Saratoga County

NYSERDA: E-bikes on right path

New York’s environmental leaders want a Capital Region team to forge ahead with developing electric

New York’s environmental leaders want a Capital Region team to forge ahead with developing electric bicycle technology despite its ambiguity under state law.

“It’s a pretty complex issue because they are treated as bicycles under federal statutes but they’re not addressed under state law,” said Jeff Olson, a principal at Alta Planning + Design’s Saratoga Springs office.

Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, look just like regular bicycles, but have a small motor that propels the bike forward when desired — like while pedaling long distances or up hills. They’re currently used around the world, but seem to be especially controversial on the packed streets of New York City.

Alta, a design firm with offices all over the country, encourages bicycling and walking as a regular, safe form of transportation by working with communities to develop new trails, Safe Routes to School programs, expanded walkways and bikeways, traffic analyses and more. Alta is also responsible for two of the nation’s largest bike-share programs — Citi Bikes in New York City and Capitalshare in Washington, D.C.

As traditional bike-share programs take off in the U.S., Alta is hoping to jump on the emerging e-bike trend by developing an electric bicycle with pedal-assist technology and a wireless recharging system. This would look like a traditional bicycle, but come with an electric motor that doesn’t exceed 20 miles per hour and only turns on when the rider wants it to. The recharging component would be solar-powered and Wi-Fi based, Olson said, and depends largely on battery technology advances in coming years.

The prospect was attractive to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which recently awarded $325,000 to Alta’s Saratoga Springs office to work on the technology as part of a larger round of awards doled out to eco-friendly transportation projects across the state.

“There are places and times when not everyone wants to pedal a bicycle,” said Olson. “Think of New York City, for example, crossing some of those bridges with very long spans or on a hot summer day. E-bikes help expand the range of where you can go and give people the ability to bike anywhere in their cities.”

It’s the first time NYSERDA has funded an electric bicycle project.

In 2003, Congress changed the definition of bicycle to include electric bicycles with an electric motor of fewer than 750 watts whose maximum speed is less than 20 miles per hour. This imposed some regulations on the e-bike, but not the hefty amount that would have come with a “motor vehicle” classification (age limits, licenses, insurance, registration and so on).

But New York state hasn’t come out with a definitive ruling one way or the other. Assemblyman David Gantt last year proposed legislation that would clarify Vehicle and Traffic Law by classifying electric bicycles with speeds of 20 miles per hour or less as bicycles, imposing regulations on them. But this bill has yet to go to a vote.

Despite the current ambiguity surrounding e-bikes in the state, NYSERDA is confident that exploring the technology, at the very least, will be worth it. This is why the funding comes in two phases. The first phase will use $75,000 simply to study the feasibility of pedal-assist technology.

“Phase one of this project will provide clear product options in light of current regulations and proposed regulations,” said NYSERDA spokesman Alan Wechsler in an email.

After phase one, NYSERDA will hold a project review to assess the feasibility of proceeding to phase two, which would use the remaining $250,000 to design and demonstrate the technology.

“The unique part of this project is that Alta is also looking into creating a pedal-assist bike that can be recharged cordlessly [known as induction charging] at the bike stations,” said Wechsler.

Once developed, the e-bike would be integrated into Alta’s existing bike-share programs across the nation. One of those could be coming to the Capital Region. With the help of Creighton Manning Engineering, Alta last summer presented a feasibility study for a traditional bike-share program in Albany. Olson said the Capital District Transportation Authority is looking to host several pilot bike-share programs in local communities this summer.

Olson seemed confident that Alta could develop and deploy e-bikes relatively quickly, given how fast Alta was able to get Citi Bike up and running in New York City.

“Think about it,” he said. “Bike share as we currently know it in the United States is really only five years old. New York City went from not having bike share to having seven million rides on bike share in just the last year. Actually, it hasn’t even been quite a full year yet.”

E-bikes could take off just as quickly, he said. But current legislation could be a hurdle along the way for Alta, at least in New York state.

“There is legislation pending to address the issue, so we’re hopeful that we will see things clarified shortly,” Olson said.

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