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Advocates Rally for E-Bike Legislation at Mass. State House

Becca Wolfson, Executive Director of the Boston Cyclists Union, speaks in front of a crowd of supporters holding signs in support of e-bike legislation in front of the Massachusetts State House.

A crowd of bike advocates and elected officials gathered at the Massachusetts State House on Wednesday afternoon in support of bills that would support the adoption and use of electric bicycles.

On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of bike advocates and elected officials gathered on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to urge lawmakers to follow the example of 46 other states and formalize a new legal definition of and regulatory framework for pedal-assist electric bicycles.

"E-bikes are here and they're increasingly popular," said Rep. Steven Owens (D-Watertown), the House sponsor of An Act Relative to Electric Bicycles. "Research has shown that for in-town trips, they're replacing cars. You don't like paying for gas? These are an order of magnitude less expensive than an electric car."

Current Massachusetts law essentially treats pedal-assist bikes as mopeds, which require riders to be at least 16 years old, possess a drivers' license, and register their vehicles. Mopeds are also prohibited on popular shared-use pathways like the Southwest Corridor and Minuteman Bikeway.

The proposed legislation (House bill 3457 and its companion, Senate bill 2309) specifies that "an operator of an electric bicycle shall be afforded all the rights and privileges, and be subject to all of the duties, of a bicycle or the operator of a bicycle."

The bills would also provide a legal definition of e-bikes with three classes, which are defined by the electric motor's top speed and whether the motor can be engaged without pedaling. Similar regulations have been enacted in 46 other states and in the federal government.

Another bill, H.3262, An Act Relative to Electric Bicycle Rebates, sponsored by Rep. Natalie Blais (D-Sunderland) would "establish new rebates up to $500 for general consumers and up to $750 for low- and moderate-income consumers and not more than forty percent of retail price for the purchase of new and used electric bicycles."

Wednesday's rally included several speakers who have been enthusiastic early adopters of e-bikes, in spite of their ambiguous legal status.

"For some of us, the e-bike really does represent our only choice if we want to bike, whether it's because of medical issues or physical limitations," said Tiffany Cogell, a resident of Dorchester and one of the founders of Boston's Ride for Black Lives. "Until I was fortunate enough to have the ability to try an e-bike, I was not able to ride."

Another speaker was Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who called his e-bike "a family vehicle" that helps him carry his toddler to day care and on leisure trips around the city.

Franklin-Hodge also noted that e-bikes could play an important role in reducing the city's congestion from delivery vehicles.

"It's ridiculous that we're using 4,000-pound, fossil-fueled vehicles to move a chicken sandwich or a bowl of Thai food one or two miles through our very congested city," he said.

Earlier this month, the City of Boston won a grant to launch a cargo e-bike delivery service that's expected to start serving residents and businesses in Allston later this year. Similar services operate in other cities, but the ambiguities in existing state laws has been a barrier for potential operators in Boston.

Updating the state law could also help pave the way to adding e-bikes to the regional Bluebikes system, as a number of other bikesharing systems in other cities have done in recent years.

A crowd gathers in front of the Massachusetts State House next to a handful of pedal-assist electric bikes.
Advocates gather in front of the State House with their e-bikes on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, just before a rally to support bills that could create a new regulatory framework and incentives for pedal-assist electric bicycles in Massachusetts.
Advocates gather in front of the State House with their e-bikes on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

Legislation to clarify the legal definition of e-bikes has been introduced in the Massachusetts State House before, but so far has never succeeded in getting approval from both chambers and the Governor.

In the summer of 2020, for instance, the Senate approved e-bike legislation as an amendment to the annual transportation bond bill. But that language wasn't included in the House version, or in the final version of the law that the Governor signed.

"People outside the building think that we pass the bills. It's actually the advocacy outside the building that passes the bills," Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) told the crowd at Wednesday's rally. "When you talk to legislators, tell them your personal stories. Tell them why this is important to you... and ask them what they're going to do to get this across the finish line."

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