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Public Sector

Legality and Égalité in mobility

To paraphrase Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr., my freedom to ride an e-bike ends at the edge of your county line.

Mobility has always walked the tightrope between personal agency and legal responsibility. While you should ideally be able to go anywhere at any time by the easiest mode of transport, the law has determined that there are certain turns you shouldn't be allowed to make and certain vehicles that don't belong on certain roads. However, unlike laws regarding theft or murder, traffic law is a lot more fluid between cities, states, and countries; and it's possible to be subject to different laws over the course of a single trip.

The proliferation of micro-mobility adds even more wrinkles to existing transportation laws, which have largely been designed around the clear-cut distinction between motor vehicles and pedestrians. Someone on a bike rides the line between the two, making which laws are applicable less obvious. For instance, most places clearly prohibit drunk driving, but not drunk walking. Whether you can get a DUI on a bike can depend which side of a state line you're on.

Exacerbating these issues further is that micro-mobility is spreading faster than the law can catch up. Electric scooters seem to appear in cities overnight, forcing municipal governments to adapt or be overrun. Because traffic law varies so much - and in many places, is actively being written to accommodate electric vehicles - below is a general list of laws you should be aware of when boarding an e-bike or scooter.

Licence liabilities

The first and most important legal concern regarding electric vehicles is defining them. For the rider this definition mainly exists to determine whether they can operate the vehicle without a licence, unlike a car or motorcycle. While specific definitions vary across regions and countries, based on the popular EU definition, electric vehicles typically:

  • Have fewer than four wheels
  • Run between 6km/h and 25km/h
  • Are human assisted rather than purely motor-powered

In China electric vehicles are further defined by a weight limit – under 20kg – and like the United States, raise the speed limit to just under 20mph. (~30-32km/h). However, in the case of the US, state and municipal legislation takes priority over federal law, resulting in grey areas that allow for services like Revel in New York. Although Revel's mopeds would usually require a specialized license to drive, because they're locked to under 30mph, they're street legal with a typical drivers' license and insurance.


Rules on the road

Throughout the world, human-powered bikes are generally prohibited from riding on sidewalks, and electric bikes and scooters are right-out. Electric micro-mobility has to share the street. But even though this often the law on the books, enforcement varies from place-to-place. And the sudden appearance of electric scooter ride-share companies is forcing many places to reckon with these laws for the first time - both for riders and authorities unaware of current statutes.

This has caused some cities to react strangely and strongly to these new micro-mobility options. New York City recently passed new legislation legalizing e-bike and scooter use, except under certain conditions: scooters aren't allowed on Manhattan, for example. Other cities, like Portland, Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee have proposed outright bans on electric scooters because of riders breaking existing laws regarding riding on the sidewalk.

The biggest issue with enforcement of keeping bikes, e-bikes, and scooters on streets is that riders often don't feel safe sharing the roads with cars, statistically for good reason. This leads them to ride on sidewalks for their own protection, which puts pedestrians at higher risk.

In an attempt to square this circle, New York's new scooter laws controversally give them access to bike lanes - although e-bikes are still prohibited from them. And as we better understand the behavior of electric micro-mobility vehicles compared with human-powered ones, it could become clear that these should also be separated because of the speed and weight differentials.

Authority's intent

Regardless of the law as written, it only applies insofar as it's enforced. Keeping micro-mobility vehicles off sidewalks is a litmus test of how a city enforces its other bike laws, like whether bikes and other micro-mobile vehicles are required to stop at red lights, or whether one-way laws apply to them - both statutes are typical.

In the absence of reliable law enforcement, it seems the best rule-of-thumb for micro-mobility is to take personal responsibility for the safety of yourself and those around you. That means riding in the street to avoid harming pedestrians and following the local rules of the road as to not disrupt motor vehicle traffic. Additionally, while pretty much never legally mandatory, we recommend wearing always wearing a helmet – it's just the smart thing to do.

Another smart thing to consider when exploring micro-mobility options in your and other cities is to check out the urban mobility solutions offered by HERE.

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