Hours after a protest in front of the State House pushing for legislation that would bring electric bicycles, known as e-bikes, out of their legal purgatory, a top lawmaker said the bill is likely to move out of committee by Friday.
Representative William Straus, co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he’s confident the committee will act on the bill that would regulate the increasingly popular e-bikes as bikes as opposed to motor vehicles, which require a license, and allow them to be ridden on bike paths, by its Friday deadline. This legislation has been considered by state lawmakers before, but never made it all the way to the governor’s desk.
“I’m optimistic that this is [the] time for e-bike classification,” the Mattapoisett Democrat said.
At the rally in front of the State House Wednesday, city officials and advocates from Boston and nearby municipalities pressed for the legislation that would bring Massachusetts in line with 46 other states and Washington, D.C. Advocates say the much needed clarity will encourage more people to replace car trips with e-bike trips, reducing congestion and climate change-causing emissions.
Advocates also want to see a separate bill pass 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, currently pending before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy.
“E-bikes . . . provide climate justice, economic justice, and transportation justice,” said Boston Cyclists Union executive director Becca Wolfson. “We need these bills to pass now.”
E-bikes allow people to travel further distances with more ease than a regular bike. The e-bike regulation bill would create a three-class system to categorize them. The system allows municipalities to regulate e-bikes further, based on the classes.
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 bill 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.
State Senator Sal DiDomenico, who has repeatedly introduced the bill, said lawmakers are working through some sticking points, including what will happen if municipalities decide to regulate the classes differently on paths that they share.
“I feel like we are in a great place to get something across the finish line,” said the Everett Democrat. “We’re now actually digging down into the details which we haven’t done in the past.”
Straus said he met with his co-chair Senator Brendan Crighton of Lynn on Wednesday to work out the details of the e-bike bill.
“This is something both of us consider a high priority for the committee to complete its work with,” he said.
On Tuesday, 20 officials from 16 municipalities — Arlington, Bedford, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Lexington, Medford, Melrose, Natick, Newton, Salem, Somerville, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Winchester — sent a letter to Crighton and Straus, urging them to greenlight the bill. The committee has until Friday to decide whether to vote it out favorably, extend its deliberation, or not act at all.
Cambridge and Boston city councils have recently passed resolutions in support of the state legislation.
Boston’s Chief of Streets, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, said the bill closely aligns with the city’s goals of encouraging more trips to take place by bike.
“We have a congestion crisis in the city, and we have a planetary climate crisis,” he said. “And the only way that we’re going to address this is to have fewer trips take place in private cars, and more trips by bike, on foot, by transit.”
Franklin-Hodge wants to launch programs that would enable more food delivery trips in Boston to happen via e-bike and cites the current law prohibiting e-bikes on paths and requiring riders to hold drivers’ licenses as barriers.
“It is fundamentally, from a transportation perspective, ridiculous that we’re using 4,000-pound fossil fuel vehicles to move a chicken sandwich or a bowl of Thai food one or two miles through our very congested city,” he said. “We need to have the right legal frameworks in place at the state level to make it possible for us to set up these programs and to actually try to push for policies that drive towards this shift.”
E-bikes are already widely popular in Massachusetts and across the US and advocates say the current laws governing their use go largely unenforced. But those laws are preventing most bike share programs from including e-bikes in their fleets. ValleyBike Share in the Pioneer Valley has had e-bikes since it launched in 2018, despite the current legal ambiguity, but Bluebikes has long cited that ambiguity for why it does not include e-bikes.
“If the bikes are legal, if they exist in law, we can start using things like Bluebikes with electric bicycles instead,” said Representative Steven Owens, a Watertown Democrat and sponsor of the House bill. “We have the infrastructure in place, we just need the regulatory framework to support it.”