Low-Speed Electric Bikes Get Go-Ahead from NJ Lawmakers

Current state regulations are not up to speed with e-bikes, causing confusion for some police departments

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Electric bikes with low-speed motors that have become popular in many cities across the country and controversial in others could be riding throughout New Jersey soon.

The Legislature has sent Gov. Phil Murphy a measure to allow the operation in New Jersey of so-called e-bikes and e-scooters. S-731 would allow the operation of any bicycle with an assistive motor of 750 watts that can travel no faster than 20 miles per hour without the need for license or registration. The maximum speed for an e-scooter would be 19 mph.

Adam Levine described an electric bike as “just a bicycle, but with a little motor in it that will help the rider out, lets them go further, go a little faster if they need to, up a hill, through headwinds” when testifying last spring before the Senate Transportation Committee. Levine, who owns Pedego, a Spring Lake shop that sells e-bikes, said the typical owner is between age 50 and 75 and may have some health issues or joint pain and would not be able to comfortably operate a bike without the help of the motor.

“I have a disability that makes an electric bike easier to operate than a normal bike because an e-bike is pedal-assist and does not require as much effort to pedal up hills,” said 58-year-old Brian Jennings, who supports the bill. “It’s a great way to exercise for the elderly or disabled who love to ride bikes to be able to enjoy riding again.”

New Jersey needs legislation permitting e-bikes because they fall between the cracks of current laws. As Levine explained, current state regulations classify electric bicycles as mopeds, which means they are illegal to operate unless they are registered with the state Motor Vehicle Commission.

Need for ‘a concise definition’

“Most police departments are totally fine with it,” Levine said. But some have consulted the law, determined the e-bike is akin to a moped and will write the owner a ticket. “You take that ticket to motor vehicle and you try to register your electric bicycle and they‘ll say, ‘This doesn’t qualify as something that needs to be registered,’” Levine continued. “Right now, there just needs to be a concise definition of what this is.”

According to the organization People for Bikes, New Jersey is one of 16 states with laws that either treat electric bicycles as motorcycles or mopeds or whose laws are too confusing to properly classify them. Thirteen states have adopted what the group considers “model legislation,” which creates a special classification for e-bikes and regulates them that way. Other states have done what New Jersey is contemplating and are regulating them as regular bicycles.

Lawmakers in both houses passed the measure with bipartisan and near unanimous support; the Senate gave the bill final passage last Thursday by a 30-1 vote. But e-bikes are not without controversy.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently ordered a crackdown on some e-bikes, calling them “a real danger,” according to the New York Times, and the city imposed a new $100 fine on businesses whose employees — typically delivery workers — are caught using such a bike, in addition to the $500 fine riders themselves can receive. The crackdown is on more powerful bikes, operating with a throttle, that can reach speeds of 28 mph. New York is also home to Citi Bike, whose fleet includes 200 of lower-speed e-bikes with plans to increase that to 4,000 this spring.

In other cities from San Diego, California to Washington, D.C., electric bikes and electric scooters — whether individually owned or shared via bike racks — have become very popular.

Affordable, environmentally responsible

“E-Bikes and e-scooters are growing in popularity around the country,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), one of the bill’s sponsors. “They are easy to operate, affordable and allow riders greater mobility. They are environmentally responsible and help to relieve roadway congestion.”

E-bike proponents and the bill’s sponsors make the case that electric bikes offer benefits to individuals and society. They can help people get exercise because the motor assists the biker, who still pedals. Bikers take cars off the road, which both helps alleviate traffic and lessens the release of air pollutants.

“This will help to bring transportation accessibility into the 21st Century,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), who co-sponsored the measure. “E-Bikes and e-scooters fit in with our efforts to live greener and healthier lives.”

One great concern, as expressed by de Blasio and others, is safety. Some fear that even a bike traveling at 20 mph can menace pedestrians and those on non-motorized bikes. Despite de Blasio’s concerns, New York City does not track statistics on crashes involving electric bikes. Studies of accidents in other countries, where e-biking is more common, have found that the number of accidents has risen with increased usage, but most injuries involved the biker and not others.

Even while voting for the bill last June in the Senate Transportation Committee that he chairs, Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) expressed some worries.

Liability issues?

“This is a great initiative,” he said. “I gotta be honest with you, though, I’m a little concerned about the liability issues if a pedestrian gets hit. We’ll deal with that if it comes up.”

The measure took some time from initial committee approval to final passage in part over questions of where, exactly electric bikes should be allowed to operate. One early draft of the bill permitted their use on sidewalks, while another prohibited that use. The final version leaves it up to local officials to decide whether to allow e-bikers on sidewalks, as well as certain trails.

While e-bikes and e-scooters are available for sale in the state, they have not been used much here as shared transportation — available from bike stands along city streets — because of the ambiguity of state law.

In May 2018, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop announced that Citi Bike was going to bring e-bikes into the city last summer, but that didn’t happen. The bike-sharing company JUMP has made overtures to operate in Jersey City, in particular. Earlier this month, at a public hearing on the temporary suspension of NJ Transit light-rail service in Hudson County, the company proposed bringing bike sharing to residents living near the stations.

Proposal for Jersey City

“This week, we sent Mayor Fulop a proposal to deploy JUMP bikes in Jersey City immediately and our commitment to invest $13.7 million in that deployment over three years,” according to a company statement. “We urge NJ Transit to support this proposal in an effort to mitigate the impact the service suspension will have on the South Side.”

A company spokesperson said JUMP supports the proposed legislation.

Proponents of the bill, while happy that it has cleared all legislative hurdles, say the measure is less than perfect, because it would not cover those e-bikes that can travel between 20 and 28 mph. Those would be considered mopeds and would need to be registered and insured.

Jamie Gilson, an attorney, professor at New York Law School, and chairman of the board of the Electric Spokes Corporation, wrote in his blog that the enactment of an e-bike law “is sure to promote growth of the industry, small business opportunities, green and healthy transportation alternatives, tax revenue, create jobs and careers.”