In Europe, there’s only one e-bike class that you need to understand. The motor size is capped at 250 watts, max speed is capped at 25km/h, and power assistance comes only while pedalling - there’s no throttle. Stick to those specs and you can ride your electric bike like a bike. No extra licensing or insurance is necessary for operating it.
In the US, however, things are a bit more complicated. There are multiple different e-bike classes to contend with.
There is a general definition of electric bikes at a federal level, which states an electric bike must have pedals, can only be fully dependent on the motor up to 20 mph, and that the max motor size is 750 watts. It's a very broad definition and it allows a lot of room for interpretation by manufacturers. It also makes room for the States to add their own legal framework.
What that means in practice is that each state handles things differently. 44 states have laws on the books that identify electric bikes. Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Missouri, Alabama, and Massachusetts lack any clear definition and regulation of electric bikes. Out of those six outliers, Mississippi and Kentucky have indicated that they consider electric bikes to fall under bike regulation.
Those states that do have specific electric bike regulations still don't all agree on that definition. There are 26 states in the US that do agree though. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all use similar language and a three-tiered system for classifying electric bikes. Given that you may have heard the terms, let's look at what each tier means.
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Class 1 electric bicycles
The first of the e-bike classes is the one that's most similar to what many people imagine an electric bike to be. When you pedal your bike there's a motor that helps make it easier. For some bikes that means if you push harder, there is more assistance. For other bikes, if you turn the pedals there is a set level of assistance, depending on what level you have chosen.
Whatever form the assistance comes in, to be a class 1 electric bike assistance cuts out at 20mph. There's nothing that keeps you from riding faster than 20mph but the motor won't be adding anything. The way in which the bike handles the transition from assisted riding to non-assisted riding is a big point of the design, as some cut off abruptly while others cut off smoothly.
If you frequently expect to exceed 20mph then you'll want to think about that before purchase.
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Class 2 electric bicycles
The second of the e-bike classes - class 2 e-bikes - are mostly identical to class 1 e-bikes, but the one important difference is that there is a throttle. The throttle is capable of providing forward momentum without the rider pedalling. Also important though is that the throttle stops working above 20mph.
The 20mph max speed is still the important number. The language around the throttle only working up to 20mph makes it sound like there's a change in behaviour but there isn't really. Just like a class 1 bike you only get assistance up to 20mph. It wouldn't actually make sense to have a throttle available above that anyway.
The throttle debate is a contentious issue. For many people having a throttle on an electric bike is not a positive feature but there are benefits though. Electric bikes tend to be heavy. Given the weight of the bike, it can be tough to get started and having a throttle available from a stop is a nice feature. It's also great having a throttle when mixing with traffic. If you need to pass a bus stopping in the bike lane, moving into traffic with a quick burst of speed from the throttle is helpful.
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Class 3 electric bicycles
The headline feature of the third - and fastest - of the e-bike classes, is that you get assistance up to a top speed of 28mph. As with class 1 and 2 electric bikes, that doesn't mean there's a speed cap at 28mph, just that you won't get assistance beyond it. It's less likely you will exceed 28mph on an electric bike but if it were to happen - for example down a hill - there's no limiter other than the motor will stop contributing. The motor assistance only kicks in once you begin to pedal.
The other requirement of a class 3 e-bike is a speedometer to show your speed. Most class 3 electric bikes also double up as class 2 e-bikes. Nothing excludes a throttle up to 20mph and since the rider must pedal to get the assistance, that still fits the profile of a class 2 e-bike with the only difference being where the assistance cutoff occurs.
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Check your local laws
This is a reminder that even among the States that use the class systems, it's not always exactly the same regulations. Different States have different requirements for where you can ride what class of electric bike. And then there are the different rules about insurance and helmets.
On top of it all, laws are changing fast. This article covers the different class systems and what they mean but you still need to make sure you check your local laws for small differences and specifics.
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