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Massachusetts City Officials Consider Lifting E-Bike Ban

Salem, Mass., officials are considering whether to allow electric bikes, noting that a state law forbidding the vehicles was written for license-requiring mopeds years ago rather than the new bikes with small motors.

(TNS) — City officials are hoping to crack open state law and... allow electric bikes on city roads.

The City Council is reviewing a proposal from Mayor Kim Driscoll to allow electric bikes (or e-bikes) to be used in the city. The issue was sent to the body's ordinance committee after a concern was raised over where the bikes would be allowed to ride and whether specific situations — like e-bikes on sidewalks — are safe.

E-bikes have seen a surge in popularity in the past few years as access to the technology has increased, so much that the BlueBikes program recently launched in Salem is looking to add them, according to city Mayor Kim Driscoll. They're also frequently — if not regularly — seen getting public use currently.

"We'd love to have e-bikes as part of our fleet with BlueBikes, as part of our bike-share program," Driscoll said. "We know many other jurisdictions outside of Massachusetts have seen huge success by adding electric bikes to their fleet."

But that isn't the case in Massachusetts, where "there's a glitch in current law that doesn't enable them to be legal on the road," Driscoll said. Laws governing electric bikes fall under Chapter 90 of the state's general laws, which regulate motor vehicles and aircraft.

The rules that e-bikes are locked up under were written to regulate license-requiring mopeds more than bikes with small motors, according to Dave Kucharsky, Salem's traffic and parking planner.

"These types of devices weren't really well known or even in existence on the most part," Kucharsky said of when the law was written. "A lot of surrounding states have this legislation in place (to allow e-bikes). I believe New York was the most recent."

While defending the order, Driscoll explained seeing their use in New York City, where e-bikes make up 20% of the city's ride-sharing fleet. But 40% of trips taken within boroughs are e-bikes, meaning they're being used twice as frequently as they're available. For trips that cross borough lines, 65% of rides are on e-bikes, Driscoll said.

"If you're going to go a longer distance, people really want to have that pedal-assist and that boost to enable them to travel those distances," Driscoll said.

Discussion of the proposal was brief, however, after a concern was raised about the safety of the devices by Ward 7 City Councilor Steve Dibble. That included whether they'd be allowed in bike lanes, on sidewalks and other places where pedestrians walk.

"I'd like to see this go to committee and tighten it up with the police department," Dibble said.

The proposal also comes after the last ride-sharing system in Salem, operated by Zagster, briefly introduced electric scooters. Discussions on the issue were contentious, and rules were set up to restrict them on specific roads before Zagster pulled their whole program completely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

E-bikes aren't the same as e-scooters, however, Driscoll said.

"Anything we can do to get single-occupancy vehicles off the road is typically looked at as a climate win, in terms of how we're delivering power," Driscoll said, "and we know in Salem the vast majority of power we're drawing from is coming from renewable sources."

At this point, BlueBikes is serving 200 to 300 non-motorized rides per week, with heavy use at the MBTA garage on the northern end of downtown and a station at Salem State University, Driscoll said.

"We know those numbers will grow, and certainly if we can add e-bikes to the fleet, we think it'll grow demonstrably," Driscoll said. "We have to first get the state to approve it."

© 2021 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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