Electric bike rules of the road

Today I was sitting in my mini-van, waiting in a pretty long line of cars for a left-turn signal to change.  As I waited, I was excited to see an electric bicycle pass me.  It wasn’t a cargo bike, but sightings of electric bikes are still rare enough to catch my eye.  I watched as the cyclist moved to the front of the left turn line, and I was a little surprised.  When I ride my bike to that same intersection, I take my place in the line just like any car would.

My surprise quickly turned to dismay.  The rider slowed as he approached the intersection, looked both ways, and then made the turn while the light was still red!

I know that cyclists sometimes bend the rules a bit, and I can understand the temptation.  Coming to a full stop at an intersection requires a lot of gear shifting and loss of precious momentum.  Our leg muscles pay so much more for that momentum than cars do.  But electric motors ameliorate that.  I often execute a full stop/start without shifting at all, because my motor is powerful enough to get me going again in a high gear.

To paraphrase Spiderman (how long have I waited for this opportunity?) – “With great power comes great responsibility.”  I honestly feel this when I’m riding my electric bike.  I take extra care to obey traffic laws, because my life and well-being depends on others obeying those laws.

If the driver of a car flaunted the law so flagrantly, I would be tempted to whip out my iPhone and take a photo of his license plate.  I don’t know what I would do next, but I feel like there might be some recourse.  However, electric bikes exist in this gray area where you can travel almost as fast as a car on residential streets, but you don’t need a license.  As a result, there is no recourse for someone who is annoyed with your behavior.  They might be tempted to yell at you or crowd you with their car.  That doesn’t sound like a recipe for peaceful coexistence on our streets.

Perhaps legal regulations will change as electric bikes become more popular.  Not that I want additional barriers to electric bike adoption, but it may be inevitable.  In the meantime, I want to demonstrate that electric bikers can be good citizens on our shared roadways, and that we deserve respect and consideration from drivers.  As newcomers to streets that have been ruled by automobiles for decades, I think we have to earn it.

  • RickS

    I almost got hit by a college girl on a bike today. I stopped at the stop sign, and when it was my turn I went. She didn’t even pretend to slow down. Oh well. I am going to put a electric assist on my cargo bike. It isn’t a long tail, it’s a torker cargo bike. I had it set up the way I wanted it, I built some new 8 speed wheels internal gearing, and a dynohub for my lighting system. I was pulling my trailer with a pretty good load on it and decided electric assist would be pretty nice. Thanks for having this website.

    • Don

      Hi Rick. I’ve gotten a few emails recently from people interested in towing a trailer with electric assist. I attempt to describe some pros and cons of that option in my recent blog post here.

      I hope the college girl learned something after her close encounter with you!

  • Leo Horishny

    I don’t have an electric bike, but I ride my bike in traffic with the same mindset as you. It’s good to read that I’m not alone.

    I’m in the process of promoting and nudging our local transportation departments to highlight the sweet spot for bicyclists and educate 2 and 4 wheelers that cycles can and should use the traffic signals.

    As I pointed out to someone Friday, I am not sure if I can treat a signal that doesn’t trip for me as a ‘malfunctioning’ signal (am researching that statute), but even if so, I don’t really want to do that, because there are too many cyclists who blow through lights because they think they can’t trigger them BUT they don’t bother to find out that, in fact, they CAN do so but won’t, because that wouldn’t fit with their ‘cyclist/outcast’ persona.

    • Don

      Our city, which I would rate as only reluctantly bicycle-friendly, has started to paint a small ‘X’ where bicyclists should stop to trip the light signal. I’m hoping this is the wave of the future for many communities.

      I agree with your observations about the counter-culture orientation of many cyclists. Riding a bike can be so free, you hate to admit you’re subject to any rules. But if those rules help to keep you from decorating a car bumper, they should be respected by both driver and rider.

  • Don I thought you and the commenters here might like to see this post:
    It describes how some cities are experimenting with allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs and stop lights as “yield” signs. That is, bicyclists can go through a stop sign or stop light if there is no cross traffic, which as you observed many cyclists do already. To my mind this begins to address the imbalance we have with our current traffic laws overwhelmingly benefiting motorists to the detriment of bicyclists’ and pedestrians’ needs.

  • Permit me to direct your attention to another related post about doing away with traffic lights altogether:
    Counter-intuitively, in these experiments where traffic lights were turned off for weeks at at time, motorists drove slower rather than faster. There was less congestion and the intersections were safer. Take a look.

  • David Robarts

    In many states, motorcyclist are allowed to travel between lanes in stopped (sometimes even slow) traffic. The cyclist moving to the front of the left turn line seems like it fits this description. I think the cyclist (electric or not) is fully justified in taking a place at the front of the line (beside the first car in the line to be precise) – then taking the left turn wide enough so as not to impead the cars behind after the light changed. The cyclist should not have run the red light and could have been stopped by a peace officer because he did so.