RI lawmakers vote to legalize e-bikes – with a speed limit on bike paths

Patrick Anderson
Providence Journal

Electric bicycles – already ubiquitous on Rhode Island roads – are on the verge of becoming street and bike-path legal here.

The General Assembly on Thursday passed legislation including some new safety limits on the battery-and-pedal powered vehicles that will take them out of the legal gray area they've been in for years.

This is the first year lawmakers have considered e-bike legislation that has not been opposed by the state Department of Transportation, which recently saw them as a danger to pedestrians and riders of conventional bicycles.

This year the DOT took no position on the issue and the Department of Environmental Management supported it, making it likely Gov. Dan McKee will sign it into law.

The change to this year's bills, and , that may have gotten them over the line will allow the DEM to prohibit – if it decides to – all but the slowest-moving class of e-bikes on state bike paths.

The legislation divides e-bikes into three classes based on how fast they go and whether a rider has to pedal them.

  • Class 1 e-bikes have an electric motor that kicks in only while someone is pedaling and reach a maximum speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 2 run on an electric motor without pedaling, but don't go faster than 20 mph.
  • Class 3 can hit 28 mph, but require pedaling to engage the electric motor.

The e-bike bill passed Thursday will allow only Class 1 e-bikes on state bike paths under any circumstance and gives the DEM the authority to decide whether other classes should be allowed on them.

"Taken together, these changes will have the effect of expanding the legal use of e-bikes in Rhode Island while ensuring that appropriate safety protections are in effect," DEM Director Terrence Gray wrote in committee testimony on the bill. "It is DEM’s intention to determine on a case-by-case basis which properties will allow e-bike usage and which classes of e-bikes will be allowed."

He didn't say anything about speed traps.

The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition supported the bill as a "good first step."

"In particular, we endorse this clear definition of electric bicycles, which is consistent with industry standards and most of the U.S. states as well as the provision that will allow Class 1 electric bicycles on state bike paths and trails," RI Bicycle chair Kathleen Gannon wrote in an email. "This is a good first step for cyclists across Rhode Island."