Tag Archives: law

Fixie or track bicycle?

Track racing bicycle,from Bicycling Magazine

Track racing bicycle, from Bicycling Magazine. The caption in the picture reads “On a fixie, there are no gears or brakes. Only your legs control the drivetrain.”

From Bicycling Magazine, June 2014, page 28:

“A fixie (or fixed gear) is a singlespeed without brakes and without the mechanism that allows the bike to coast when you’re not pedaling.”

That is a description of a track racing bicycle, which is only one kind of bicycle with a fixed gear. The caption in the picture with the article repeats this description.

Let’s get definitions straight:

  • A fixed gear is a connection between the pedals and the driving wheel without a mechanism which allows coasting.
  • Antique high-wheeler bicycles have a fixed gear;
  • Children’s tricycles have a fixed gear;
  • Sturmey-Archer sells a three-speed fixed-gear hub, and so, some fixed-gear bicycles are not singlespeeds;
  • “Fixie” is not synonymous with “fixed gear”. Rather, “fixie” is slang for a bicycle with a fixed gear.
  • Fixed-gear bicycles for the road,  as a matter of common sense, safety and traffic law in many jurisdictions, must have a brake.

Though it is possible to slow a brakeless fixie by resisting the rotation of the pedals, this braking is not as effective as with a front handbrake, and can be lost due to the cranks’ outrunning the feet, or the chain’s coming off.

The photo with the Bicycling Magazine article shows a brakeless fixie on a street — illegal in many places, and with impaired safety due to the longer stopping distance and unreliability of braking. Also, the cyclist is using toe clips and tightly-adjusted straps with the end of each strap passed through the slot at the bottom of the buckle. The straps cannot, then, be adjusted while riding — OK on the track where a starter holds the bicycle upright, but not on the road. I have to wonder whether the cyclist in the photo was assisted in starting, or is being held upright for the photo by someone outside the picture.

Why am I taking the trouble to write this? Primarily, because the Bicycling Magazine article may induce people to take up riding fixed-gear bicycles without brakes on the road, and fumble with toeclips and straps, and crash, and be held at fault for crashing for lack of a brake. I am distressed that editors at Bicycling Magazine would pass on an incorrect description which generates confusion and might promote such behavior.

A thorough and accurate discussion of fixed-gear bicycles for use on the road may be found in Sheldon Brown’s article.

For the record, I own a fixie, shown in the photo below, and it is street-legal, equipped with dual handbrakes. If I had only one brake on this bicycle, it would be the front brake — but for riding with a freewheel, or on steep descents, I have installed a rear brake as well.

John Allen's fixie

John Allen’s fixie

Sloppy cycling meets sloppy journalism

Washington, DC TV station WJLA, channel 7, has run a story about new bicycle laws passed by the DC City Council and signed by the mayor. The new section reads as follows:

A new section 9d (D.C. Official Code § 50-2201 .04d) is added to read as follows:

“Sec. 9d. Bicyclists’ use of leading pedestrian in tervals.
“(a) A bicyclist may cross at an inter section while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic
control devices.
“(b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.”

Questions have been raised by cyclists in an online group I belong to, for example, “So how are the bicyclists supposed to reach the intersection when no bikeways are present? By lane splitting? Filtering forward on the right? Using the sidewalk? Or are bike lanes and boxes supposed to be provided at all intersections? This will be a boon to red light runners and further the bad mixing of bicyclists and peds as “one category”, or as some like to say, further the pedestrianization of bicycling.”

But I’d like to discuss the video itself. It came with an embed code, and here it is.

After 15 seconds of an ad for an Infiniti SUV, you’ll get to see the news story about bicycling.

Much of the narration in the video is posted on a Web page under the headline

D.C. cycling made safer with new rules of the road

That headline is rather interesting not only because of the questions which have been raised, but also because the law isn’t even in effect yet. In a year or two we might have data as to whether cycling has become safer. It would be much more difficult to determine whether that resulted from the new law. A recent study did show that cycling is becoming less safe the crash rate is increasing in Washington, DC — as might be expected when large numbers of new and inexperienced cyclists enter the traffic mix.

The text identifies interviewees — though only by their last names. One is named Clarke. More about that later. Also there are bike-cam shots in which you can see the cyclist’s plaid sleeves. This leads to an interesting discovery. My rundown of the video:

0:00 The words “outrage” and “alarm” are used. Inset on the screen reads “Bike vs. Car.” The TV station is pandering to motorists’ sense of entitlement and identifying inanimate machines as doing battle with each other, as a surrogate for operators of those machines placing them in conflict with each other. The concept of cooperative use of the public streets gets short shrift in this video.

0:49 Bicyclist in the plaid shirt threads the needle between a stopped SUV and a bus, placing him immediately directly in front of the bus. Nice thing the bus wasn’t about to start up. Headache for the bus driver in any case.

0:52 another cyclist waddles out from behind a stopped vehicle in front of another vehicle which is just starting to move.

1:02 the man on the street being interviewed is wearing the same plaid shirt as the one in the on-bike video making dumb moves. In the online text his name is given as “cyclist Billing” and he uses the royal “we.” “We” is WABA: Greg Billing writes blog posts for WABA and has written one about this new law.

1:05 Billing is shown turning left and heading for a door-zone bike lane to filter forward. Shot is cut off abruptly before he reaches the lane.

1:12 Cyclist identified in the text as Senff justifies advanced green on ped signal so “you don’t feel so, I don’t know…pushed.” How that applies when starting ahead of the motor traffic, I don’t know.

1:25 Through-the-windshield shot as car enters a combined bike lane/left turn lane, which figures later in the video too.

1:35 Truth is spoken by a man identified as Bradford: not all bicyclists operate properly.

1:40 Narration is about a bicyclist operating responsibly, but the bicyclist shown in one of many low-angle mood shots has a shopping bag dangling next to the front wheel.

1:45 The narrator complains of a bicyclist overtaking a motorist who is signaling a turn. The bicyclist, seen through a car windshield, is legally in a combined bike lane/left turn lane to the left of a through lane from which a motorist ahead is preparing to turn left illegally. Flex posts would keep a knowledgeable bicyclist from merging out of the bike lane. The driver preparing to turn left couldn’t make sense of the intersection design, and the bicyclist was blissfully unaware of the risk. The layout here is the same as at 1:25 in the video — it might even be the same intersection — and similar to the one at Market and Octavia Streets in San Francisco where fatal crashes have occurred.

1:50 The unidentified Clarke is revealed to be an African-American woman, not Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists.

1:54 Billing provides a bike-cam shot, riding at speed in a left-turn lane going too fast to turn left, but the shot is cut just before he reaches the intersection.

2:15 A cyclist is in the door zone and uncomfortably close to a pedestrian.

2:20 — The law has to be voted on by Congress. It isn’t yet in effect.

All in all, there’s plenty enough cluelessness to go around, with this video, but I do agree with Mr. Bradford!

Boston Globe: Reality Check Time

The caption with the picture below in the Starts and Stops column of the Metro section of the June 17, 2012 Boston Globe reads:

Cyclists stopped for a red light in the “bike box” on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. They provide the cyclist a safe space to wait ahead of cars at traffic signals.

Photo which appeared in the Boston Globe Metro section, June 9, 2012

Photo which appeared in the Boston Globe Metro section, June 9, 2012

(The Globe story may be behind a paywall, but you can probably access it through a public library’s Web site using your library card number.)

The smiling cyclists show that this is a posed photo; the photographer evidently only thought of the large puddle in the foreground as an artistic touch. How about the car encroaching into the bike box in the background?

Well, yes, OK, waiting in the bike box might be safe — drivers are unlikely to encroach on a cyclist who is already waiting in the bike box. The problem is with getting into the bike box. The Globe columnist, Eric Moskowitz, never considered that bicyclists approaching the bike box on a red light are encouraged to swerve sharply left across multiple lanes of motor vehicles, with no way to know when the light will turn green. A waiting motorist will not see the swerving cyclist if looking to the left for traffic at the wrong moment. A tall vehicle in one lane will conceal the cyclist from a driver waiting in the next lane.

Portland, Oregon has hosted a study of bike boxes, which found that this is actually a rare problem in Portland, because cyclists are smart enough not to swerve into the bike box. Instead, if the light is red, they wait at the right curb, blocking other cyclists behind them. I saw the same thing on Commonwealth Avenue. As I said before, the Globe photo is posed.

But on the green light, there’s another problem. Bike boxes and the bike lanes which lead to them invite cyclists to overtake waiting motor vehicles on the right, risking getting struck by a right-turning vehicle. A bicyclist was right-hooked and killed in Portland, Oregon, on May 16, 2012 but apparently that news didn’t reach the Globe’s columnist, or didn’t make an impression on him. Now a letter from the City of Portland is conceding that car-bike crashes have increased at some of the intersections where bike boxes were installed. So much for the Globe’s assertion of safety.

Conscientious bicycling advocates have been warning about the “right hook” problem for decades, based on the difficulty which motorists have in looking into their right rear blindspot, while also checking the intersection ahead.

Swerving across is illegal too: here’s the Massachusetts law, in Chapter 89, Section 4A. It applies to bicyclists, the same as other drivers. Every state has a similar law.

When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.

Bicycling advocates, planners and government officials who promote bike boxes have simply chosen to pretend that this traffic law doesn’t exist, or can be ignored. Same for the limits of human abilities.

Now, I wouldn’t be fair in making this criticism if I didn’t suggest alternatives.

The one I favor is for cyclists to merge before reaching the intersection. That can be facilitated by signal timing at the previous intersection to allow cyclists to merge across when motor traffic is stopped, and a clear lane into which to merge.

Other suggestions have been to prohibit right turns, or to install special signals to warn cyclists that the light is about to change. Denver’s retired bicycle coordinator, James Mackay, has described some of the measures used in European cities.

These measures will, however, result in more delay, for both cyclists and motorists.

It may be more practical just to designate another street as the one for through bicycle traffic, My favorite suggestion at this Back Bay location would be Newbury street, configured as a two-way bicycle boulevard with a bridge over the Muddy River to connect it with the Fenway area.

Link to my letter to Senator Scott Brown

My letter to a staffer of Senator Scott Brown about the mandatory sidepath provision in the Federal Tranportation Bill is online. Feel free to re-use it, or parts of it.

Mandatory sidepath laws, state by state

I don’t like mandatory sidepath laws for bicyclists, but I like the one in the Transportation Bill, applying to roads on Federal lands, even less.

(d) BICYCLE SAFETY.—The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road unless the Secretary determines that the bicycle level of service on that roadway is rated B or higher.

I have had a look at state laws on the Internet.

I’m pleased to report that I couldn’t find the ones which Dan Gutierrez earlier listed on his map for Colorado, Hawaii, North Dakota and Louisiana. Dan has updated his page: these laws appear to have been repealed.

The national trend has been for repeal of these laws. While the states have been repealing them, the Federal Transportation Bill, as of March, 2012, includes a provision which is more draconian than any of the remaining state laws, in that it would ban bicycles on a road even if the path is unusable. It might be called the “you can’t get there from here” law, to quote a New England expression. See my previous post for the details.

States with mandatory sidepath laws are shown in red in Dan Gutierrez's map

States with mandatory sidepath laws are shown in red in Dan Gutierrez's map

Mandatory sidepath laws, as far as I can determine, now are on the books in only 7 states: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and West Virginia. All except for Oregon require the path to be usable; the Oregon law has been explained to me as not actually having any effect, because government agencies will not take on the legal burden of having to defend paths as being safe.

Some of the laws have additional limitations on where path use can be made mandatory. See comments below. The boldface is mine.


Section 32-5A-263
Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.

(c) Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.


Note discretionary application, and design standard and destination accessibility requirement for the paths.

O.C.G.A. 40-6-294 (2010)

40-6-294. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths

(c) Whenever a usable path has been provided adjacent to a roadway and designated for the exclusive use of bicycle riders, then the appropriate governing authority may require that bicycle riders use such path and not use those sections of the roadway so specified by such local governing authority. The governing authority may be petitioned to remove restrictions upon demonstration that the path has become inadequate due to capacity, maintenance, or other causes.

(d) Paths subject to the provisions of subsection (c) of this Code section shall at a minimum be required to meet accepted guidelines, recommendations, and criteria with respect to planning, design, operation, and maintenance as set forth by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and such paths shall provide accessibility to destinations equivalent to the use of the roadway.


(d) Wherever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.


60-6,317. Bicycles on roadways and bicycle paths; general rules; regulation by local authority.

(3) Except as provided in section 60-6,142, whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a highway, a person operating a bicycle shall use such path and shall not use such highway.


My understanding, based on a sicussion with former Oregon state bicycle coordinator Michael Ronkin, is that this law is never enforced, because state and local authorities will not risk ruling that a path is suitable.

814.420: Failure to use bicycle lane or path; exceptions; penalty.

(1) Except as provided in subsections (2) and (3) of this section, a person commits the offense of failure to use a bicycle lane or path if the person operates a bicycle on any portion of a roadway that is not a bicycle lane or bicycle path when a bicycle lane or bicycle path is adjacent to or near the roadway.

(2) A person is not required to comply with this section unless the state or local authority with jurisdiction over the roadway finds, after public hearing, that the bicycle lane or bicycle path is suitable for safe bicycle use at reasonable rates of speed.


Note that this applies only where signs have been posted directing bicyclists to use a path.

41-6a-1105. Operation of bicycle or moped on and use of roadway — Duties, prohibitions.

(4) If a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, a bicycle rider may be directed by a traffic-control device to use the path and not the roadway.

West Virginia

§17C-11-5. Riding on roadways and bicycle paths.

(c) Whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.

Guest posting: Alan Forkosh on community bike systems

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France, September, 2009

This guest posting is by permission of the author, Alan Forkosh, who writes:

Here are some observations on how the Vélib community bike system in Paris works.

My thoughts on the issue crystallized after a trip to Paris in the fall of 2009 and stemmed from 3 observations:

  • The heavy use of Vélib and the high density of Vélib stands;
  • The lack of Vélibs parked in the wild;
  • The fact that the common way of obtaining a Vélib was to swipe an authorized Navigo transit pass at the stand holding the bike.

By the way, I have some pictures of Vélibs and other bikes online.

A community bike sharing program is not about the bike: it’s about overcoming the shortcomings of the mass transportation system and making it better serve the users without increasing congestion. The problem with mass transit is that unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t quite serve your needs. The inefficiencies in waiting for trains or buses, waiting for transfers, and not going exactly where you want to go add up. In many cases, you get very frustrated just attempting the trip. A community bike system alleviates that by giving you an almost instant way to cut the delays and straighten routes to go from place to place without the intra-system delays. You go to a bike station near your origin, swipe your pass, and take the associated bike. When you reach your destination, you click the bike into a stand and are done with it. The grid is dense, so that these stations should be no more than 1000 feet from the origin and destination (I think that Vélib stations are spaced no more than 300 meters [about 1000 feet] apart).

In Paris, it is rare to see an unattended Vélib away from a bike station; the stations provide more convenient and secure parking than trying to manipulate the lock provided on the bike. Also, if you leave the bike unattended away from a station, you are responsible for it; once you secure it to its post at a station, you’re done with it. Note that Paris is only about 6 miles across and there is no extra charge for a Vélib for the first 30 minutes. So you should be able to complete almost any trip without charge. I’d be surprised if there is any measurable keeping of a Vélib over 30 minutes.

So, the intention of the program is mobility: the bike is only an instrument to promote that. The bike should be used when it makes sense to travel that way. You don’t need to plan. This idea would fail if the user were required to provide any bulky personal equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.) to use the bike.

Examples of Sidepaths in National Parks

A commenter on the Washcycle blog where I first read of the mandatory sidepath provision in the Transportation Bill had the following to say:

In most parts of the country NPS, BLM and other stewards of Federal land are the furthest things imaginable from builders of bike paths

It only takes a little research to prove that statement incorrect.

Consider the Cape Cod National Seashore.

I happen to have posted an article with photos of the Province Lands paths (near the tip of the Cape), so you can see what kind of path we’re talking about here.

The Nauset path near the south end of the park also parallels a road. These paths in the National Seashore were built long ago to a very low design standard. Roads paralleling these paths now have Share the Road signs, reflecting the reality that many bicyclists prefer to ride on them. The roads also are more direct, and serve some trip generators which the paths do not. With the proposed law, the NPS would have to take these signs down and replace them with bicycle prohibition signs, and the park rangers would have to busy themselves with chasing bicyclists off these roads, reflecting a prohibition which is inconsistent with traffic law elsewhere in Massachusetts.

More examples:

Yosemite National Park

Valley Forge National Historical Park

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Grand Teton National Park:

And quite a number more, I’m sure. Just search under the activity “Biking” on the page


Transportation Bill Includes Draconian Mandatory Sidepath Provision

Concerning the transportation bill currently making its way through the U. S. Senate committee process, please see this analysis on the Washcycle blog.

The bill has adverse effects on funding, and also it contains the most draconian mandatory sidepath provision I’ve ever seen. Get-bikes-off-the road provisions like this one were deleted from the laws of most states which had them in the 1970s. This is on Page 226 of the bill:

(d) BICYCLE SAFETY.­The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road.

The Washcycle comments on this:

Even if the trail is in very bad shape, and the road is perfectly safe, the Secretary will have no leeway to allow cyclists to continue to use the road if a trail is available. This is very bad policy. Among other things it would end biking on portions of the Rock Creek Parkway where the speed limit is 35 mph.

Note that this applies not only to roads in parks but to any Federally-owned road. If there’s a trail within 100 years of a road, then to get to a destination on the other side of the road this law would require you to lug your bicycle through some environmentally-sensitive area in a National Park, or through private property, or swim across a river. If the trail is covered with snow but the road is clear, you would still have to use the trail. The legislation does not even state that the trail has to serve the same destinations as the road, or refer to any standards for design, etc. Excuse me. The conclusion the states reached in the 1970s is based on a simple principle: let bicyclists decide. If the trail is better than the road, they will use it.

Furthermore, the Federal Government does not have jurisdiction over traffic laws. The states do. The predictable outcome is dozens of court battles which will be an embarrassment to the Congress. There also is liability exposure in restricting bicyclists to a substandard path.

I am sending a version of this message to my Senators, John Kerry (D-MA) and Scott Brown (R-MA). Both, by the way, are avid bicyclists.

All I see in the America Bikes document about the bill is about funding. I want confirmation that the lobbyists all of the America Bikes member organizations are working to have this provision deleted. I am a member of three of these organizations: the Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals, the League of American Bicyclists and the Adventure Cycling Association, and I need to know that they are supporting my interests. And, as a member of the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) task force currently working on revisions to the Uniform Vehicle Code, I am especially concerned about this provision.

Railroad crossout

Here are some photos of Massachusetts Route 117 at the diagonal crossing of the Fitchburg Line railroad tracks, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, USA.

The location, in Google Maps:

View Larger Map

Google Street View photo, looking west, from approximately 2008. Note that the sidewalk goes to the right of both utility poles, the one in the foreground and the one in the background.

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

Route 117 and Fitchburg Rail line, ca. 2008, Google Street View

Photo taken by Jacob Allen, July 17, 2011. There is a new sign, there is a curbed median, and the sidewalk has been realigned so the more distant utility pole is now in its middle:

Route 117 and Fitchburg rail line , July 17, 2011

The next photo looks east. The sidewalk crosses the tracks diagonally. It might in fact be used as a turnout so a bicyclist traveling on the roadway could cross at a right angle, but that would require the willingness to defy the sign and ride in the narrowed roadway. There is no such option for eastbound bicyclists, who would have to cross the roadway twice to use the sidewalk. There is a crossing-signal pole in the sidewalk, not only the utility pole.

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

Sidewalk crossing looking from the west

I understand that the median was installed to prevent motorists from crossing to the left side of the road to avoid having to wait when the crossing gates are down. The median’s stealing width from the travel lanes is shown more clearly in the photo below. There is no longer sufficient width for typical motor vehicles to overtake bicyclists safely:

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

Route 117 and Fitchburg line, Lincoln, Massachusetts, looking east

A brief history:

  • Thousands of years ago: Native Americans lay out paths through the forest.
  • 1600s: Colonists expand paths into wagon roads.
  • 1840s: Fitchburg rail line constructed. Henry David Thoreau laments it in Walden.
  • 1920s or thereabouts: North Road in Lincoln is paved and designated as part of Massachusetts Route 117.
  • Date unknown: Crossing gates installed at Route 117.
  • 1973: Revision to the Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 85, Section 11B includes the following wording:

    Every person operating a bicycle upon a way, as defined in section one of chapter ninety, shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section…

    Route 117 is by no stretch of the imagination a limited-access or express state highway.

  • 1970s: Major roads in wealthy outer suburbs of Boston get sidewalks for free through state bicycle funding: the sidewalks are identified and signed as “bicycle paths” but they are 4 feet wide, and twist and turn around every tree and utility pole.
  • 2006: Massachusetts Project Development and Design Guide is released, specifying bicycle accommodation on the roadway and not on sidewalks. The relevant description is in Chapter 5, see sections 5.2.2 and
  • 2010: Railroad crossing in Lincoln is reconstructed to:

    • Repave the roadway.
    • Add curbed median, reducing the available roadway width. This is what I call a “threat barrier” — it does not deflect vehicles but only leads drivers to shy away from it to avoid damage to their vehicles. This type of median is not described in the Project Development and Design Guide (see sections 5.6.2 and 5.6.3).
    • Repave the sidewalk and realign it so there is a utility pole in the middle of it.
    • Add regulatory sign unsupported by law, directing bicyclists to walk on the sidewalk.

Now let’s see what might have been done instead. The photo below is of a diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

Diagonal railroad crossing in Madison, Wisconsin, 2002

The little turnout to the right allows bicyclists to cross the tracks at a right angle without having to merge into the travel lane to their left.

The following wording is in the Project Development and Design Guide, Chapter 6, Section 6.8.5. There could be a more detailed description, but the intention is clear, and in a project that involved reconstruction of the roadway, the opportunity certainly presented itself to do what Madison did:

The crossing should be wide enough to permit bicyclists to cross the tracks at right angles, while staying in their traffic lane.

Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

A task force under the auspices of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) is currently reviewing parts of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), the national model traffic law in the USA. The NCUTCD has taken on this task because the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), which maintained the Uniform Vehicle Code, unfortunately ceased operations about 10 years ago.

I am the bicyclist representative on the NCUTCD task force. Electrically-assisted bicycles are one of the hot-button issues I will have to address.

Due to the novelty of electrically-assisted bicycles, the lack of guidance in the UVC and the lack of a user constituency — bicycling advocacy organizations having largely ignored or disparaged this increasing trend — electrically-assisted bicycles are not being addressed in a consistent or logical way under the law. In some places, electrically-assisted bicycles fall under laws that apply to gasoline-powered motorized bicycles; in others, not. We are seeing a tug of war between manufacturers’ self-interest and well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out restrictions imposed by legislators concerned about safety — as with Segways, but a bigger problem than with Segways, which have never been very common.

In my opinion, vehicles defined as electrically-assisted bicycles should be permitted wherever bicycles are permitted, but should not be capable of more than 20 mph under motor power. They shouldn’t be hard-limited to that speed, because higher speed is often possible downhill — for bicycles without electrical assist too — and is advantageous to the rider, and because speed limits are reasonably imposed locally based on conditions rather than globally based on vehicle type. These opinions are consistent with the product definition and regulation promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The situation with state laws is more confused. I live in Massachusetts, so let’s take the Massachusetts laws as an example. They are a mess:


Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1: Definitions

The definition for “motorized scooter” in Massachusetts law includes gasoline OR electrically-powered ones, stand-up or sit-down, including those also propelled by human power. An electrically-assisted bicycle, then, is identified as a “motorized scooter”. The definition for “motorized bicycle”, on the other hand, applies only to those with a gasoline motor. The definitions overlap awkwardly.

Motorized-bicycle driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1b: Motorized-bicycle driving rules

These rules apply only with a gasoline motor: 25 mph max speed, 16 year minimum age, driver’s license required (obsolete — now this is the minimum age for a learner’s permit) , carte blanche to overtake on the right, somehow requiring drivers turning and crossing from the left to have X-ray vision to see through other motor vehicles, same as in Massachusetts’s rather unique bicycle laws (!!!!)  Motorized bicycles are permitted in bike lanes, but prohibited on paths: that is sensible because of the noise, pollution and typically higher speed than with bicycles. A helmet is required.

Motorized-scooter driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1e: Motorized-scooter driving rules

Maximum speed 20 mph (regardless of power source –gasoline, electric, human). This law requires “keeping to the right side of the road” — which unreasonably, means not going left of center of the road or crossing a marked centerline to overtake, but can easily be misinterpreted as requiring overtaking on the right. There is no mention of use on paths or bike lanes, despite noise and pollution of gasoline-powered motorized scooters which makes them inappropriate on paths, where electrically-powered ones are more acceptable. A license or learner’s permit is required, as for motorized bicycles, but there is no mention of age; a learner’s permit can be obtained at 16 years of age. There is a totally unreasonable prohibition on use at night. A helmet is required.

The motorized scooter law was passed in a rushed, knee-jerk reaction to the fad of “mini-motorcycles” a couple of years ago.


Placing electrically-assisted bicycles in the same category with gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles and standup scooters doesn’t make much sense from the point of view of where their use would be appropriate. Prohibiting the use of electrically-assisted bicycles at night writes them off as useful transportation.

We need to do better than this. I hope and expect that the Uniform Vehicle code revision will come up with sensible laws to cover this increasingly popular vehicle type, and that Massachusetts will revise its law.

Also please see my post on this blog about electrically-assisted bicycle types and trends.