COVID-19 fears are propelling e-bike sales, but regulations are having a braking effect

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Provinces across the country have been slowly relaxing physical distancing rules introduced to limit the spread of COVID-19. But as more people begin to return to work, it’s raising the question of how they’ll get there.

Public transportation, which many Canadians depend on to commute, has been hit hard across the country. B.C.’s TransLink said in April it was losing $75 million a month due to decreased ridership, while ridership on the Toronto Transit Commission has dipped to less than 20 per cent of the norm. At the same time, leaders in both Ontario and Quebec have recommended riders wear masks as physical distancing becomes difficult or impossible.

Darnel Harris, an urban planner and executive director of Toronto-based mobility advocacy group Our Greenway, believes there are alternatives to both public transit and travelling in high-emission vehicles: electric bikes.

According to a recent study by the U.K.-based Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, e-bikes have the potential to help people return to work — especially those who are hesitant to use public transport or live in areas with little to no service.

E-bikes, which are electrically assisted bicycles that range in price from roughly $1,500 to $9,000, are a cheaper alternative to car travel — not to mention a greener one when they’re charged using clean power. They can often hit speeds of 25 km/h, and give people a way to avoid crowded buses and trains.

“Crucially, it allows people to go further, easier, and expands their access to things in an efficient way,” Harris said, “especially within a suburban area, where things are more spread out.”

E-bikes have gained a foothold abroad. In the Netherlands, roughly 40 per cent of bikes sold last year were electric, according to Dutch industry organizations RAI and BOVAG, while in China they have been a popular replacement for motorcycles for more than a decade.

But Harris sees demand surging in North America: U.S. sales increased by 85 per cent in March, according to the New York Times, while he said Canadian businesses are struggling to keep e-bikes in stock.

Even so, the possibility of e-bikes becoming commonplace in Canada continues to face significant hurdles. Harris said the federal government currently has insufficient safety standards in place, while Transport Canada proposed dropping all regulation of them in 2018.

Harris said rules are necessary to regulate the vastly different kinds of e-bikes on the market, including the much larger cargo bikes often used in place of delivery trucks.

Confusing or contradictory definitions of “e-bike” have led to legal troubles for some riders. In B.C., a Supreme Court judge recently upheld charges against a man who rode an e-bike without insurance, even though the man argued the law doesn’t require it.

“When people are unclear … about the law and how it applies, then of course they run the risk of offending the law,” said David Hay, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in bike-related cases. For example, to be able to ride without road insurance or a license in B.C., it’s required that the bicycle have limited power and that it turns off when the rider stops pedalling — a feature many e-bike models don’t have.

Hays and Harris think that definitions and regulations around e-bikes need to be updated before they’ll be widely adopted in this country.

“Whenever you get any kind of technological innovation, the law struggles to keep up,” Hays said.


— Jackson Weaver

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