Off road e-bikes have arrived but the regulations are still missing
Globally, e-bikes are expected to be a $15.7 billion industry in 2016 with significant year over year growth projected for the foreseeable future. A large portion of the market is in Asia for on-road e-bikes but as the overall market grows, the underlying technology becomes more advanced and more affordable. In recent years, battery and motor technology has evolved to the point where it is now possible to buy affordable and rugged electric bikes for off-road use.
There are a number of exciting applications for mountain e-bikes. Cross country mountain bike trips that may have required a long day in June to complete in the past could now be finished in the shorter days of September. BC could become a world-class destination for multi-day backcountry bikepacking trips supported by solar powered battery re-charging stations. E-bikes could bring new people into the sport and could bring people back who have had to stop due to injuries or other physical challenges. The use of gasoline powered vehicles for shuttles could be reduced or eliminated in many riding areas and e-bikes can provide a new tool for rangers, trail maintenance volunteers and search and rescue teams.
At the same time, there are a number of potential challenges that will need to be managed. E-bikes are heavier and more powerful and can increase wear and tear on trails. E-bikes can move faster uphill and may not be compatible with human powered users on busy trails. E-bikes will allow people to travel deeper into remote areas in a single day or weekend which may have an impact on wilderness preservation objectives. There are precious few places remaining which are used purely for non-motorized recreation and e-bikes could intrude into those areas.
With the introduction of this new type of vehicle, there are many questions about where they should be allowed to be used and what rules they will need to follow. One of the key challenges in regulating the use of e-bikes is that there is a huge amount of variety in the offerings from manufacturers. At one end of the spectrum, an e-bike is a mountain bike that provides a bit of extra help while climbing trails. At the other end of the spectrum, an e-bike is more similar to a dirt-bike than to any human-powered mode of transport.
Some of the key variables include:
On some e-bikes, the motor multiplies the effort of the human rider. If the rider is not pedaling and putting in some effort of their own, the bike will not move. On other e-bikes, a throttle can be used to activate the motor without any human effort.
At the low end, e-bikes have around 250 watts of power. At the high end, e-bikes have 10,000 watts or more of power.
At the low end, e-bike motors will propel users to around 30 km/h. At the high end, e-bike motors will propel users to over 100 km/h.
At the low end, e-bikes provide great assistance for a short trip. At the high end, the range can be hundreds of km.
In most jurisdictions, laws have been established to define a class of e-bikes that will be treated as bicycles for use on the road. These laws allow qualifying e-bikes to use bike lanes, to be driven by people without a driver's license and to not require a license plate. In BC, the Motor Assisted Cycle (MAC) legislation provides bicycle privileges to any e-bike that has less than 500 watts of power while they are being used on roads and streets.
Those rules only apply to use on the road. There are no specific regulations for the use of e-bikes in off road locations in BC and so users are stuck with a existing off road of regulations that were written before off road e-bikes were contemplated.
The Bureau of Land Management in the United States has made a policy decision that all e-bikes are motorized vehicles and therefore banned from trails that are designated as non-motorized.
In British Columbia, one would assume that the same thinking applies at the current time. If a trail is designated as non-motorized then e-bikes are not allowed because they have a motor and because no exceptions have been stated for low-power e-bikes. The lack of policy clarification from the BC government is creating confusion. In that vacuum, e-bikes are starting to be used on non-motorized trails in BC Parks; almost certainly in contravention of the existing rules.
Why not use the existing Motor Assisted Cycle regulation?
A common suggestion for regulation of e-bikes in off road locations is to simply apply the existing Motor Assisted Cycle regulation and to allow any e-bike that meets the MAC definition to be used on trails where mountain bikes are allowed.
At first glance, this sounds like a reasonable idea but it is not without its challenges:
1) The MAC was not written with off-road applications in mind and it is not entirely appropriate for that application. For example, the MAC allows bikes that use throttle control instead of pedal assist. Unlike the corresponding legislation in Ontario, the BC MAC does not have a weight limit. The MAC also has no limit on range or torque which are a function of battery capacity and gear ratios respectively and which have a meaningful impact when considering how e-bikes will change use patterns in the backcountry.
2) There are some trails and areas which should be preserved forever for completely non-motorized recreation. If e-bikes are automatically classified as bikes and given the same access rights as human powered bikes then it is likely that bikes as a combined group will suffer from reduced or eliminated access to a number of those areas.
3) Enforcement is difficult given the ease with which bikes can be upgraded and modified. If qualifying e-bikes are allowed on trails, it's almost a guarantee that a portion of those e-bikes will not be complying with limits and it will be very hard to stop that from happening. Can you imagine that we had horsepower limits instead of speed limits for cars on the road? How would a police officer hand out tickets without carrying a portable dynamometer everywhere?
4) Would this mean that any e-bike that did not meet the MAC would need to register as an Off road Vehicle under the new BC Off-Road Vehicle Act? Should there be a middle ground between a Motor Assisted Cycle and an Off-Road Vehicle?
Suggestions going forward:
It's not a valid strategy to pretend that e-bikes do not exist, that all e-bikes should be treated as bikes or that all e-bikes should be treated as dirt bikes. E-bikes are a unique and new form of transportation that brings many exciting opportunities but also some management challenges. The government should be proactive in working with stakeholders around the province to engage in a serious conversation about the regulations and policies needed.
- Steve Jones