Most e-bikes are now allowed on DC’s off-street trails

The District Department of Transportation recently finalized a much needed update to the rules of the road for e-bikes in DC. Most of the updates clarify that a person riding a “motorized bicycle” (aka most e-bikes)  has the same rights and responsibilities as a person on a standard bike. But the biggest change is that the rules no longer prohibit most e-bikes on DC’s off-street trails!

As of December 2022, Title 18 subsection 1201.18 of the DC Municipal Regulations is repealed, so it is now legal to operate a motorized bicycle on any sidewalk, off-street bikepath, or bicycle route within the District. The change is more of an update to reflect reality than a policy shift. After all, most e-bike owners and e-bikeshare users have been happily riding their bikes on DC’s off-street trails unaware for years without issue. And while we are not aware of any instances of ticketing or enforcement, we welcome the update.

E-bikes are fun and an incredible option for replacing some car trips. They allow people to travel longer distances, climb steep hills, carry heavy loads or children and generally reduce some of the barriers to making trips by bike. Most e-bikes are just normal bikes that offer a little help, so they absolutely belong on off-street trails like the Met Branch, Anacostia River, Oxon Run, Klingle Valley and Marvin Gaye Trail. Read more on WABA’s philosophy around e-bikes here.

Why were e-bikes ever prohibited on trails in the first place? 

DC’s laws and road rules are behind other states when it comes to electric bicycles. Over the past 7 years, with leadership from People for Bikes, 40+ states, including Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government have updated laws to classify and regulate the modern electric bicycle. Most adopted similar definitions for Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3 e-bikes, which make it far easier to describe where and how those bikes may be used.

So far, the DC Council and DDOT have relied on existing legal definitions for “motorized bicycle” and “motor-driven cycle” which were first introduced into DC law in response to the rise in popularity of mopeds in the 1970’s. At the time, that often meant internal combustion engines, significant weight, and other safety concerns that put them in a very different category than a typical bicycle. 

So it was natural to prohibit them from sidewalks and trails. Over the years, DC has tweaked definitions and requirements to account for new technology. But, compared to the Class 1, 2, 3 system, it is a messy situation that barely accounts for the e-bikes on the market.

What is a Motorized Bicycle?

Today DC law defines, a “motorized bicycle” as a vehicle that has: 

(a) A post mounted seat or saddle for each person that the device is designed and equipped to carry;

(b) A vehicle with two (2) or three (3) wheels in contact with the ground, which are at least sixteen inches (16 in.) in diameter;

(c) Fully operative pedals for human propulsion; and

(d) A motor incapable of propelling the device at a speed of more than twenty miles per hour (20 mph) on level ground.

A motorized bicycle shall be a motorcycle when operated by motor at speeds in excess of thirty miles per hour (30 mph) and the operator shall be required to have on his or her possession a valid motorcycle endorsement. A motorized bicycle shall be a motor-driven cycle when operated by motor at speeds in excess of twenty miles per hour (20 mph) and the operator shall be required to have on his or her possession a valid driver’s license. (D.C. Law 19-290) Title 18 DCMR 9901.1

Comparing this definition to the e-bikes sold in most bike shops today, most Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes fit the “motorized bicycle” definition because their electric motors are limited to 20mph. Class 3 e-bikes, which can reach 28mph under motor power, poorly match the definition of motor-driven cycle.

As DC considers implementing an electric bicycle rebate program to support residents and businesses in purchasing e-bikes, it may be time to bring DC in line with other states’ definitions.To read the official notice of rulemaking from the DC Record, click here.