bikes have become leaner and quieter than early models and ownership of them is growing.

Now, he says the city’s willingness to accommodate those who need electric assistance should be enough.

“Why are we changing anything?” he said. “We really don’t need to.”

The electric bike discussion likely will lead to two changes on the Greenbelt, he said.

First, the city realized that it needed to better define its process for providing accommodations for those who need electric bikes. That review is ongoing. Anyone who would like to request an accommodation should contact Boise Parks and Recreation headquarters. “We certainly aren’t interested in providing accommodation to a healthy 20-year-old who can ride a mountain bike on Foothills trails,” Holloway said, “but to someone who without that accommodation would not be able to enjoy the Greenbelt or the scenic views in the Boise Foothills, we are not opposed to that.”

Second, it became clear that the Greenbelt’s 15 mph speed limit has lapsed. “We believe somewhere along the line it was removed from city code,” Holloway said. The city is considering creating a posted, enforceable speed limit on the Greenbelt that would vary by location.

Many traditional cyclists travel the Greenbelt at speeds far beyond 15 mph.

“People that ride these (electric) bikes are not racing them,” said Terry Sherry, the co-founder and CFO of Pedego Electric Bikes. “They’re limited to 20 miles an hour. You can go on virtually any bike trail today and if you go 20 miles an hour you will get passed up by guys in spandex all day long.”

Sherry has watched these debates go on in states across the country. On Thursday, the Steamboat Springs (Colo.) Parks and Recreation Commission recommended a yearlong pilot program to allow electric bikes on the Yampa River Core Trail, similar to the Greenbelt. In 2013, Boulder, Colo., conducted a pilot program on its multi-use paths and e-bikes are now embraced. Still, many parts of Colorado haven’t budged because state law allows municipalities to opt out of allowing e-bikes (10 other states also include some local control in their e-bike laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures).

“Every state that has addressed it has accepted it,” Sherry said. “It’s just a matter of getting it through the political process.”

He has heard all the arguments, including the one about how riding an electric bike takes the exercise out of cycling. He points out that most kids don’t ride for exercise and even hard-core cyclists pursue the sport because it’s fun.

“You’re not selling cycling as a sport,” Sherry said. “It’s recreational fun.”