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Ask Torontoist: Off The Road, E-Bike, or Whatever You Are!

The easy-to-ride bikes some people love, and others love to hate.


Reader Kevin Watson asks:
Concerning motorized “slo-peds” (with pedals that are never used) in bikes lanes—are they legal? If I glue pedals to a car, can I drive in the bike lane?

Torontoist answers:
Slow down there, Kevin! Don’t go gluing pedals on your Audi just yet! You’re bound to dip below the Blue Book value, for one. And no, you won’t be allowed to drive in the bike lane, as hilarious as a car with pedals driving in a bike lane would be, in theory. That said, we understand your confusion. These “slo-peds” as you call them (they’re more commonly called “e-bikes”) are pretty contentious, and for a number of reasons. There’s even a lot of niggling over what exactly constitutes an “e-bike.”
“There is a difference between e-bikes and electric scooter e-bikes,” says Andrea Garcia, spokesperson for the Toronto Cyclists Union. “We do support electric power-assisted bicycles, especially for people with impaired mobility, as an alternative to larger, less environmentally friendly motor vehicles. But that’s different from the scooter-style e-bikes.” So, basically, there’s the “power-assisted bicycles,” which look more-or-less like old-timey non-electric bikes but with a small motor, and the “scooter-style e-bikes,” which look more like oversized pocket rockets with ornamental pedals. We’ll assume you’re asking about the latter, Kevin.
E-bikes are frustrating because they occupy a weird middle space between motor vehicles and bicycles. Like motor vehicles, they have motors. But like bicycles, you don’t need a license or registration to operate one. Meaning that you have unlicensed motorists operating motor vehicles, who may or may not know the rules of the road. (Granted, many non-motorized cyclists show plain disregard for the rules of the road, but that’s not the point.) Like a lot Toronto cyclists, the union has an issue with e-bikes chewing up lanes that were specifically designed for traditional, non-electric bikes. “Their speed and their size and their weight make them hazardous to people using active transportation,” says Garcia. And besides being potentially dangerous, they’re also plainly obnoxious, as any cyclist whose ever been passed in a bike lane by some e-biker irksomely beep-beeping on their horn can tell you. But what’s the deal with those pedals?
Well, according to the MTO’s definition of a “power-assisted bicycle,” any e-bike must be “capable of being propelled by muscular power.” Meaning pedals. No pedals, and your power-assisted bicycle becomes a motor vehicle, meaning you can be ticketed for not having it registered, or for lacking the proper license to operate it. It’s kind of like putting Lamborghini doors on your bedroom and calling it a sports car. Or putting an outboard engine on your dog and calling it a speedboat. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

20110527EMMOebike545.png
A G545A model e-bike by EMMO, from their Facebook page.


According to Patrick Ryan, an e-bike sales rep at EMMO on Spadina, anyone who buys an e-bike is told that they must use the pedals (which, for some reason, can be removed). “We warn people beforehand that you can get fined up to $5,000 if you don’t have the pedals on,” says Ryan.”People keep them in the trunk or under the seat and think they’ll be fine, but you actually have to have them on, or the cops will try to bust you for no license or registration. That’s kind of your loophole, having the pedals on the side of the bicycle.” Ryan also says that e-bikes have appeal beyond annoying proper cyclists and proper motorists. “Gas prices are killing the economy. A lot of our customers have cars and trucks, but gas is too expensive. So they buy these to commute around the city.”
But why not use a regular bike? Too cool? Well, says Ryan, there’s a fun factor (and a laziness factor) with e-bikes that old muscle-powered cycles lack. “You don’t have to work, first of all. You just have to turn the throttle. They’re enjoyable to ride, like a small motorcycle.” He also says that not needing a license or registration is “another key factor” of the e-bike boom. And this appeal is catching on. Ryan estimates that in the past year alone, sales at his EMMO store have doubled, and they’re barely able to keep up with demand, often running out of stock. With an average price tag of around $1,000, an e-bike will run you about as much as a higher-end road bike.
So at the end of the day, though e-bikes are annoying (and dangerous), they’re legal. As long as they have the pedals. Your Flintstones-inspired pedal-car, however, will have to stay in the garage for now.

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you, and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to ask@torontoist.com.

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