Rising popularity of ebikes presents challenges on Canadian roads

e-Bike by mhobi

By Arman Kazemi

August 7, 2014

Electronic bikes, or Light Electric Vehicles (LEVs), are being spotted in urban centres across Canada offering an alternative to the rigours of manual, muscle-powered cycles and the cost and inefficiency of traditional combustion engines. According to a recent report in the Toronto Star, the market for LEVs is rapidly growing.

Yet, as these bicycle-scooter hybrids are increasing in popularity, policy at the municipal and provincial level is struggling to keep up. Earlier this year, Toronto city council passed a motion barring so-called electric scooters from all regular city bike lanes, only to reverse the decision a month later in a 23-17 vote, in which Mayor Rob Ford sided with the electric bike.

According to a fact sheet on the Canadian-run ebikes.ca, e-bikes are simply “a regular bicycle with an electric motor” with which you can “pedal normally and just use the motor to help out on hills and headwinds, or use the motor all the time to make riding easier.”

The idea, as opposed to regular gas scooters and motorbikes, is to complement rather than supplant human power. However, the main source of tension between e-bike proponents and regular cyclists – not to mention traditional motorists – is a result of the LEV’s distinctly hybrid status.

“Neither fish nor fowl,” as Jared Kolb, spokesperson for the advocacy group Cycle Toronto, characterized them in the Star article.

At present, municipalities such as Toronto and Vancouver allow e-bikes that look like other pedal bikes to share designated bike paths and lanes with their man-powered cousins, while Vespa-like LEVs are restricted to bike lanes only on city streets.

Yet whether bike or scooter, neither iteration of the LEV requires riders to have a licence or purchase insurance for use on public roads.

“A power-assisted pedal bike could be treated like a bicycle, but restricted to speeds of up to 25 km/h,” Kolb offered the Star as an alternative, “while an electric scooter could be treated more like a car, with a maximum speed of 50 km/h and a requirement that it be licensed.”

As early as 2002, the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act has been modified to account for the power-assisted bicycle as a class of its own. The Motor Assisted Cycle Regulation posits that e-bikes, e-scooters, and other pedal-motor hybrids “must have no more than one motor for propulsion,” and that this motor must be electrically powered, “have a continuous power output” ceiling of 500 watts, and mustn’t be capable of exceeding 32 km/h.

While the cost of owning and operating these vehicles has gone down since their first appearance in the mid-nineties, LEVs can still go for anywhere between $900 to $3,000.

For e-bikes to be a truly cost-effective and environmentally-beneficial alternative to traditional urban transportation, infrastructure will need to keep up with the growing demands of e-transport. Public policy will need to evolve as well, ensuring the needs of incumbent motorists are considered alongside the needs of alternative road users.

So far, governments have only taken baby pedals in that direction.



Photo Credit: mhobl