Assisted Bicycles

By ‘assisted bicycles’ I mean those bicycles that have been fitted with an electric or petrol motor to supplement or replace the efforts of the cyclist.  In the post war period these were quite popular, commonly referred to as ‘wing wheels’ as they predominately supplied as a complete unit with a small petrol two stroke motor built into a wheel to replace the rear bicycle wheel.  Many of these conversions were pretty dreadful, and as society became more affluent, and cycling moved from being basic transport to a recreation pursuit, they vanished almost altogether.

The ever increasing price of petrol has seen a rise in commuting cyclists, and with them the re-emergence of the assisted bike, only this time the assistance is primarily electric.  (there are one or two of the old noisy smelly units still around. ) The improvement in both battery technology and some particularly effective small electric motors has seen a huge growth in the numbers of these bikes, particularly in China, and also, after a faltering start, in Europe.

I am unsure what, if any, rules apply to the use of these bikes in China, but in Europe to remain classified as a bicycle, the motor had to be 250watts or less and the assistance to be pedelec (that is you must pedal to activate the assitance) with the assistance cutting out at 15 kph.  I believe the Europeans are reviewing the wattage limit with a view to replacing it with just a speed restriction, primarily because of the increasing use of these motors in cargo bikes for which 250 watts is just too feeble. 

So ‘watt’ about Australia?  Currently the wattage is officially limited to 200 as this was set many years ago based I believe on the opinion of a traffic engineer in Victoria.  There is no requirement for power to be pedelec style. In WA you may only use powered assistance when riding on the road.  Use of powered assistance on footpaths and dual use paths in totally banned, but it is clear from the increasing number of riders using these machines that they are unaware of this rule or ignoring it.  It would be almost impossible to police.  There is also a range of electric ‘vehicles’ that qualify as bikes although the only thing in common is that they both have two wheels, and of course there is no limit on the wattage that can be imported.  I saw a bike the other day that had motors in both wheels – an AWD bike.

Each state (as usual) has it’s own idiosyncratic rules, and although there has been talk of uniform Australian approach, nothing much seems to have happened. In the meantime the sales of these units continues to grow.

I think the electrical assist is a really good idea.  My personal view is that

  • there should be no wattage limit as  battery capacity is currently a naturally limiting factor (the bigger motor, the bigger battery or shorter range). 
  • power assistance should be pedelec style (that is you must pedal to activate)
  • assistance should be speed limited (that is it cuts out once a determined road speed is reached)
  • There should be a braking specification requirement (that is the bike must be capable of meeting a specified braking performance). 

So lets have some feedback here so we can pursue this further.  Better to be proactive than to wait for the imposition of rules by the well intended but usually uninformed.

About Peter Bartlett