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Electric bikes (or e-bikes) have been rolling past conventional cycles on the Front Range for many years, but with their popularity snowballing as of late—fueled in no small part by bike-sharing apps like Lime and Uber’s Jump—the laws around their use (Can they speed on sidewalks? Do you have to wear a helmet at double-digit miles-per-hour?) are still evolving. On Monday night, Denver City Council passed a new ordinance spearheaded by Council President Jolon Clark that specifies rules for the various e-bikes on the streets, bike paths, and sidewalks, and aligns the city’s safety laws with a new state law passed in 2017.
The state law brought Colorado’s previously arcane e-bike regulations up to date, aligning them more closely with manufacturer standards and requiring manufacturers to label bikes as either Class 1, 2, or 3 (see more about what those mean below). The state law leaves it to local governments to set their own rules for each class of e-bikes. Boulder County, for example, has banned e-bikes on mountain trails and is now piloting a program to permit some on regional and plains trails. Jefferson County allows the slowest e-bikes (class 1) on mountain bike trails and both class 1 and class 2 on paved trails.
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Denver had yet to set new e-bike rules after state legislators passed the law in 2017, which means that, until Monday, Denver was operating with an outdated definition of what constitutes an e-bike—a bicycle with pedals and an electric motor of no more than 750 watts that does not assist the rider in reaching speeds greater than 10 miles an hour. That definition is damn-near irrelevant. Today, e-bikes are lighter and motors are much more efficient, meaning they can reach higher speeds with lower wattage.
Jack Todd, communications and policy manager for Bicycle Colorado, a cyclist advocacy group, says aligning Denver’s rules with the state’s grown-up e-bike regulations is a good thing. He supports the bill passed Monday. “With Colorado being a home-rule state, [every city] can make up [its] own rules,” Todd says. “In our mind, it’s important for [e-bike regulations] to be consistent statewide. Denver leading the way on that is a good thing.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Class 1 E-Bikes
What They Are: Rentable E-bikes are Class 1. On these cycles, electrical assistance kicks in when the pedaler is unable to reach 20 miles per hour with his own muscle power.
Ideal For: A person-powered commute, even when you have a case of the Mondays and need a little boost.
Class 2 E-Bikes
What They Are: The rider can get a boost of electrical assistance at all speeds under 20 miles per hour—throttle included, pedaling optional.
Ideal For: Those unable (or unwilling) to propel themselves.
New Rules for Classes 1 & 2
Bicycle rules apply; stick to bike lanes and paths where available. Traffic rules and rights apply as they do to conventional cycles and cars when bike lanes and paths are not available. Cyclists and e-cyclists should ride as far to the right as they deem safe to allow vehicles to pass on their left. Riding on sidewalks is not allowed unless part of a designated bicycle route, and never at more than six miles per hour. Cyclists must always yield to pedestrians and signal clearly.
Class 3 E-Bikes
What They Are: The rider earns electrical assistance only when she pedals, up to 28 miles per hour.
Ideal For: Errands and commutes within city limits (read: no highway).
The Rules: With Denver’s new law, the speediest e-bikes are now subject to the same restrictions as motorcycles. That could change though, as Denver City Council legislative analyst Zach Rothmier said this might be a mistake. Council’s intent was to regulate these in the same manner as low-power scooters, ban riding this class of motorized cycle on sidewalks, bike paths, and highways, and require minors riding them to wear a helmet. For your safety, we recommend sticking to these guidelines for now. A city attorney did not respond to 5280‘s request for clarification as of press time.
Where to Ride: Best for neighborhood roads.
A Note on Speed Limits
Bike paths within Denver parks could soon have their own rules about speed limits. Denver Parks and Recreation is undertaking a rule-making process this spring that could change what’s allowed, according to Rothmier. For now, the city asks cyclists to ride at no more than 15 miles per hour on multi-use trails, whether using electrical assistance or not. Cyclists are subject to the same traffic laws as cars when riding on roads.