When is an e-bike not an e-bike?

E-bikes are becoming a common sight on the roads, but not all of them are being used legally. Derek Williams looks at a growing problem

An Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle – Photo Raleigh

The traditional idea of a bike being the standard machine with two wheels you sit on and pedal has been true for many decades. In recent years however the definition of what counts as a bicycle has been expanded. We now have what the government calls “EAPCs” – Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles – often called “pedal assist” bikes or just e-bikes. It’s the “e-bike” term that’s causing a problem, because a lot of people don’t know what it means and it can mean many things.

An Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle is a bicycle which you have to pedal to make it go. As the name makes clear they are electrically assisted, not electrically powered. If you stop pedalling, the electric assist will stop too.

According to the government website an e-bike must show either the power output or the manufacturer of the motor and it must also display the battery’s voltage or the maximum speed of the bike. The electric motor must have a maximum power output of 250 watts and should not be able to propel the bike when it’s travelling more than 25 Km/h (15.5mph).

In short these bikes simply make it easier to pedal and are limited to normal bicycle speeds.

Although expensive to buy, these machines are a very good development for cycling, they are still very much a form of active travel because they give real exercise. They deal with hills and headwinds while offering a greatly increased range of travel at an extremely low cost to run.

They can of course have more than two wheels and pedal assist is the technology behind the commercial cargo bikes you’ll see around the city in increasing numbers.

You can ride a pedal assist bike from the age of 14, you don’t need a licence and in all other ways they are considered the same as a standard bike.

The problem

There has been almost no publicity of these rules at a time when the development of electric propulsion has been going through a period of rapid development. This means there are also a range of electric bikes which are not pedal assist, but are propelled entirely by an electric motor, controlled with a throttle and which are capable of speeds well in excess of 25 Km/h.

Such bikes are in fact electric mopeds or even electric motor bikes: if they have pedals they’re not something that gets used much. As with petrol powered mopeds and motorbikes, in order to ride one you need a licence, a crash helmet, an MoT, number plates, insurance – in fact everything needed to use a motor vehicle on the public road.

The problem is there has been no effort by the government to raise awareness of the law and many people – probably most – are totally unaware of it, as are seemingly many of the places selling them. There is no regulation over the sales of e-bikes, especially on-line sales. The result is that these powerful, fast electric motorbikes are becoming a common sight on the roads, often driven illegally and badly. There has been no enforcement of the laws by the police.


A “dual mode” e-bike, switchable between pedal assist or electric motorbike Photo Amazon

There are even some bikes which are dual mode and can be used either in pedal assist or powered mode. The bike pictured above has a top speed of 35Km/h (22 mph), switchable between legal and illegal.

Because of this we have a serious and growing problem with people riding machines with high top speeds totally illegally and often by people underage to ride a motorbike legally. All this is, perhaps understandably, creating bad feeling towards all e-bikes amongst other road users and pedestrians and creating very real danger.

To make things worse it is possible to modify some legal e-bikes to increase the power and top speed. This is illegal because the machine becomes an electric motorbike if you do, but again, there is no enforcement going on and very little awareness of the rules.

An e-cargo bike – Photo Balfes Bikes

The commercial cargo bikes you see operating around the city are legal. With cargo bikes the challenge is to show that they have an average power of no more than 250W given that they need considerably more power than that over a short time to accelerate. Reputable manufacturers (Raleigh, Urban Arrow etc.) would only supply road-legal bikes that cannot be changed without dealer-only software.

This is all very unfortunate, the development of electric power for small vehicles should be a welcome part of the effort to clean up transport. Pedal assist bikes, with their greatly increased range, provide more and more opportunities to transport not only people but also goods via low carbon forms of transport. Instead the “hands off” approach by the government is allowing a dangerous situation to develop.

If you’re thinking of getting an e-bike, it’s a good idea to make sure you know the law. E-motor bikes have their place but do remember they are not bicycles.


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