Note: Our legal pages refer to the UK only. Elsewhere, electric bike law varies widely between countries, and even between individual states in the USA, Canada and Australia. If in doubt, always check local regulations.
Electric bicycles are unique machines legislatively, being the only powered vehicles to be treated in exactly the same way as pedal cycles. This means you can ride one while disqualified from driving a car, motorcycle or moped, and you will not be subject to laws aimed specifically at motor vehicle drivers, such as drink-drive legislation. You must, of course, adhere to the rules of the road, and like any other cyclist, you can be prosecuted for riding without lights, riding dangerously, or riding while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There are, in addition, a few key legislative requirements:
Electric Bike Legislative Requirements
- The rider must be aged at least 14
- The electric bike must not be capable of exceeding 25kph (15.6mph) while under power
Note: Like any other cyclist, you can ride as fast as you like when the motor is not providing assistance, but you must still obey traffic laws. In practise, power usually fades away quite gradually as speed increases, so a bike that tops out at 15mph with a heavy rider, may give useful assistance at 18mph or above with a light one. In practise, you are very unlikely to be prosecuted for anything other than a wild and reckless infringement of the rules.
- The electric bike must not weigh in excess of 40kg for a bicycle, or 60kg for a tricycle
This might have been withdrawn, but who cares? You’re not going to want to ride a bike or trike that heavy anyway
- The continuous rated power of the motor must not exceed 250 watts
Note: This is the European limit, which the UK signed up to in 2002. The older 1983 UK legislation says 200 watts for bicycles and 250 watts for tandems and tricycles, and this remained in force until very recently, and is still sometimes mentioned. In any event, the whole thing is a technicality, because a measurement of ‘continuous rated power’ is like measuring a piece of wiggly string. You will only get into trouble if your machine has a clearly accessible manufacturer’s plate saying something like ‘500 watt Turbo’ on it.
- The motor alone cannot be used to propel the bicycle, so power can only be brought in while the rider is pedaling
Note: The bicycle MUST be fitted with pedals, but don’t worry too much about the requirement to use them. The 1983 legislation made no distinction between pedaling or not pedaling while under power, although the newer 2002 European legislation does. From 2016, European law was fully ratified in the UK (yes, just in time for Brexit!), but manufacturers are still able to get type approval for ‘twist-n-go’ models, and bikes bought up to 2016 (plus ‘old stock’ bought afterwards), remain legal under ‘grandfather rights’. What this means in practise is DON’T WORRY. (a) Policemen have better things to do, (b) electric bikes are not registered, so no-one can easily prove how old it is, and (c) post-Brexit, all European legislation will (eventually) be reformulated into UK law, with a strong case for going back to the old regs. With so many loopholes, prosecution sounds like a waste of police and court time.
The rules used to apply to bicycles and tricycles, but four-wheeled quads are allowed now too, but it’s hard to see why anyone would bother. The electric bike rules are not very onerous in themselves, but be warned: if you are successfully prosecuted for breaking any one of them you will no longer be covered by the exemptions that apply to electric bicycles, but bear in mind that in three of the five above, the court would have to decide which law actually applied.
In theory, anyone riding an electric bicycle at, for example, 18mph, could be prosecuted for riding a moped without a helmet, insurance, vehicle excise duty, MoT certificate, etc, etc. If caught riding while under-age or disqualified from driving, you would effectively by driving without a license, a serious offence. In practise, prosecutions are extremely rare, as the police really aren’t interested, but it’s worth knowing the rules.
Some electric bikes look very similar to mopeds or scooters, with fairings and motorcycle-style suspension. These machines are perfectly legal, provided they have pedals and obey all the rules above. The problem with riding one is that very few policemen will be aware of this loophole in the legislation, and you are liable to be stopped and cross-examined on a regular basis, unless you take to wearing a motorcycle helmet. In general, ‘bicycle’ styling is a good idea!
Ah, tricky one. Trains first: if you’ve tried looking this up you’ll have spotted that the 2017 Conditions of Carriage say that “Motorcycles, Motorscooters and Mopeds” are banned, but the cycling regs say “Motorcycles cannot be carried on any services”. Years ago British Rail banned mopeds from its trains, and adjusted the wording of the National Conditions of Carriage to the effect that ‘mopeds and motorised bicycles’ were banned, although this wording was subsequently changed. What this really referred to was bicycles fitted with small petrol motors, but when electric bikes came in, some people naturally assumed it meant electric motors – it almost certainly didn’t.
After railway privatisation, some of the more clued-up railway companies did put clauses into their own rules saying electric bikes were banned, but none seem to have clarified things by saying they were welcome!
Our judgement is that electric bikes are not banned from the railways, unless specifically mentioned by an individual train operator. In the eyes of the law, electric bikes are bicycles, and they go anywhere a bicycle is allowed to go. But as with so many railway things, it comes down to the judgement of an individual employee who might or might not have read the old Conditions of Carriage and remembered the Motorised Bicycle clause.
The good news is that there have been very few cases of people having problems on the railways. If you intend to carry an electric bike by train, just go ahead, but be discreet. It makes sesnse to carry the battery separately, so you can at least show that it’s been deactivated, which will probably satisfy a busy guard.
Buses are another whole minefield. As far as we know, electric bikes have never been mentioned in bus or coach bylaws, but buses don’t generally carry bikes anyway. We have carried a fully-folded and covered Nano-Brompton by bus several times without issue, but then the driver had no idea what it was!