As she got older, the steep grade of Mt. Vernon Street became harder and harder for 82-year-old Joan Doucette of Beacon Hill to pedal up on her bicycle. But since she switched to an electric-assist bicycle, known as an e-bike, the hill is no match for her.
Every day she unplugs the battery in her apartment, loads it onto her bike, and pedals off to the gym, the grocery store, and her part-time job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And on her return, she zips up the hill home.
“I find that absolutely fabulous,” she said. “I would never be able to do all that I do without my e-bike.”
But when Doucette takes her e-bike on a bike path, she becomes a scofflaw. In Massachusetts, e-bikes are categorized as mopeds and prohibited on bike paths, though bike advocates say the law is largely unenforced.
Now, some lawmakers are pushing a bill that would bring the state in line with 46 others and Washington, D.C., in regulating the very expensive but increasingly popular e-bikes as bikes.
E-bike sales in the United States were up 240 percent over the 12-month period ending in July, compared with the same period two years earlier, surpassing regular bikes, which were up 65 percent, according to NPD Group, a consumer analytics company. And Massachusetts is no different, despite the legal gray area. Local sellers say at times they’ve struggled to keep up with demand.
E-bikes have electric motors to assist with propulsion. Most e-bikes require riders to pedal, and they have motors that stop assisting once the bike reaches a certain speed. On flat ground, the motor’s boost can be undetectable, but on a steep hill, the help can make a big difference. The most popular brands charge around $2,500 for a basic e-bike, putting them out of reach for many.
As they try to create a legal infrastructure for e-bikes, legislators are working to balance safety concerns with promoting access to a technology that can reduce transportation emissions and give more people access to biking.
From his perspective, Representative Dylan Fernandes, lead sponsor of the House’s e-bike bill, said it’s time for Massachusetts to catch up with the rest of the country.
“What’s abundantly clear, whatever the law, is people are riding e-bikes in bike lanes and bike paths as they should; they are bikes,” the Falmouth Democrat said. A similar e-bike bill is in the state Senate.
Meanwhile, Representative William M. Straus, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, is concerned about the safety of allowing bikes traveling 20 miles per hour or more on paths.
“The tech enables a whole group of the public to be propelling at higher speeds than they may have been able to achieve otherwise,” the Mattapoisett Democrat said. “These are pretty fast speeds. I want to be really cautious in terms of the safety issues.”
Thirty-six states have adopted a three-class system to categorize e-bikes, according to the organization People for Bikes, which tracks e-bike legislation. The system allows municipalities to regulate e-bikes further, based on the classes. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill say that’s what they are mulling.
Class 1 e-bikes are equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and stops providing assistance when the e-bike reaches at most 20 miles per hour. Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle-activated motor, meaning they do not require pedaling, and stop providing assistance when the e-bike reaches at most 20 miles per hour. And Class 3 e-bikes assist a rider only while pedaling, but stop helping at a max of 28 miles per hour.
The proposed bill in Massachusetts would allow all three classes on bike paths, require each e-bike to have a sticker labeling its class, require helmets for Class 3 riders, and prohibit people under 16 from operating a Class 3 e-bike.
Ten other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted regulations that treat e-bikes and regular bikes similarly. Only four states, including Massachusetts, consider e-bikes mopeds or motor vehicles.
Carice Reddien, owner of Bicycle Belle in Somerville, has sold 18 Urban Arrow cargo e-bikes, her most popular brand, so far this year, a record for her shop. The Urban Arrow cargo e-bike — price tag: $5,999 — is meant to carry multiple children or large loads.
She started to see more interest in e-bikes around 2015, when they became available with Bosch motors already installed.
“Before that it was the wild west,” she said. “People were importing motors from China, putting them on bikes. It was a hobbyist thing; it wasn’t a major manufacturing system.”
Her customers are mostly parents who want to use their car less or ditch it all together. She sells almost exclusively Class 1 e-bikes and is hopeful the state will soon adopt the three-tier classification system.
Transportation advocates hope bikeshare systems will add e-bikes if lawmakers free them from their current legal purgatory.
Bluebikes, the bikeshare system in Boston and 10 surrounding municipalities, has long cited the lack of state regulation for why it does not include e-bikes in its fleet. The increased costs for e-bikes would have to be covered by all municipalities, and coming to an agreement on funding with so many involved is also a challenge, said Stefanie Seskin, active transportation director for the city of Boston.
One bikeshare system in Massachusetts is already e-bike equipped, despite the legal ambiguity. ValleyBike Share in the Pioneer Valley, which serves eight municipalities and the University of Massachusetts, has had a fully e-bike fleet since it began in 2018.
Wayne Feiden, director of planning and sustainability for Northampton, said e-bikes have their risks, especially when inexperienced riders give them a try on crowded paths. But Feiden said the environmental benefits and the transportation benefits — enabling more people to travel longer distances — are well worth the risks.
“It’s an issue we have to deal with,” he said. “We can’t deal with it by banning e-bikes.”
To get more e-bikes to people who need them, some lawmakers are pushing a separate bill that would allow the Department of Energy Resources to provide rebates on purchases of e-bikes of up to $500 for general consumers and $750 for low- and moderate-income consumers.
Without help from a bike advocacy group covering the $5,000 cost of her e-bike, Tiffany Cogell would not have been able to afford one. The Dorchester resident said she would have never thought that an e-bike was for her before she tried one at a community event for the group she cofounded last year, Ride for Black Lives. Now the 52-year-old, who has a knee injury that prevents her from using a regular bike over long distances, is able to join her kids on recreational rides at least once a week.
“One of the main barriers is price, but also awareness,” she said.
Jana Pickard-Richardson, 41, has been getting around town on a regular bike for 20 years. When she had kids, she decided to get a cargo bike to be able to haul them and their stuff around, too. But as they grew and got heavier, they’re now 10 and 7 years old, the hill she lives on on Montebello Road in Jamaica Plain became impossible.
“It was either get an electric assist or move,” she said.
Her local bike shop outfitted her cargo bike with an electric motor about two and a half years ago, turning the human-powered bike into a Class 1 e-bike for $1,500. It’s the best money she’s ever spent, she said.
She’s able to use her cargo e-bike year-round to pick up her kids from school, get groceries, and run other errands she might otherwise have done in a car.
Though she knows her e-bike commutes often make her run afoul of the current law, she said it’s a risk worth taking.
“I feel like I’m in the right. Using this bike to not emit carbon is good for all of us,” she said. “I’m one less minivan.”
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.