While many people think of electric bicycles as purely recreational, they have proven themselves as potent commuter vehicles. Not only do e-bike riders often outpace traffic, but they reduce everyone’s wait by taking cars off crowded urban streets.
When you add in electric motorcycles and electric scooters or e-mopeds, the results are even more impressive. But varied and often antagonistic laws across the US can make it harder for urban commuters to switch to two-wheeled EVs.
What if there was a nationwide class for these vehicles and a special license to make riding them safer and more convenient, while also reducing traffic for everyone? That’s what I’m proposing, and this is how I think it could work.
First some e-bike primer
Electric motorcycles, e-scooters and e-bikes (or at least e-bikes with hand throttles) all share a common thread: ease of use. Riders simply hop on and twist the throttle to go.
With no clutch or gears to worry about, there’s almost no learning curve.
And studies have shown that their use is actually beneficial for everyone, even car drivers. In one such study, a shift of just 10% of commuters from cars to motorcycles resulted in a 40% reduction in traffic congestion (i.e. wait time) for ALL commuters, cars included. It also resulted in a 6% drop in carbon emissions.
And that was with gas bikes. Assuming electric motorcycles instead, the carbon emissions reduction would presumably be nearly 10%.
A rider on an electric scooter from Flux Mopeds taking up less space than a car
The impact of replacing just a small number of cars with motorcycles or bikes is so large because it’s really all about maximizing use of congested urban roads. Cities are getting ever more crowded as populations explode, but road area remains the same. Many electric motorbikes, scooters and bicycles can fit in the same space as a car.
In Copenhagen, just a narrow bike lane on the side of a road conveys 8x the number of people each morning compared to cars on the same road.
BIKE LANES ONLY LOOK EMPTY BECAUSE THEY ARE DAMN EFFICIENT
This stretch in Copenhagen conveys 8 times as many people on bikes compared to cars – still it's mostly cars we see.
vid @anderspreben pic.twitter.com/Du3JqYhU1F
— Urban Planning & Mobility (@urbanthoughts11) April 8, 2019
When you add in filtering (allowing narrow two-wheeled vehicles to move between cars, usually to reach the front of a traffic light or traffic congestion) as nearly every country except for the US does, motorcycles and bikes are even more efficient. California is currently the only US state to allow filtering and it has helped reduce their already notorious traffic issues. When quick-moving narrower vehicles skip to the front of the queue, everyone’s wait time is reduced.
And from an energy use standpoint, even electric cars can’t compete against electric two-wheelers. As my electric bike-riding boss likes to say, he uses less energy getting to work than some electric cars use getting out of the driveway.
But two-wheeled EVs aren’t just more efficient, they are also more fun. I commute on a variety of electric motorcycles, e-bicycles and e-mopeds every day and they turn my drive into pure joy. Instead of sitting in a cage on wheels staring at the back of the car in front of me, I get to ride freely with the wind in my face, carving up corners and skipping to the front of red lights.
But I won’t beleaguer the point any further. Two-wheeled EVs are simply superior in so many ways for urban travel. Either you accept that fact or you don’t.
What I really want to talk about is a way to make these vehicles more accessible to ultimately reduce traffic and make transportation better for everyone, drivers and riders alike.
Create a nationwide class of two-wheeled EVs
The first thing we need to do is lump these faster two-wheelers together into a standardized class of vehicles. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles have national standards they have to meet. But when it comes to mopeds (electric or gas) and electric bicycles, it’s still the wild west out there. Every state has different rules and regulations. The same vehicle in different states can be legally considered a bicycle, motorized bicycle, electric bicycle, moped, or motorcycle. Or just be illegal entirely. And that doesn’t really make any sense, now does it?
This 30 mph ONYX CTY moped is great out here, but is it street legal? Sort of. Depends where.
Instead, I think there should be a nationwide class for these just like there is for Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). Such a class would also allow for the creation of specific safety standards, like those used for other classes of vehicles. Obviously we can’t have hunks of junk on two wheels zipping around, and so standards should exist for parameters such as frame tolerances, braking distance, etc. And yes, I know there is a 3 class system for electric bicycles already that is used in a small number of US states. But it only goes up to 28 mph, and as you’ll see in a moment, I’m going to propose that we move these things a little bit faster. That 3 class system is fine to keep, but it leaves faster e-bikes in a legal gray area. So this isn’t about requiring a license for those e-bikes, it’s about legalizing the faster ones.
The federal NEV class designation that I mentioned above provides a speed limit for vehicles to be included in the class. NEVs are limited in speed to 25 mph (40 km/h) at the federal level. Something similar for two-wheeled EVs would be perfect – though with a higher speed limit. Keep in mind that I’m talking about urban use here – so these aren’t going to be 120 mph Zero electric motorcycles.
But considering that you can buy a 45 mph (72 km/h) electric motorcycle for just $2,495 in the US, it makes sense to have a class of two-wheeled EVs with a similar speed limit. I’m not saying it has to be 45 mph. Maybe it’s 40 mph. Maybe it’s 35 mph. I’m open to suggestions. But I think it should be higher than the 30 mph (48 km/h) limit used in many states to delineate mopeds from motorcycles.
Me on my new GenZe electric scooter (note: this is a delivery day photo – I normally ride in boots)
That’s the limit in my state and it means that my GenZe 2.0f electric scooter, which I use as nearly a daily driver, is limited to 30 mph. It could go faster, but as soon as I hit 30 mph I can feel the limit kick in and my power drops to keep me from going any faster. While that speed works fine for most roads in my city, being able to hit higher speeds is definitely helpful. With my 45 mph (72 km/h) electric motorcycle, I can actually use smaller urban highways that would be a no-go at 30 mph (48 km/h).
And to answer the other question you might be thinking, “wait, is he still talking about electric bicycles here?”, the answer is yes. There are multiple e-bikes already on the market that can hit speeds of 45 mph. They obviously aren’t street legal, but I’m proposing that we change that.
Again, this is where safety regulations come in to play. They would be considered motor vehicles and thus have to undergo whatever safety regulations and inspections are ultimately chosen for this new class. And random imported hunks of junk that can hit 45 mph but don’t meet the strict federal standards won’t be on the roads. That’s why there aren’t a thousand random brands of imported motorcycles on the road in the US. Unless companies can receive DOT and NHTSA certification, they aren’t street legal in the US.
This 36 mph beauty from Vintage Electric Bikes deserves to be street legal
Fast e-bikes would be held to the same standards as everything else in this new class. Whether or not they have pedals would be irrelevant. Not that the pedals would be useless. Just because I happen to own a 40 mph e-bike (I actually do) doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to pedal it sometimes. Plus it serves as a nice backup if I were to ever run out of charge.
So regardless of whether we are talking about electric bicycles, scooters, or motorcycles, they all serve the same purpose: getting us where we need to go without wasting energy or polluting our world. If they meet the safety requires and speed limitations of the new class of vehicles I am proposing, they should be allowed on roads.
A new type of driver’s license
In addition to this new class of motor vehicles though, I think we need a new type of drivers license: an urban electric motorbike license.
I think this is important for a number of reasons:
- Many riders choose e-bikes over a car and don’t have experience with all road laws like drivers do
- There is a lot of two-wheel specific safety knowledge that needs to be taught to riders
- Not everyone wants to ride a full motorcycle, so a full motorcycle license can sometimes be a deterrent
Requiring anyone operating a vehicle in this new class to have this license would go a long way towards improving the safety of everyone involved. There’s a lot of riding knowledge that car drivers never have to think about, such as lane position, lean angle, differential braking, etc. Requiring a class to teach this info would be an important part of safe riding.
A classic Honda Cub scooter with an electric conversion
Currently most states require a rider to pass a 3-4 day Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) class and examination in order to receive a motorcycle license. I had to do it, and to be honest it was a great experience that taught me a lot of valuable knowledge. But I also spent 2 days learning how to feather a clutch and properly shift a 500 cc gas-powered Harley-Davidson that I’ll never touch again. I saw a bunch of people struggling with the fine control of a clutch and who failed the tight maneuvering examination because of it, but who otherwise probably would have excelled on a simpler electric motorbike.
I’ll admit that it was kind of fun to learn, and now I have the necessary skills if I ever need to hijack a motorcycle in an action movie, but it just isn’t relevant for a new wave of EV riders like myself. For someone like me that just wants to commute on an electric motorcycle or scooter, the MSF class has a lot of superfluous info. However, the important safety training and on-road maneuvering is excellent info, and could be distilled into a shorter and more manageable electric motorbike course to get an EV motorbike license.
But aren’t motorcycles and e-bikes dangerous?
On average, motorcycle riders experience more injuries and fatalities than car drivers on a per trip basis. That’s true and there’s no sugar coating it. If you’re going to run into a wall or get T-boned in an intersection, having a steel cage and air-bags around you is the safer and more comfortable way to go about it.
But I don’t buy the argument that you shouldn’t do something just because it isn’t as safe as something else. If that were true, everyone living in cities should stop driving immediately and instead take public transportation instead. You are 4-5x more likely to get injured or killed in a car than on public transportation.
But no one expects people to stop driving just because there is a safer alternative, right? So why do people look at motorcyclists like we’re some kind of hooligans needlessly risking our lives?
I also believe that a large percentage of the injuries and deaths on motorcycles are as a result of two-wheels bringing out the inner delinquent in many people. A lot of motorcycle riders take unnecessary risks to show off and have fun. And others, for some reason, believe that their beanie and flip flops will protect them in a crash. Still others simply aren’t mature enough to handle so much power in such a small vehicle. And it’s this kind of irresponsibility that is a huge contributor to the scary motorcycle crash stats.
Those aren’t my idea of riding pants, but at least they are wearing helmets!
If you’re a responsible adult using an electric motorcycle as a commuter vehicle, and if you have undergone the kind of safety training that I already proposed as necessary to receive this new urban electric motorbike license, then you’ve gone a long way towards leveling the scary motorcycle crash statistics as compared to cars. Of course you can’t prevent every accident, and many riders are struck through no fault of their own by inattentive drivers, but undergoing and employing proper safety training that is specific to motorbikes can help riders avoid many accidents before they happen.
At the end of the day, motorbikes will never be as safe as cars simply due to their exposed nature and the increased focus/road awareness they require. But it’s also that exposed nature that makes them so much more fun to ride and that makes my commute one my favorite parts of the day. And as a red-blooded American, isn’t it my right to choose how many wheels I commute on?
So there it is. I think we need an urban electric motorbike class of vehicles with a reasonable urban speed limit and a federal designation to ensure they meet important safety standards. There should also be a special urban electric motorbike license required for these vehicles which can be used to teach necessary skills and further ensure the safe operation of such vehicles.
Even if you would never consider throwing your leg over a bike, the mere existence of these types of vehicles on the road will make your car commute shorter and more efficient as well. These e-bikes will reduce emissions, unclog streets, and generally result in an increase in the greater good.
Thanks for reading! You can tell me why I’m wrong in the comments below.
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