Bicycles or motor vehicles? Lawmakers work to classify low-speed, electric bikes

    A bill in the Iowa Legislature would classify low-speed, electric bicycles like regular bikes, allowing them on bike trails. (Photo by Leslie Kehmeier, courtesy of PeopleforBikes)

    Low-speed, electric bicycles are blazing trails in traffic laws around the country and Iowa lawmakers are trying to decide how to treat these new hybrids.

    So-called e-bikes are designed so that a rider may pedal them with or without assistance from a low-power motor.  Bicycle advocates want them to be classified more like unpowered bikes, as opposed to mopeds or scooters, which might not be allowed on trails.

    As of 2019, 23 states had passed legislation defining e-bikes in their traffic statutes, according to PeopleforBikes, a Colorado-based advocacy organization.  The organization was working to get legislation passed in 17 states this year.

    A Senate subcommittee unanimously agreed to advance Senate File 2205, which defines three classifications of low-speed electric bicycles and treats them like pedal-powered bikes under traffic laws.

    The Iowa League of Cities raised some questions about the proposed legislation, noting that some classes of e-bikes can reach 28 mph.  “Twenty-eight miles per hour is a little faster than we want on a bike trail,” Robert Palmer of the League of Cities said.

    Some cities classify the vehicles differently depending on whether they can operate when a rider doesn’t pedal, Palmer said.

    Lawmakers also were unsure whether e-bikes would be classified as motor vehicles under the state’s drunken-driving laws.  Legislators said the measure would need amending in the Senate Transportation Committee.

    Kathie Obradovich
    Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.