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Cyclists, MPs and fire services oppose 'reckless' e-bike changes in row with DfT

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

13 min read

The government is proposing to redefine electrically assisted pedal cycles, allowing them to be made much more powerful. But would they even be cycles any more? And what are the risks? Sienna Rodgers reports

Electrically assisted pedal cycles. The clue is in the name: EAPCs, or e-bikes as they are commonly known, are electrically assisted and require pedalling. But what if the definition were changed, such that they could be not merely electrically assisted but entirely electrically powered, and there was no need to pedal at all? This is what the Department for Transport (DfT) is considering.

In a consultation that ran from February to April, the government invited responses to two potential reforms: doubling the maximum allowable power of e-bike motors from 250 watts to 500; and allowing them to be powered by a throttle up to 15.5mph. In response, many stakeholders highlighted the absurdity of redefining a category of bicycle to include something that is more in line with an electric moped.

“What’s a bicycle? What’s a moped? What’s an e-bike? It’s just not clear. With the proposals, it becomes a lot murkier”

As Gino D’Acampo once joked when confronted with the idea of adding ham to a carbonara to make it British: “If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bike.” The DfT is now being accused of creating confusion over what constitutes a bike, with one source in the active travel sector calling the suggested new definition “Orwellian”.

“What’s a bicycle? What’s a moped? What’s an e-bike? It’s just not clear. With the proposals, it becomes a lot murkier,” says Alfie Brierley, director of policy and public affairs at the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA), which is adamant in its opposition to both proposals.

“They are a motorbike based on these new regulations. But at the same time, there’s no personal protective equipment required, no insurance and no registration, which is just massively unfair to our sector. It’s also just a bit reckless.”

Brierley emphasises further: “From our point of view, especially as a sector that’s been wracked with accusations around our own house not being in order, our own vehicles being very unsafe, et cetera, we feel this is a bit of a farce.”

Phillip Darnton, chairman of trade association the Bicycle Association, also highlights the incapability of the term EAPC with its potential new definition. “The reason they’re called electrically assisted pedal cycles is the last two words are ‘pedal cycle’,” he remarks drily.

“It means that as a pedal cycle, it’s exempt from type approval, and if it’s electrically assisted, then it has very strict limits to its assistance, which are that the motor will cut out whether you like it or not at 15.5mph, and the motor won’t act if you aren’t pedalling it.”

Darnton adds: “Once you start making the edges fuzzy – ‘well, it’s not exactly assisted and it’s not exactly pedalled’ – then you open the door, over time, to people saying, ‘I wonder why that’s different from what happens for motorcycles’.”

The Bicycle Association chairman also stresses that the Department hasn’t followed the usual process for modifying types of vehicles. He says they would typically read all the published material about the proposed type of vehicle, then perform off-road tests with many varieties of it, and finally on-road tests, in an exhaustive undertaking. “Why would this one particular thing evade that regular process?” he asks.

Multiple stakeholders tell The House that the consultation appeared “out of the blue”. Critics say they cannot identify any politician pushing for the changes, but several sources point the finger at a particular adviser as the alleged driving force behind them, with one describing this person as “extremely pushy about getting this through”. The DfT declined to comment on that accusation. 

Instead, a spokesperson said: “We want everyone to be able to travel how they want and this consultation aims to make e-cycles more accessible by making it easier to ride up hills – especially for people with reduced mobility.

“Safety is always at the heart of any decisions made around e-cycles and the results of the consultation will be published in due course.”

“I can see why this category is needed. I just don’t think lumping it in with bicycles is the right way forward”

But even e-bike manufacturers are not on board. “We think this is a bad idea,” Julian Scriven, managing director of Brompton Bikes, recently told the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking. 

“There is a standard for electric bikes. Originally a European standard, it has been adopted almost globally,” he said. “If we were tomorrow to switch to 500W motors in the UK, we would need a different level of certification for those bikes. So, immediately we would remove ourselves from what is currently, effectively, the global standard.”

From a manufacturer’s perspective, particularly one that exports most of its bikes, Scriven added: “It would be incredibly unlikely that we would build a bike certified just for the UK market. It takes 19 engineers five years to develop a bike. The cost of doing it for the single UK market is not practical.” This would leave a gap in the market and encourage the “grey market”, he said.

Although positive respondents to the consultation are more difficult to find than objectors, they do exist. Lime, a shared e-bike and e-scooter operator, is one. “This will facilitate continued investment and innovation in UK micro mobility services and allow providers to… cater for more rider preferences, abilities and journey types,” reads Lime’s submission, which The House has seen in full.

Lime argues that more powerful e-bikes would be “more attractive to users who are less physically fit and able”, thus promoting their use more widely, bringing environmental and mental health benefits. Research by Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, counters that the biggest barrier to cycling is not the need to pedal but safety and, for those on low incomes, access to a bike.

The e-bike hire company also says the legalisation and regulation of 500W bikes would “help tackle the illegal market of converted e-bikes”; in other words, e-bikes with increased power and throttle assist already exist illegally, and these changes could help undermine that market of unsafe bikes. 

ebikes
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Manufacturers like Brompton are sceptical, however, and believe legalisation would actually increase the number of unsafe products in the market, as outlined earlier. Others also reason that e-bikes with 500W motors are likely to be more expensive than current ones, which could encourage users to source cheaper, unsafe batteries.

One might think there is a risk of a backlash against Lime if the changes were to go ahead, but the firm is not very worried by that possibility. A change in vehicle type would not affect current public concerns around Lime, which are mainly around poor parking practices and density of the dockless bikes (their tendency to pile up and block pavements is widely criticised).

More importantly, Lime points out that its hired vehicles are subject to rules and regulations that privately owned ones are not. This is currently more evident with e-scooters – to which the higher-powered e-bikes have been compared – for which riders must be 18 or over, hold at least a provisional driving licence and in London undergo mandatory education on safe riding. Lime can also ban irresponsible riders and says it works with local authorities on geofencing, giving them the ability to further reduce the speed of vehicles in some areas.

Another supporter of these EAPC reforms is Pedal Me, an electric cargo bike courier in London that prides itself on reducing carbon emissions and accessing spaces other vehicles cannot. At a Cycling and Walking APPG meeting last month, co-founder Ben Knowles said he “can’t see the benefit to most users” of throttle assistance up to 15.5mph but did make a case for 500W motors for cargo bike deliveries. 

“We employ staff of a wide range of fitness when they start working for us,” Knowles told parliamentarians. “The greater the amount of e-assist available to us, the wider pool of people would be able to work for us. It would make employment in the sector more inclusive.” He added that more hilly areas of London like Highgate require a high level of fitness with e-bikes as they are now.

The MP chairing the meeting, Trudy Harrison, a former transport minister who enjoys riding e-bikes herself, was not convinced. Asked by The House about the need to make going uphill easier, she replies: “Absolute rubbish. I have got a Ribble AL e, which allows me up to 250W. I live in the Lake District and I would say that the level one, which is more like 75 watts of power, is absolutely adequate for most of the passes in the Lake District National Park.”

Harrison is opposed to the proposals. “I can see why this category is needed. I just don’t think lumping it in with bicycles is the right way forward,” she says. 

“You’ve got two options. If you need to create a new category of motor vehicle, which is what these things are, you either introduce something that is smaller and less powered than the car or motorbike, or you increase what is currently a pedal-powered bicycle. 

“I think DfT have gone for the wrong option in choosing to uprate cycles rather than create that new category. It’s probably going to be a useful vehicle, a more environmentally friendly vehicle, but nonetheless, a motor vehicle – not a bicycle.”

With more powerful e-bikes, the MP adds: “You need your braking uprated, your steering uprated, your suspension uprated, and most importantly the capability of the person controlling this vehicle uprated.”

“It’s not like, say, a fire started by a cigarette... It’s like somebody pouring petrol, almost”

One of the most frequently cited arguments against the suggested measures is that of the slippery slope: calls for compulsory helmets, number plates and licences would increase, cyclists say. “Studies throughout the world have shown that if you make helmets mandatory, it cuts trips by bike at least by 10 per cent for years to come,” says Darnton of the Bicycle Association.

He is likely right to suspect such demands would follow: already, in the Transport edition of The House, former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Hogan-Howe calls for “similar accountability for cyclists that exists for motor vehicles”.

Perhaps the strongest case against the reforms comes from the fire services. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has attended 48 e-bike fires so far this year, in just four and a half months. It is a growing problem: the figure was 87 for the entirety of 2022 and 155 for 2023. 

At least 40 per cent of such fires in 2023 were believed to have involved a converted e-bike and at least 77 per cent the failure of the bike’s battery. And these are the numbers they can confirm; they say the fires are so intense that they cannot always determine the cause. 

This is bad news for the DfT’s proposals: the bigger the motor, in all likelihood, the bigger the battery, and the bigger the fire.

“The challenge for us is because people keep these things in their homes, sadly, they tend to be on exit routes,” says the LFB’s assistant commissioner for fire safety, Charlie Pugsley. “We’ve had some quite graphic footage of rescues in London where people have been hanging out windows by fingertips. It’s really quite shocking.”

At least 41 per cent of e-bikes in fire incidents in 2023 are believed to have been on charge at the time and these fires tend to be the most severe. “It’s not like, say, a fire started by a cigarette, where the speed of the fire’s development is generally fairly predictable. It’s like somebody pouring petrol, almost. It can be really quite sudden and very intense.” 

Six minutes is normally the response target in London, he adds, and usually by then a fire has built by a factor of two or three levels. But with an e-bike? “It’s likely to be a much higher level of development in the same period of time, so generally the risk our crews are facing is higher.”

Firefighters are adapting to these risks and raising awareness of safety precautions (never charge your e-bike next to an exit route and always use the correct charger, they warn). The LFB still has “significant concerns” over the proposed changes to e-bikes, however, and keenly awaits the government’s product safety review.

“If you’re going to introduce more powerful options that potentially have more engines that could start bigger fires, at least have a better idea of the risks,” says Pugsley. Iain Stewart MP similarly says the priority of the Transport Select Committee, which he chairs, is clarity on all the regulations.

Will anything come of the consultation? Officials are expected to present the minister with advice and options by 19 July, and it would be September before the minister is in a position to decide on the proposals. 

The reforms could go ahead under secondary legislation before a general election, but some suspect they will be kicked into the long grass. As one critic points out, the DfT still hasn’t responded to a consultation on pavement parking from 2020.

So, why have these highly controversial reforms been put forward at all? “There’s maybe a lack of time we have for making legislative progress, because the Future of Transport Bill with all its many measures isn’t happening,” says Harrison.

“I recognise that the likes of Amazon and the delivery companies quite rightly want to move to a more environmentally friendly method of distributing their goods in urban areas, and there’s definitely a role for zero-emission light vehicles to do that. 

“But I don’t think potentially damaging the already struggling perception of cyclists is the way to do it.”

The Conservative MP concludes: “I haven’t heard a single colleague in my party or any other who is supportive of this. If we put as much effort and political capital into encouraging more people to walk and cycle, wouldn’t we be in a happy place?” 


The London Fire Brigade's #ChargeSafe campaign advises e-bike users to:

  • Never block your escape route with anything, including e-bikes and e-scooters
  • Always use the correct charger, and buy an official one from a reputable seller
  • Do not attempt to modify or tamper with your battery – always follow the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Converting pedal bikes into e-bikes using DIY kits bought online can be very dangerous – they can pose a higher risk of fire – so get a professional or competent person to carry out the conversion
  • Check your battery and charger meets UK safety standards – check the item displays a UKCA or CE mark that ensures that the products meet UK and EU safety, health or environmental requirements – and if buying online, buy from a UK supplier
  • Watch out for signs that the battery or charger aren’t working as they should – eg if the battery is hot to the touch or has changed shape

 

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