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the green highway

E-bikes can do 32 km/h and are silent.

I was nearly run over last week – on the sidewalk.

I was walking along Queen Street in Toronto just past an intersection when an electric bike at high speed came up the wheelchair ramp, on to the sidewalk and just missed hitting me in the back while speeding away along the sidewalk. These e-bikes can do 32 km/h and are silent. You'll never hear one coming up behind you, but you can be seriously injured if you're hit.

Electric bikes come with an electric motor as well as pedals and can be purchased for five or six hundred bucks. They can look like motorized scooters or mopeds; however, e-bikes are not considered motor vehicles and do not require riders to have training, a licence or insurance.

The Province of Ontario permits e-bikes to be operated like bicycles and, while riders don't need a licence or insurance, they must wear helmets and these so-called bikes must be equipped with pedals. Since electric bikes are classified as bicycles, they don't have the same braking and lighting as licensed motorcycles and scooters.

After many near-misses like mine, Windsor, Ont., just banned e-bikes from all the city's sidewalks and is trying to figure out if they should also be banned from walking and biking trails. The debate at the city council cited numerous complaints from pedestrians.

"I think of a 160-pound e-bike travelling at up to 32 km/h and a mother walking with her children," said one council member.

As well, there was discussion about collisions between e-bikes and cars. I have often noticed e-bike riders cutting in and out of traffic with many of the riders wearing ear buds, which I assume have been playing loud music.

Windsor's sidewalk ban is just one example of the law catching up with e-bikes. While e-bikes are sold with pedals, they are easily removed. Some riders have found they hang too close to the pavement and get in the way of hard cornering. In British Columbia, like Ontario, e-bikes are not considered motor vehicles and do not require riders to have a licence or insurance. The provincial legislation defines them as "motor-assisted cycles" and therefore they must have pedals.

A Vancouver resident was charged with operating a motor vehicle without a driver's licence or insurance after he removed the pedals of his electric bike. He was found guilty and appealed the decision. The appeal was dismissed. The judge wrote that once the accused "removed the pedals, he removed any effective way for him to propel the scooter himself," noting that the electric motor is supposed to "supplement, not supplant, human propulsion."

The implication is that removing the pedals turns electric bikes into motor vehicles and riders who use them risk fines of $276 for driving without a licence and $598 for driving without insurance. The judge said there are two options for an electric bike: "To operate it with the pedals on, or take them off and confine it to private roads." In light of the confusion surrounding electric bikes, the judge wrote that the province should review how they are regulated.

While I think it's great that Windsor has taken e-bikes off the sidewalks, I also think there should be a place for e-bikes as part of a city's transportation mix. In Europe, we all know, most cities have cycling networks of bicycle-only, separated lanes. Cycling networks make sense; mixing e-bikes into road traffic (and sidewalks) does not. This is an area where we need some updated public policy.

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