E-bikes bill allows some, bans others

The R.I. House has approved an e-bikes bills that would allow some electric bicycles on bike paths, but restrict the biggest and fastest

By Scott Pickering
Posted 5/15/24

The State of Rhode Island recently moved one step closer to a law that would regulate electric bicycles on all state properties, including bike paths. Passed by the full House of Representatives two …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Register to post events

If you'd like to post an event to our calendar, you can create a free account by clicking here.

Note that free accounts do not have access to our subscriber-only content.

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

E-bikes bill allows some, bans others

The R.I. House has approved an e-bikes bills that would allow some electric bicycles on bike paths, but restrict the biggest and fastest


The State of Rhode Island recently moved one step closer to a law that would regulate electric bicycles on all state properties, including bike paths. Passed by the full House of Representatives two weeks ago, the “e-bikes” bill now awaits review by the Rhode Island Senate.

Tensions around e-bikes have risen as the bikes themselves have proliferated. Because they can more easily travel at faster speeds than traditional bikes, often weighing more with more mass, many consider them unsafe on busy pathways like the East Bay Bike Path.

E-bike advocates have pushed back, saying they are environmentally-friendly modes of transportation that create recreational opportunities for people who may struggle to use traditional bicycles, such as the elderly or those with some physical impairments.

The debate has waged on social media platforms and in newspaper opinion sections, but it has meant very little in the real world. With almost no laws or clear standards to regulate the e-bikes, authorities have been powerless to enforce what should, or should not, happen with them on bike paths. DEM currently bans all “motorized vehicles” from using bike paths, but that is a regulation, not a law, and it invites differing opinions on whether an engine that is powered by electricity is “motorized” or not.

The bill passed by the House eliminates the confusion by making four significant changes:

1. It defines three classes of electric bicycles — Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 (see box for description).

2. It gives the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) the authority to regulate e-bikes on its properties.

3. It gives the users of Class 1 electric bicycles the right to use them on state bike paths (and by default it restricts Class 2 and 3 bikes from the bike paths).

4. It requires all e-bike riders under the age of 21 to wear helmets.

This last provision has deep, personal meaning for one of the bill’s lead sponsors in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jennifer Boylan of Barrington and East Providence. Two years ago, her brother-in-law died from a traumatic brain injury while riding an electric bicycle. Christopher Mahoney Boylan was 51 at the time of his accident. A longtime Cape Cod resident, he was found unconscious on the ground near his bike and died a week later, never regaining consciousness.

“No one knows what happened,” Rep. Boylan said, though they suspect speed, and of course lack of a helmet, were contributing factors. “I feel that helmet-wearing is paramount for anyone on a bike, of any type. I would never go without one myself,” Rep. Boylan said.

That is why she had one demand for DEM when representatives approached her to sponsor an electric bicycles bill in the House. “The bill did not have any helmet provisions in it initially,” she said. “I told them I would only take it if it had a helmet provision.”

The initial bill required riders 15 or younger to wear helmets while riding e-bikes, but that was later amended to 21 or younger after legislators listened to testimony and heard a similar bill that would require all riders of all e-bikes, regardless of age, to wear a helmet. They settled on under-21 because it would match the state’s current motorcycle law, which requires a helmet for that same age range.

For this and other reasons, Rep. Boylan is happy the bill passed her chamber, and she hopes it will become state law. She believes it delicately balances competing interests — protecting a “green” mode of transportation, while still creating safety provisions. “We want people to be biking, as opposed to driving, when possible,” Rep. Boylan said.

The Barrington resident said she jogs regularly and is often on the East Bay Bike Path. She also said she listened to many people, when she was campaigning for office in 2022, talk about the dangers presented by e-bikes on that path.

“Anyone who spends any time on the bike path sees electric bikes flying by,” Rep. Boylan said. “Bike path safety is top of mind for many people in town.”

‘Daughter’ of the bike path

Safety is also top of mind for a Bristol resident who lives close to the path and visits it almost every day. Judy Byrnes is the daughter of Thomas Byrnes, who earned the nickname “Father of the Bike Path” after his advocacy efforts helped create the East Bay Bike Path in the 1980s. She has been an outspoken critic of e-bikes, and she testified against an electric-bike bill that came before the General Assembly last year.

“That bill was submitted by the e-bikes industry. It was trying to remove regulations on e-bikes,” Byrnes said recently. The current version, submitted by DEM itself, “is a better bill,” she said.

“I commend DEM for taking the initiative and being proactive on this,” Byrnes said. “They have a very tough road ahead of them when it comes to enforcement, but I applaud them for stepping up to the plate.”

Byrnes said she is on the path almost every day, and she sees dangerous situations constantly. “At times, it’s very scary for riders,” she said, adding that those fears extend equally to the people riding electric bikes and the people not riding electric bikes. The speed and mass of these bikes are a threat to everyone, she believes.

“A Class 1 bike doesn’t weight much more than a regular bike,” Byrnes said. “So you don’t have the same mass as some of the Class 2 and 3 all-terrain e-bikes, with wider tires and bigger motors.” Thus she agrees with the DEM and House bill, which would prohibit those larger bikes from using bike paths.

The problem, however, is that thousands of those bikes have been sold, and their users are accustomed to riding them on the state’s paths. “It’s going to be very difficult to un-ring that bell,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes does not believe DEM has adequate staffing to enforce the new standards should this bill become law, nor does she think local law enforcement should be be expected to pick up the slack. “You can’t do another unfunded mandate for DEM, so you have to budget money for enforcement,” she said. “You’re going to need special funding for DEM, which already has an enforcement division in place.” They just need the resources for the job, she believes.

2024 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.