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Chicago E-Bikes Will Get Rules for the Road if Ordinance Passes

By Ted Cox | April 9, 2014 6:03am
 E-bikes are lined up at Kozy's, which has sold about 50 at the cycle shop's four Chicago locations so far this year.
E-bikes are lined up at Kozy's, which has sold about 50 at the cycle shop's four Chicago locations so far this year.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — Hybrid e-bikes would get a place on the road — and in the city's regulations — with a new ordinance proposed in the City Council.

Aldermen Joe Moreno (1st) and Scott Waguespack (32nd) have co-sponsored an ordinance that would clarify rules of the road for low-speed powered bicycles, both electric and gas-propelled.

The ordinance would set 16 as the minimum age to drive the bikes, and 20 mph as their top speed, but otherwise would treat them like conventional bikes, including a ban on operating them on sidewalks.

Low-speed powered bicycles are distinct from motorcycles and mopeds, both of which have more power and attain higher speeds. Rather, they augment pedal power with a low-power motor installed on the front or rear wheel. They're growing in popularity and can cost from $800 to $6,000.

 E-bikes, which are propelled by electricity or gas,  are technically treated as motor vehicles under city code, but a proposed ordinance aims to treat them the same as conventional bikes.
E-bikes, which are propelled by electricity or gas,  are technically treated as motor vehicles under city code, but a proposed ordinance aims to treat them the same as conventional bikes.
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"It really depends on what a user wants out of the bike," said Sabin West, a salesman at Kozy's Cyclery in River North. Some simply assist pedaling, others have a separate throttle.

Waguespack legislative aide Danny Galin, who worked on the proposed ordinance, said, "It's basically to clarify things. It brings city law in line with state law."

The 32nd Ward has a couple of businesses selling e-bikes, Galin said, and there are a growing number of the bikes on the streets.

"We've had people call and ask about the regulations, about whether they could be ticketed," he added. "So we thought it best to set things straight."

Attorney Brendan Kevenides, whose Freeman Kevenides Law Firm specializes in bicycle cases, said the legal clarification is necessary. State law treats e-bikes about the same as conventional bicycles, but city law has yet to categorize them.

According to Kevenides, the city code defines a bicycle as a "device propelled solely by human power."

"Technically, therefore, an e-bike is treated like a motor vehicle under the muni code, meaning they may not be permitted on bike lanes and other bike-only infrastructure," Kevenides said. "The bottom line is the Chicago ordinance should be brought in line with the state code to avoid confusion. Police officers enforcing the law and cyclists enjoying their e-bikes would benefit from greater clarity.

"From a practical point of view, I've never heard of anyone getting a ticket in Chicago for riding an e-bike in a bike lane or on any other bike-only infrastructure," Kevenides added. "Still, one of these days it is bound to create a problem, so it is best in my opinion to just fix it."

The Active Transportation Alliance endorsed the measure.

"E-bikes can be a great benefit for people who need some extra assistance while bicycling, particularly older people and individuals with disabilities," spokesman Ted Villaire said.

"We’re pleased that e-bike riders would be able to use Chicago’s swiftly growing network of bike lanes, and that e-bike riders would have a speed limit of 20 mph, which keeps them close to the same speed as people riding standard bikes."

West said he had just returned from Amsterdam, where e-bikes are growing in popularity. Yet they've also encountered problems sharing the road with faster, more powerful mopeds, an issue the ordinance seeks to address with its speed limit.

"I can see that being an issue here in Chicago," West said. "It really comes down to how they enforce it."