Supporters Want E-Bikes Allowed on R.I.’s Bicycle Paths
May 8, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Cycling advocates and business owners got their chance to wheel and deal with legislators last week.
On May 4, the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition (RIBC), with representatives from local bike shops, hosted a demonstration on the lower Statehouse parking lot to show elected officials all about electric bicycles, or e-bikes, and give them a chance to ride one.
RIBC president Kathleen Gannon told ecoRI News the event was aimed at dispelling some of the misinformation or presumptions people have about e-bikes.
“People don’t often understand what e-bikes are,” Gannon said. “Today they can get a chance to look at them and try them.”
E-bikes are bicycles that come equipped with an electric motor — although, noted Gannon, they aren’t actually motors like those powered by gas — that help propel the bike when riding. The e-bike industry, following the lead of the U.S. Department of Transportation, classifies them into three distinct classes based on how the motor assists the rider and the maximum speed a bike can go.
Class 1 e-bikes have pedal-assist, which means the engine only helps propel the rider while pedaling, and the function stops when the bike reaches a maximum speed of 20 mph.
Class 2 e-bikes come with throttle-assistance. Similar to motorcycles, the electric motor is activated by twisting a throttle on the handlebar. These bicycles are also capped at a maximum speed of 20 mph.
Class 3 e-bikes are similar to class 1, in that they rely on pedal-assistance to activate the electric motor’s assistance, but can reach a greater maximum speed of 28 mph.
E-bike batteries are located inside the bike, and on average have a range of 30-60 miles on a single charge, although a select few models come with the ability to mount a second external battery on the chassis to increase mileage.
Advocates say the electric motor is a game-changer for everyone, especially people who may have disabilities or medical conditions that prevent them from riding a traditional bicycle. The motor allows people to ride up hills they wouldn’t be able to normally under their own pedaling power, and to travel for longer distances.
In Rhode Island, e-bikes are technically illegal on bike paths as the state has no laws on the books regulating them, but their status isn’t usually enforced. Despite being considered bicycles, they are motorized vehicles in the state’s view. Rhode Island is an outlier; 40 states have passed the 3-class system as laid out by the federal government and e-bike industry.
Earlier this year Rep. Rebecca Kislak, D-Providence, introduced legislation (H5220) to regulate e-bikes according to the standards laid out by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s the second year in a row Kislak introduced such legislation.
During a February hearing, Kislak told members of the House Corporations Committee that she originally thought of e-bikes as “cheating” and did not understand the benefits they provide.
“I went for a ride with a friend who has a mobility impairment, and I couldn’t have gone on a bike ride with her without it,” Kislak said. “It was amazing.”
Not everyone shares that view. In written testimony, several East Bay residents expressed concern over allowing e-bikes on bike paths, citing an instance in 2022 when a Bristol man was struck by an e-bike user while riding his bicycle on the East Bay Bike Path.
“Trying to make motorized bikes equivalent to human powered bicycles on bike paths is a recipe for disaster,” wrote Bristol resident Judy Brynes in testimony to the committee.
Gannon disputes the safety concerns some people have about e-bikes, noting maximum speed limits prevent them from being less safe than traditional bicycles, which can exceed 20 mph downhill. Gannon said most people probably couldn’t tell the difference between an e-bike and a traditional bicycle without examining it up close.
“That’s just what these are,” she said. “They’re bicycles.”