E-Bikes: What are they?

by Jamie Stuckless, Executive Director, Share the Road Cycling Coalition

Researchers at the University of Waterloo are keen to understand the future of e-bike mobility in Ontario. On May 24th, I had the opportunity to participate in a forum they hosted to delve into the topic and to share some of their recent research. Not only did I get to test ride an e-bike for the first time, I was introduced to a growing body of e-bike research.

E-bikes present a real opportunity for cycling in Ontario, with several studies indicating that people are more likely to replace a car trip with an e-bike trip than they are to replace a car trip with a traditional bicycle. As we work to make our roads safer and more efficient at moving people, this is great news and could see more Ontarians riding bikes.

We also heard about how e-bikes are helping to get older residents (55+) back on their bicycles both for commuting and for recreation.

However, every presenter pointed to the big sticking point for e-bikes right now in Ontario: how we define them. Currently, the province recognizes e-bikes as “motorized bicycles that can look like conventional bicycles (pedelecs), scooters and limited-speed motorcycles.” This is a wide definition and does not acknowledge the variations in performance between all these different vehicles.

Additionally, in Ontario, all e-bike operators and passengers must be at least 16 years of age. This means that you cannot bring your toddler along for a ride in your electric cargo bike.

The Province does grant municipalities the ability to prohibit where e-bikes may travel on roads, paths and other property under their jurisdiction. For example, the City of Toronto has passed a by-law differentiating between pedelecs and e-scooters (e-scooters are not allowed on cycle tracks).

For more information, visit the Ministry of Transportation’s FAQ page on e-bikes.

The Province has recognized that it’s time to clarify the guidelines for e-bikes across Ontario, and #CycleON Action Plan 2.0 includes plans to consult with stakeholders about e-including the “categorization of e-bikes to differentiate between heavy scooters and pedal-assisted bikes (action 1.5).

There is also a petition at the federal level right now to refine the definition of “power-assisted bicycles” under the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations. Because Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act references this federal definition for power-assisted bicycles, it is a relevant petition for residents to check out.

It is clear from these discussions – and from what we hear from stakeholders – that we need to change the definition of e-bikes. Pedelecs and heavy scooters do not perform the same and should not be treated the same. Fortunately, there are opportunities federally and provincial to accomplish this change.

I am excited about the potential that e-bikes represent to make cycling more accessible to more Ontarians. The definition is of course not the only barrier that exists for e-bikes. Researchers also emphasized negative perceptions of e-bikes among planners and people who bike, a lack of safe cycling infrastructure and a need for education as reasons why people choose not to ride. With this potential growth in the cycling market, our collective work to build safe and connected communities that help everyone get home safely is just as crucial as ever.