To limit or not – the case for and against e-bike regulation

Sep 07, 2016
To limit or not – the case for and against e-bike regulation

Bike Auckland

Always an Audi? This bike able to do 80 km/h isn't exactly the common e-bike in NZ - but it shows that the limits of what an electric bike is are... speeding up.
“It’s always an Audi…”? This 2012 prototype, which can do 80 km/h, isn’t exactly the common e-bike in NZ and wouldn’t be legal – but it shows that the practical limits of what an electric bike can be are… speeding up.

NZTA is currently running a survey on what New Zealanders think about e-bikes and e-bike riders (as well as other low-powered vehicles, including Segways and hoverboards).

This is partly a response to the recommendations from the Cycle Safety Panel, with government now looking at updating laws and regulations around cycling.

At this stage, it’s not clear what regulations are being considered, but general discussion around the subject has homed in on potential restrictions for e-bikes, such as:

  • maximum wattage / torque (i.e. how powerful the motor can be)
  • maximum speed assist (i.e. if the bike is going faster than, say 25 km/h, the motor stops helping)
  • and throttles could be banned (i.e. the motor will only assist when you pedal, and always at a certain set level)

We know some people have expressed concern about some or all of these possibilities – while others consider there are good reasons to look at whether the regulations need updating.

The existing regulations for e-bikes, as noted on the NZTA website, boil down to this:

A power assisted cycle has an auxiliary electric motor with a maximum power not exceeding 300W and is designed to be primarily propelled by the muscular energy of the rider.

Under current rules, an e-bike is still a bike, and if you’re riding one, you still have to follow the laws that apply to cycling. Also, you may not exceed the posted speed limit even if you can. (A survey of international laws around e-bikes is here.)

There are a number of points for and against regulatory changes, some of which we have listed below – without judgement on their merits. We suggest reading through these lists before you respond to the survey. We’d also love to hear your thoughts, as we’re bound to have missed some things.

Some arguments AGAINST regulations to limit maximum wattage and/or speed of e-bikes (and possibly ban throttles)

  • E-bikes help get more people into cycling, and cycling more often, including the elderly. Restricting the range of options could harm that, and thus reduce cycling growth overall
  • It’s not clear that faster or stronger e-bikes are a real issue – so why limit something ‘just because’?
  • Regulations will be hard to enforce, especially with imported vehicles – and even harder/impossible to check ‘out in the wild’
  • At the same time, having regulations unique to NZ (especially if they are different from overseas) will make it harder to get a good (legally) imported range of e-bikes
  • Stronger e-bike motors may be necessary for cargo bikes carrying cargo –  or for tackling some of our city hills – and especially in combination
  • Throttles can be handy for riders re-acclimatizing to city cycling, and looking to not get sweaty en route to meetings – and if e-bike share schemes take off, this may be a consideration. (Irony: we understand many of the bikes used in council fleets and NZTA’s own fleet have the throttle option).
  • Throttles are very useful for accelerating faster, which can give you a head-start at intersections to get out ahead of cars, and is also helpful if you’re starting a heavy cargo bike (or a bakfiets with children in it) from a standing start.
  • Full-assist (i.e. relying on the throttle, no pedalling necessary) is a useful function for the elderly or infirm
  • Yes, some people might be rude and careless when speeding – but that applies to all road users, whether in cars, on e-bikes, or normal bikes (address the user, not the tool)
  • Let’s not damage a good thing growing here (more people on bikes) by wrapping it up in red tape

Some arguments FOR regulations to limit maximum wattage and/or speed of e-bikes (and possibly ban throttles)

  • Numerous countries already limit e-bikes in these ways
  • This also means that (unless our regulations end up very different), there will still be lots of brands that can be legally imported
  • A deluge of faster riders overtaking slower riders on narrow paths or narrow bike lanes will be intimidating and less safe – and this, too, could harm the growth of everyday biking numbers
  • Even our newer paths and protected cycle lanes may not always be wide enough to handle great numbers of fast riders overtaking slow ones (even the Dutch paths struggle with it at times)
  • Yes, some riders already go fast, even without an e-bike. But access to un-dampened e-bikes means that many more riders than previously will regularly travel at 30-40 km/h
  • If fast/strong e-bikes become typical, this could make normal (and younger) riders ‘second class citizens’ on our cycle infrastructure, expected to have to get out of the way of the ‘fast crowd’
  • Fast bikes are particularly intimidating for pedestrians – and with so many shared paths still around, this could harm the call for more cycling funding
  • We are still struggling to get cycle infrastructure separated from cars and pedestrians. Will cities make space for paths and cycle lanes wide enough to deal with fast e-bikes?
  • We can’t put speed limits on bike paths – our police aren’t even enforcing them on the roads!
  • With great power comes great responsibility… but that’s hard enough to remember behind the wheel of a car
  • If e-bike share schemes take off as they may well do in Auckland, anything that can help keep people safer is a good thing
  • No one is proposing to ban e-bikes, or render them useless. The debate is likely to concentrate on top speeds and leave most current applications of e-bikes relatively untouched
Janette Sadik-Khan enjoys Auckland hills with an e-bike.
Janette Sadik-Khan enjoys Auckland hills with a little boost from an e-bike. Hard to argue against more of this (and indeed, many Aucklanders are voting with their wallets on this one).

Bike Auckland does not have a formal policy as such on these matters – although we probably lean towards the argument that some upper limits are good (otherwise, why not allow motor bikes and mopeds on bike lanes and shared paths too, if the only difference is that they are fossil-fuelled?).

But how far should the regulations go? Please sound off in the comments – what pros or cons do you see? What’s missing from our lists above?

And again, here’s the link to the survey. By all means add your voice. 

PS One last thought. E-bikes are a global trend. Across the world, they’re outselling electric cars by 70 to 1. Last year, 35% of all bikes sold by independent bike dealers in the Netherlands were e-bikes. (One bike shop we spoke with in Auckland said that every single bike they sold in July was electric!)

So, we wonder what detailed research is being done into the NZ demographics of e-bikes. Amongst the Dutch, for example, they’re catching on among school kids, and were first adopted by older riders. Would knowing these details change the kind of debate we’re having about regulation?

Join us

Bike Auckland is the non-profit organisation working to improve things for people on bikes. We’re a people-powered movement for a better city. We speak up for you – and the more of us there are, the stronger our voice!

Suggest a new ride