[photo: "motorbike? eBike? S-Pedelec?" workshop participants debate the status of an electric vehicle]
"It's just snowballed" was the introduction from ViaStrada's John Lieswyn, to an NZTA workshop on the regulation of eBikes and other low powered vehicles.
I attended (on my eBike, of course) thinking that I was reasonably up to speed, having invested a bit of time in developing CAN's Electric Assist Bicycles policy. But I hadn't really appreciated the range of power assisted transport that is appearing, and the potential headaches that they pose for regulators. What about hoverboards, Segways, e-unicycles, and powered kickscooters, not to mention mobility scooters capable of travelling on motorways?
So, what should CAN members be aware of in this burgeoning field of power assisted mobility? The following is a personal perspective, although I've been helped by knowlegable input from John Lieswyn and NZTA's Simon Kennett.
As you're probably aware, in NZ an eBike (or electric assist bicycle, or pedelec) is defined by NZTA as a bicycle primarily propelled by the riders muscles, but with a motor providing a maximum power output not exceeding 300W. Sales are growing rapidly, both of new eBikes, and of kits to convert your favourite treadly into an electric extravaganza. There are concerns about the adequacy of the NZTA definition: it doesn't include a requirement for speed limitation, and there's a lack of clarity about what "300W" means. It's not uncommon for a nominally "300W" motor to produce 700W or more of peak power. An alternative standard might be the EU standard, now also adopted in Australia. This has a maximum motor power of 250W, and the motor cuts out if the bike isn't being pedalled, or exceeds 25km/hr. The EU standard has atractions: it is well developed and incorporates a testing regime. However there are concerns that for NZ hills and traffic, higher power levels and speeds might be more appropriate. Switzerland recently adopted an eBike standard allowing for higher power, in part because of its hilly terrain. It's also possible that requiring the EU standard might remove less expensive eBikes from the NZ market.
There's a concern that people on eBikes will be endangering other users as they e-hoon around the streets. This is reinforced by YouTube videos by people who'd hotted their eBike up so they can blat along at 80km/hr or more. However this isn't typical. As part of ViaStrada's research, over 1000 respondents had answered an extensive survey. One point was that eBikers were seen as better behaved by people who'd actually had the experience of using eBikes. Research such as that carried out by the German Naturalistic Bicycling Study indicates that eBikers' average speed is only about 2km/hr faster than standard bikes. That agrees with informal surveys I've done of eBike speeds in Wellington.
In Europe and California, there have been moves to introduce a new class of eBike, the S-Pedelec (EU) or Class 3 (California). These allow higher power and speeds, but require some form of registration, and cannot use all paths that bikes can. S-Pedelecs could provide a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fueled motor bikes, so there are arguments for regulating them more lightly. On the other hand, they could conceivably be just classified as mopeds, which is what the Dutch have done. There are challenges in the move to faster eBikes, which are partly a response to Europe's Cycle Super Highways, for which there are not yet NZ equivalents. Would S-Pedelecs be acceptable on SkyPath, or the long awaited Petone-Ngauranga shared path?
While intended as a safe way for people with disabilities to get around, in NZ in 5 years there have been 12 fatalities and 19 serious injuries while using mobility scooters. The ViaStrada survey indicated that 36% of users had some form of accident, in many cases caused by poor quality footpaths.
There are also concerns about fit people inappropriately using mobility scooters, for example people who have lost their drivers licenses. Should a user have to prove they're disabled in order to use a mobility scooter?
Britain has introduced different classes of mobility scooter, the top level able to travel on roads, but requiring registration and proof of disability.
Self balancing devices
This is where it really gets fun! You've probably seen a Segway lumbering around some tourist destination, but what about hoverboards (not the Back to the Future movie version, that genuinely floats above the ground, but a wheeled skateboard), and E-Unicycles. I had a go on a Segway NineBot - a miniature Segway which tucks under your arm, and which you steer with small column between your knees. Very cool!
In so far as these are for mobility, rather than just having fun, they are mostly aimed at assisting mobility on footpaths rather than roads. But should they be allowed on roads? Do they pose risks to pedestrians, and how should these be mitigated?
I came away thinking that it is important not to rush - rules introduced too quickly in response to new technology may be irrelevant to the next generation of technology. The key point is whether a device is more like a pedestrian or more like a bike. If it enhances walking, a sort of e-Pedestrian, it belongs on footpaths, and should travel at similar speeds (remembering that a running pedestrian is able to do 10km/hr or more). If it's like a bike with the power supplementing the rider's effort, it belongs on the road, cycleways or shared paths. If it's really more like a motor bike, i.e. the effort is primarily from the motor rather than the rider, then it belongs on the road, and should be registered as a motor vehicle.
ViaStrada's report is due early in 2017, and should provide a good basis for debating the future of power assisted bicycles and the burgeoning range of innovative vehicles.