Here’s how an electric bike works
Every bicycle expert that I told about my planned test-ride of an electric bike told me the same thing: They’ll put a smile on your face.
And they were right.
I spent Friday traveling Boise by Pedego Interceptor — a cruiser-style electric bike made by the company that recently expanded into the Boise market. I laughed within 5 seconds of hopping aboard the bike, rode it for nearly 20 miles and was impressed. My wife tried it, too — and she was sold on the idea of a bike that gives her an extra boost whenever she needs it.
What I hadn’t expected when I agreed to the test-ride — and nobody warned me about — was how difficult it would be to determine where electric bikes can be ridden.
Boise city code considers them motorized vehicles, which means they’re technically illegal on the Greenbelt (a policy that could be changed soon; see below). Some argue they’re illegal on sidewalks and in bike lanes, too — but a request to the Boise Police Department for clarification on those rules went unanswered.
The bikes also are forbidden on Boise Foothills non-motorized trails (yes, there are electric mountain bikes). Ridge to Rivers manager David Gordon told the City Club on Monday that all of the Ridge to Rivers partners consider electric bikes to be motorized vehicles. There are exceptions for riders with disabilities.
I rode the Interceptor on the Greenbelt, on sidewalks, on other bike paths and in bike lanes during my trial.
I never topped the Greenbelt’s 15 mph speed limit even in pedal-assist mode 2, which adds roughly 50 percent to the user’s output. And at no time did I feel like I was doing anything other than riding a bike.
But I sure did enjoy that electric boost while climbing a hill with a backpack full of groceries.
“It’s one of those items that you kind of have to use to understand,” said Michele Kennedy, who does public relations for Pedego and rides one of the bikes. “Once you get people on the bike, it’s really hard to get them off. They’re very fun.”
— I started my day by taking my son to school. That’s a 5-mile round trip, almost entirely on the Greenbelt. I went with pedal power only, cruising at 10 miles per hour and topping 13 miles per hour occasionally if I pushed it. The bike weighs 60 pounds — double the weight of my mountain bike. Still, it pedals comfortably.
— My next outing was a quick ride to lunch with my wife. I took ParkCenter/Warm Springs and used pedal-assist modes 1 and 2. I covered the 2.3 miles in 10 minutes at an average of about 13.5 mph. The only time I really felt the motor was climbing over the East ParkCenter Bridge. But I definitely didn’t have to work as hard as I would have without the motor.
— After lunch, I rode 2.75 miles up to Fred Meyer on Federal Way to do some grocery shopping — again sticking to roads. The climb up Bergeson was a lot smoother with a push from the motor.
— Next, I zipped 4.3 miles back to my house to deposit the groceries. I carried the groceries in a backpack (my panniers didn’t fit the Pedego rack). The trip was made much more comfortable by the pedal-assist. I also found myself more comfortable riding alongside the traffic on Amity (cars go 45-50 mph there) because of the bike’s size and stability.
— I finished with another 5-mile round trip to my son’s school to meet him and ride home, choosing to pedal only on the Greenbelt.
After more than 19 miles, I was a little tired but not wiped out. I wasn’t sore the next day. But I definitely felt like I’d gotten my daily exercise.
“It makes bicycling an option for people who can’t bike all day,” Kennedy said. “... I definitely come home with some burning quads. It’s not a free ride.”
— I took another ride on the bike on Monday. Earlier in the day, I had made the same ride on my mountain bike. For comparison, I made the 4.3-mile journey in 17 minutes on my mountain bike with an average speed of 15.2 mph. On the Interceptor, on pedal-assist 2, it took me nearly 19 minutes at an average speed of 13.5 mph (it was the end of the day, so tired legs probably played some role in the differences).
— I didn’t see any reason to treat the electric bike different than a regular bike. If speed is the concern, most strong bike riders are going to ride faster on their pedal bikes than electric-bike users are going to go. The Greenbelt speed limit of 15 mph is broken often by avid cyclists. I was able to top that speed much easier on my mountain bike than on the Interceptor. The bike I rode was restricted to 17.5 mph. At that speed, the motor stops contributing. The top speed can be reduced to 15.
— I never moved the pedal-assist selector above 2. There are five pedal-assist modes on the Interceptor. While cruising, I couldn’t tell that I was receiving help except that the speedometer showed I was moving a few miles an hour faster than when I was pedaling alone. The two places I noticed the help — the motor helps you get up to speed more quickly from a stop, which comes in handy on roadways, and you can feel the push you’re receiving going up a hill.
— I knew going in that I wasn’t a good fit for an electric bike. I don’t have a regular commute and I enjoy the workout aspect of cycling. But I could see it being a great fit for someone who commutes but isn’t comfortable riding 10-plus miles a day, particularly in adverse conditions (wind can be a pain) or with a home on a hill. Plus, you might get to work without sweating. Access to the Greenbelt is essential, though. Many electric bike riders likely would be people who aren’t as comfortable riding on the streets.
— The bike I tried also had a throttle that allows for pedal-less operation. I never used it except when I was learning the bike’s features. That’s when a bicycle would become more like a motorized vehicle — and it’s a feature that can be disabled on the bikes.
The Greenbelt question
Doug Holloway, the director of Boise Parks and Recreation, tracked down the city’s interpretation of rules for electric bikes on the Greenbelt for me.
The short answer, he said: “Boise City Code prohibits the operation of any ‘motor vehicle’ (defined as ‘every vehicle which is self-propelled, except vehicles moved solely by human power and motorized wheelchairs’) on the Greenbelt. An e-bike falls within the definition of ‘motor vehicle,’ because it is not ‘solely moved by human power.’ ”
The long answer is that the city may be open to changing the code to recognize the growing popularity of electric bikes. Holloway cited three reasons for a possible change:
— “Currently, most enforcement contacts with e-bike users result in a warning, rather than a citation.”
— “At the time the code was written, e-bikes were very different from more recent models — older e-bikes were bigger, bulkier, heavier (and therefore less suited for safe travel on the Greenbelt, which is intended for bike and pedestrian travel), and louder than current models.”
— “Without close inspection, many newer e-bikes are virtually indistinguishable from regular bicycles.”
— “Ownership and use of e-bikes is growing as an alternative means of transportation.”
The city attorney’s office has been asked to review potential code updates to allow “certain classes of e-bikes on the Greenbelt,” Holloway said. Possible hurdles:
— “Deed restrictions or Greenbelt easement agreements may limit Greenbelt use to bicycles and pedestrians.”
— “Some classes of e-bikes may be appropriate for Greenbelt use while other classes may not.”
— “So-called ‘hoverboards,’ motorized skateboards, etc. are a problem because they lack brakes and handling (and, therefore, are more of a safety concern).”
Beyond the Greenbelt ...
Electric bikes aren’t defined by Idaho law and Boise city code. Boise considers a bicycle to be “propelled exclusively by human power,” which makes an e-bike a motor vehicle.
Federal law, the Pedego folks point out, considers a “low-speed electric bicycle” to be a bike with a motor no bigger than 750 watts, fully operable pedals and a top speed of 20 mph or less — and driver’s licenses aren’t required. But since e-bikes aren’t mentioned in Idaho law/Boise code, they exist in a gray area somewhere between a bike and a motor vehicle.
According to Boise city code, “No person shall drive a motorized vehicle upon any officially marked bike lane, bike path, foot path or other separate right-of-way specifically set aside for use by pedestrians or non-motorized vehicles except at an intersection or when entering or leaving a roadway at a driveway, private road or alley.”
Want to try one?
Pedego’s Boise store rents electric bikes. This week, in honor of Boise Bike Week, the store is offering limited free trials for commuters who are willing to provide feedback.