E-bikes ride in gray area

Nov. 19, 2014

Peggy Adair, an avid 65-year-old bicyclist, lives in a hilly area of Omaha. For years, she struggled with one hill in particular, which she dubbed as "Killer Hill." Knowing that long, steep hill was at the end of her bike ride, Adair hesitated and sometimes didn't bike.

That all changed in 2011 when she purchased her electronic bicycle, which she nicknamed Macy Grey.

"Now, I own Killer Hill," Adair said.

But Macy Grey and other e-bikes are riding in a legislative gray area in Nebraska. Legislative Bill 756, which was introduced in January by Sen. Jim Smith, would have defined electronic bicycles as bicycles and not as motor vehicles. The bill was indefinitely postponed, in essence killed, on April 17, but Smith plans to reintroduce it again in January 2015.

The bill "cleans up the issue of what it means to be a bicycle," said David Cary, the Lincoln/Lancaster County long-range planning manager.

E-bikes are powered by electric motors fed by batteries, which are usually above the rear wheel.

"They exist so they need to be defined in statute," said Lisa Johns, a legislative aide to Smith. The bill used the federal definition of an e-bike, although the state bill didn't include the rider weight component of 170 pounds.

The bill defined an e-bike as having operating pedals and a 1-horsepower electronic motor that doesn't exceed 20 mph. There are two types of e-bikes; pedal-assist models give riders a boost by reducing the amount of force needed to pedal, and throttle-control versions are comparable to motorcycles because they give a burst of speed that is "helpful on busy intersections because it can get me out of trouble," Adair said.

According to Johns, 17 states including Iowa and Colorado have used the federal definition of e-bikes. Other states have defined e-bikes with higher speed limits or categorized them as mopeds. A few have age restrictions or require helmets or licenses.

Steve Lamkin, president of the Nebraska Police Chiefs Association, said his organization opposes the bill because there is a significant safety concern treating e-bikes and regular bikes the same. Lamkin would prefer the bill included an operator's age limit.

"We aren't saying that e-bikes are bad, but the law has no definition of drivers," he said.

Legally, children riding e-bikes would be able to go 20 mph in traffic for at least 30 miles before the battery dies. Although children can reach 20 mph on traditional bikes, Lamkin said they wouldn't be able to go as far as on e-bikes.

"If you have a Vespa and told a 10-year-old that they could drive it if they keep it at 20 mph, is there a difference?" he asked.

Lamkin, who is also the Grand Island police chief, and Katie Flood, Lincoln Police Department's public information officer, said they haven't had any problems with e-bikes in their respective communities.

Supporters of the bill argue that the age limit is irrelevant.

"My experience with the e-bikes is that they are built for and designed for adults," Cary said.

The demographics for e-bike riders are the aging population, including baby boomers, who still want to be active and commuters.

"They're the older crowd that ride a lot and still want the feel of the bike but don't have the strength to keep them going for miles," said Bryce Keller, an employee at a local bike shop, the Bike Rack.

Adair bikes an average of 12 to 15 miles each trip on her e-bike and only 9 miles on her traditional bike. She said she uses her e-bike when she doesn't want to arrive at her destination sweaty, although she isn't a regular commuter due to the lack of bicycle trails between her home, 1871 S. 155th Circle, and work at the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha, 115 S. 49th Ave.

The bill is "being pro-active," Adair said. "Right now, electronic bikes are very rare, but becoming more popular as people look for alternative transportations."

China, currently, is the biggest market for e-bikes, but their popularity in other countries is growing. According to a 2014 report from Navigant Research, which is a market research business, the North American e-bike market is expected to grow 6.8 percent between 2014 and 2023. E-bike sales are expected to grow to nearly 286,000 units by 2023.

In the United States, eCycleElectric, an industry consultant group, estimates that 173,800 electric bikes were purchased in 2013.

Another aspect the bill would've cleared up is whether e-bikes are authorized on bike trails, which prohibit motorized vehicles.

The bill "clarifies these are bikes," Johns said. Under federal law, e-bikes are permitted on federally funded trails unless local or state laws prohibit them, according to Johns.

"We can permit on a local level and get our definitions in line with federal definitions," Clary said. He estimates that Lincoln would amend its ordinances if the bill passes.

"Statutes are not caught up with today's time," said Sen. Annette Dubas, chair of Nebraska Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. In the committee's report, it will recommend the Legislature define electronic bicycles. Since Dubas' term expires in January, Smith is currently running uncontested for the position.

Keller, who has worked at the Bike Rack for four years, hasn't seen a local demand for the e-bikes. He said the shop has sold only two e-bikes.

"Market hasn't taken off yet," he said. The high price of the e-bikes--Adair's was $2,800--keeps demand low.

"I don't think you are going to see big companies do it (sell e-bikes) until they can bring the prices down," Keller said.

The only Lincoln bike shops that sell e-bikes are the Bike Rack and Cycle Works.

Adair drove to Loveland, Colorado, to buy her 60-pound Hebb e-bike, which has five pedal-assistance levels and a throttle. She got the idea of purchasing an e-bike in an unconventional way.

"I dreamed that I got an e-bike for my birthday," she said. "I had no idea that e-bikes even existed."

Although she didn't get her e-bike for her birthday and instead had to buy it herself, Adair doesn't regret the purchase and looks forward to riding her e-bike for many years.

"Since I got my e-bike, it's just way more fun," Adair said. "It makes you feel like a 12-year-old."