There has been a constant commercial push in Alaska and elsewhere to populate our byways with “electric bicycles,” or “e-bikes” as they have been affectionately dubbed. Everyone is heard to love e-bikes, which are a blessing for the disabled and the environmentally concerned. Unfortunately, as with so much commercial speech (commercial speech used to be called “puffing” or “puffery” because it was so outrageously inaccurate and misleading), the claims made stray from the truth.
The Federal Government, faced with the rise of e-bike use in Europe, decided as a matter of consumer protection to adopt a statute defining a low speed e-bike that could be treated in the same way as a bicycle (i. e., not as a motor vehicle) in 2002. The statute still says that, “For the purpose of this section, the term “low-speed electric bicycle” means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 hp), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.” At present, by way of comparison, the EU limits e-bikes to 250 watts continuous power and a top speed of 15.5 mph.
This means any two or three wheeled vehicle that produces 750 watts (or can go on the level at 20 mph) is illegal on all federal lands (that includes Campbell Tract, and all National forests and Parks). While the Secretary of the Interior has authorized Interior agencies to adopt e-bike rules, none of those rules can in any way exceed the limits set in federal statute.
Soon after the federal action, Bafang Motors, a Chinese firm specializing in “mobility solutions” saw the opportunity to push electric bicycles into the U.S., and they, apparently misreading the federal statute, started producing bicycle motors that were labeled “750 watts” that Bafang said could be used in building low speed e-bikes for sale in the U.S. As noted, no bike with a 750 watt motor is legal as a low speed e-bike under Federal law (and the Federal law “shall supersede any State law or requirement with respect to low-speed electric bicycles to the extent that such State law or requirement is more stringent than the Federal law or requirements referred to in subsection (a).” In other words, no one may offer a low speed e-bike of 750 watts, anywhere in the U.S.
Of course, what became immediately apparent to (almost) everyone is that none of these “750 watt” motors were actually 750 watt motors. Wattage is the product of volts times amps, and even the least powerful of these motors were running 20 amp controllers with 48 volt batteries (and current options for “750 watt” motors run 25 amp controllers and 52 volt batteries or more). Indeed, a third party industry arose to allow users to tweak any e-bike controls to produce max wattages far beyond that identified in the product labeling. This is now essentially an industry embarrassment.
In 2011, the Municipality of Anchorage decided to get in the act because vendors wanted to sell e-bikes in Alaska. At the time, the ordinance complied with Federal law. But in 2016, Municipal personnel involved in promoting and adopting an ordinance promoting e-bike sales changed the ordinance to include 750 watt bikes as low-speed e-bikes, contrary to the provisions of the Federal statute. Of course, as we saw above, it is likely that every e-bike sold in Anchorage as “750 watts” actually exceeds the limits even set by ordinance, rendering them illegal as a practical matter anyway.
The Alaska Legislature then got in the act with Senator Scott Kawasaki (D – Fairbanks) and Representative Ashley Carrick (D – Fairbanks) introducing similar bills (at the request, per the senator, of those promoting e-bike sales in Fairbanks). The Legislature eventually passed House Bill 8 (Carrick’s bill), but not before Representative Carrick’s aide repeatedly lied to Senator Kawasaki’s State Affairs Committee, claiming, among other things, that HB8 was identical to the Federal statute. Unfortunately, as with the Anchorage ordinance, that is simply not the case. Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska), though it is not quite clear why, vetoed HB8.
Now we have ‘e-bikes’ that will do 4,500 watts (~40 mph) but which claim that they are legal low-speed e-bikes (see, e.g., the Ristretto 512 A24 | Arctic a “street-legal electric bike that does not require a license, insurance or registration”). And arguably, the sky is the limit. But the truth has always been that what the EU has authorized is more than adequate for all uses, so the varied claims about why we need to legalize motor vehicles on our sidewalks and trails is, well, puffery.
Moreover, as I noted to the Legislature (before they almost unanimously approved HB8), the Municipality of Anchorage has now made it possible for someone who has lost their license to ride a motorcycle without a license on our roads! And the facts of the matter are that allowing speed differentials of 20+ mph on narrow sidewalks and trails is going to get people hurt.
Yes, highly regulated permitting of strictly limited e-bikes may increase mobility of the disabled, and yes, they may also help to reduce automobile use. But that can be accomplished rationally and deliberately without letting motor vehicles loose on our trails and sidewalks under a scheme which makes enforcement impossible. In fact, one option is to require registration of e-bikes, use that registration to enforce strict limitations on where and how e-bikes can be used, and make lanes available on our roads for bicycles and 250 watt e-bikes.
And yes, our Anchorage Assembly members are all aware of the situation, but they were too busy ignoring the chief of police’s testimony about bike safety to take any notice.
Marc Grober has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1977, held a Professional Teaching Certificate, provided IT services to federal and state agencies, worked as a field engineer on an atomic power plant, subsistence fished, and run dogs. He currently spends his days on Anchorage trails, on Anchorage roads, and in Anchorage parks walking Bernie, fatbiking, road biking, and skiing.