As an avid e-bike enthusiast I’ve written this blog to discuss the current situation of the legality of e-bikes in Australia. I think the laws are outdated, and not considerate of the whole e-bike community and its needs. Note that these opinions are my own, and not representative of Dillenger Electric Bikes. Should you wish to have an illegal e-bike you do so at your own risk.
What are the laws?
In Australia it is illegal to ride an electric bicycle on road or bike paths with a stated power output of more than 200w without a pedal assist system, or 250w with a pedal assist system. The latter is also required to only have a pedal assist, and limited to do 6km/h via a throttle or cruise control mechanism. In both cases the motor must be speed limited to 25km/h. If you are riding off road however, there are no limits.
What are the issues?
There are several issues with these laws, the first and foremost is the speed limit. The reason being that a fit rider can easily ride faster than 25km/h for sustained periods under their own steam, a very fit rider (for example one who does road racing) can easily maintain 35km/h, with up to 40km/h on the flat. Not to mention that just about anyone who can pedal in a high gear can easily reach over 50km/h down hills. What is the point of a speed limit that can be broken in certain circumstances by anyone on any bike?
For those riders with a decent level of fitness, a legal e-bike becomes somewhat useless, with the only benefit being an easier ride up hills, everywhere else the extra weight of the motor and the battery negates the additional power of a motor because you spend much of your time going faster than the motor under your own power. It’s also kind of like forcing all cars to only travel at 60km/h when the maximum speed limit is 110km/h and even with that limit, most cars can exceed 110km/h, and many are legally sold with the ability to do double that speed. How is that scenario fair to e-bikers?
The power limit is a law that seems to have had little forethought about what is actually required to move an electric bike and rider. As an example there is an online calculator to estimate the power required to ride up an incline, a small 5 degree incline at 10km/h without pedalling requires more power than the legal 200w electric bike can output, and that’s the best case scenario, not a real world example accounting for rolling resistance and motor inefficiency. This plays out worst for people who are heavy or who have limited pedalling ability, and could perhaps have the most to gain from riding an electric bike for improving fitness.
There is little to no enforcement of these laws. The wording of “stated” power output has led to the “sticker situation” where users of overpowered motors will place a sticker on their unit which states that the motor is a legal 250w unit. There is also the scenario where a 250w system can be overridden to allow more juice into the motor, as many 250w rated motors can easily handle more power and the equipment is readily available to do it. The “off road” classification means that importers can legally bring in high powered bikes and kits and sell them without regulation. This obviously leads to riders on roads and bike paths riding illegal bikes, because they can, and they are unlikely to get caught out.
It also means that if I lived by a fire trail that went all the way to my typical destination, say the fire trail that leads to my workplace, I could ride a ridiculously overpowered e-bike at silly speeds totally legally, potentially endangering the other users of the fire trail. Considering that on road, bicycles and even motorcycles are considered vulnerable users, how is the off road law justified?
What can we do?
For a start, we can look at the real world scenarios and the community of e-bikers that already exists. Among enthusiasts, the overwhelming opinion is that the laws need to be changed to allow all users get the maximum benefits from e-bikes. It’s a matter of “horses for courses” where we can reach a middle ground that gives some leeway to those who need it. I’ve had experience riding several different bikes (all built for road/path use) and will try to outline some scenarios below that cover what the wider community seems to require.
Scenario 1 – casual low kilometre user
This scenario is the user who would be more than satisfied with what is available legally right now. A 250w pedal assist bike suits some users, typically those who travel around 10km per trip, and are not in a big hurry to cover that distance. This would include school kids who have a longer commute than the usual kid who might ride or walk, my 16 year old son rides 12km each way to school and back and the 250w bike we’ve got does the job well. It is faster than the public transport alternative and as a student who doesn’t have commitments outside school, extra speed to save time is not required.
Scenario 2 – commuter rider
The person who doesn’t mind pedalling hard and working up a sweat, but wants to get to work in good time over a medium distance of around 20km per trip each way. The ideal bike would be a 500w system that can average around 30km/h over that distance. I’m in this category and I run a 350w rear hub system for my commute up to 4 times a week, I’m looking at a system that lets me override the 350w power limit to lift the average and max speeds above the 32km/h it currently does. The need for a shower depends on how fast I want to go.
Scenario 3 – super commuter car replacer
This person wants to get to work fast, not sweat much if at all, and do it every day over a medium to long distance. They also might be overweight or unfit for other reasons and unable to use a low power motor over any distance. A couple of real world examples I know of are one mate who has a 1000w rear hub system capable of 45km/h without pedalling, commuting ~20km per day in his work clothes. Another one I know runs a 750w mid drive riding in cycling gear, and pedals along at a medium to high effort. Yet another runs a cargo bike with a 1000w system and takes his kids to school on the back every day, and sold the second car to do so. Try doing that on a “legal” bike!
Having experienced riding the bikes I’ve noted above, and knowing the users who use them, this is what I think would work well for Australian conditions and be fair for all users. The names are just my ideas around what might sound official, and work to define the class. Of course it is down to the responsibility of all users, and especially parents in the suggested Class 1 to provide a safe suitable bike for the proposed use.
Class 1 – Low powered cycle
Up to 350w, up to 30km/h with PAS, for all ages, no licence or registration required. Recommended 250w limit for under 16.
Class 2 – Medium powered cycle
Above 350w up to 750w, up to 40km/h with PAS, for over 17 years and drivers licence (including Provisional licence) required.
Class 3 – High powered cycle
Above 750w up to 1500w, up to 50km/h, for over 18 full drivers licence and registration required. Speed limit of 40km/h on flat or uphill bike paths.
While these classes are what I would suggest, they won’t be perfect for everyone, and the point is that we need further work done on this at the legislative level so people have more choices and more e-biking is encouraged.