What Are The Classes Of E-Bikes? Where Can E-Bikes Be Ridden?

Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3 eBikes—what they mean and the law.

Class 1 Schwinn Vantage RXe
Class 1 Schwinn Vantage RXe Electric Bike with 250 watts of power from Bosch’s Performance Line Cruise drive system provides pedal assistance up to 20 mph.Bosch

E-bikes are a relatively new thing, and the laws are just catching up. The first eBikes were introduced to the US in the 1990s, but sales were minuscule here until the last several years, even as they were exploding in Europe.

In 2002, the US Congress passed HB 727, a federal law that defined “low-speed electric bicycle” as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals, an electric motor of no more than 750 watts, and a speed on motor power alone of less than 20 mph.

It allowed such a vehicle to be either a pedelec (pedal-electric, a throttle-less machine which measures how hard you’re pedaling and multiplies that with the motor) or throttle-controlled. The law specifically pre-empted more stringent state laws defining low-speed electric bicycles, and it specifically stated that low-speed electric bicycles were not motor vehicles. They would be regulated at the federal level by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which regulates regular bicycles, and not the Department of Transportation (DOT), which sets rules for cars and motorcycles.

But while the federal government made the rules concerning bicycle definition, the states still regulate usage on public roads and bicycle paths. In 17 states, an eBike is considered a moped or some other type of motor-driven cycle under pre-existing laws, and moped rules apply, which usually require a license of some kind. In New York City, there have been attempts to ban eBikes altogether.

Fortunately, a common set of rules is starting to emerge, modeled after California eBike laws that created three classes of eBikes. Twelve states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) in addition to California have passed almost identical rules, and in total these states encompass almost a third of the US population.

California Electric Bicycle laws.
California Electric Bicycle laws. For more info check out https://peopleforbikes.org/our-work/e-bikes/policies-and-laws/People for Bikes

In these 13 states, eBikes fall into one of three classes:
Class 1 Electric Bikes
Is an electrically assisted pedelec that can offer assistance up to 20 mph.

Class 2 Electric Bikes
Is an electrically assisted bicycle controlled by a throttle that can offer assistance up to 20 mph.

Class 3 Electric Bikes
Is an electrically assisted pedelec that has a speedometer and can offer motor power up to 28 mph—making Class 3 the fastest of US eBikes that don't fall into the motorcycle category.

Of the 13 states mentioned above, only Illinois requires registration of eBikes; the other 12 treat them as normal bicycles, as do Mississippi and Kentucky and some others.

But even the 13 states diverge on some of the rules of operation. In California, Class 1 and 2 eBikes can be operated by any age rider and can use dedicated bikeways in addition to bike lanes on roads. In contrast, California requires Class 3 eBike riders to be at least 16 years old and to wear a helmet, while usage on dedicated bikeways is prohibited unless the local county or city has specifically allowed it.

In contrast, California allows both Class 3 eBikes and mopeds to use bike lanes when they’re part of public roads. The other 12 states generally treat all three classes of eBikes as simply bicycles, but vary on age limits, helmet requirements, and bikeway usage.

Perhaps the most important point is that regulations on eBikes are changing quickly and generally getting less rather than more restrictive. Idaho joined the three-class states just this year, as an example. If you want to know the specific rules in your state, you can check at a local eBike shop, the state DMV website, or the Wikipedia e-bicycle laws entry.