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Electric Bikes Are Blurring The Line Between Bicycles And Motorcycles

Illustration for article titled Electric Bikes Are Blurring The Line Between Bicycles And Motorcycles
Image: Cake

I never really cared about cars until after I bought my first one, but I’ve loved motorcycles for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories of wide-eyed motorcycle adoration was when a couple of kids down the street from me got mopeds. Are they bicycles? Are they motorcycles? They’re both! These were not unattainable things from a far off land; these were kids on my street, who were my age, riding things that looked similar to my bicycle.

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I never got a moped, but I do now own an electric mountain bike, and it probably goes faster than those old mopeds ever went. Electric bicycles are getting bigger, faster, and more powerful. The line between them and motorcycles is starting to get blurry.

Segway (yes, that Segway) is selling a dirt bike now. Sorry, Dirt eBike. A dirtybike? It “sits in between mountain bikes and traditional dirt bikes,” and appears to be more mountain bike than motorcycle. So it’s like a moped without pedals. It’s a mo.

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Illustration for article titled Electric Bikes Are Blurring The Line Between Bicycles And Motorcycles
Photo: Segway

It is an evolution of the Sur-Ron Light Bee, which is a mountain bike based electric bike that is sold as“road legal”, but can be easily modified to put out almost seven times the 750-watt limit that many states have for bike lane use. You can also buy a pedal kit for it. Segway doesn’t appear to be pretending its e-bike will ever be road, or bike lane, legal. So the Sur-Ron is a “bicycle” (wink-wink), but the Segway will be a “motorcycle” (wink-wink).

Do you like cake? Of course you do, who doesn’t like cake? Cake is an electric bike company that will sell you the Kalk& which is an electric motorcycle similar to the Segway in that it has a lot of parts that seem to come from the bicycle world. But this one is a legit street-legal motorcycle with lights, mirrors, and a place for an actual license plate.

There are laws in many places about what power, speed, and features an electric bicycle can have and still use bicycle trails. This is why you often see bicycles with top speeds of 20 or 28 mph. There are several companies that will sell you an electric bicycle that exceeds these limits, or that can be easily modified to. My electric bicycle was limited to 20 mph before five minutes and a screwdriver turned it into 46 mph, which I do not recommend. Many of these bikes have pedals or kits to add pedals, which doesn’t really help to differentiate the bicycles from the e-bikes, or from the mopeds or motorcycles.

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One of my “motorcycles”. This will break every speed limit in my town.
One of my “motorcycles”. This will break every speed limit in my town.
Photo: Matt Brown

As batteries get smaller and power increases, it is going to be harder to tell the difference between an electric bicycle and an electric motorcycle. States are drawing the line with limits on power output, speed, and labels that indicate legal compliance.

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I wonder if we even need a split between the two. As Bradley suggested earlier, more powerful electric bicycles might be a great solution for many commuters. If we want to limit congestion and pollution, maybe we should encourage people to ride bicycles that span the definition of bicycles and motorcycles. Maybe it is okay for a lightweight electric bike to go 20mph on a bike path, then turn onto a 35mph street and continue at a faster pace. Maybe not, but I bet we’re going to find out.

Just be sure to wear motorcycle safety gear.

Matt Brown is an automotive engineer, writer, and builder of unconventional things. Mostly vehicles.

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DISCUSSION

weatherman
wætherman

Maybe it is okay for a lightweight electric bike to go 20mph on a bike path, then turn onto a 35mph street and continue at a faster pace. Maybe not, but I bet we’re going to find out.

I think there a lot of problems with this. Right now it’s a bit of a “wild west” for electric bikes, with many blurring the lines and slipping between regulations. This is terrible from a safety perspective; we already have ebikes doing 45 mph in the bike lanes where human-powered bikes ride -people who have bikes that go that fast aren’t de-tuning them when they’re in a bike lane.

Using them in the streets is far better, but most people who ride them don’t use the right safety equipment for a bike that can go that fast, and don’t follow traffic laws, because they either don’t care about the laws or they don’t know the laws because they never had to go through licensing for a motorcycle. And of course none of these riders is ever going to get a ticket because there’s no registration required. That lack of accountability is what I think is the biggest problem and it needs to be addressed.

I’m sure some will think it’s impractical, but I think anything with an electric motor needs to be registered and given a license plate. Riders need to be licensed to ride them, and cited if they break traffic laws. And they need to wear the same level of safety gear that an ICE driven motorcycle rider is required to wear.