You are probably visiting here because you saw my vehicle and wondered: what the heck is that? Enjoy the content below and if you have questions send me an email. Oh, and thanks for sharing the road with me.
It is a low speed electric bicycle
Technically it is a two-seat recumbent tricycle with shell enclosure and an electric assist motor powered by a battery that is charged by a solar panel.
In Virginia it is considered a bicycle under this definition:
"Electric power-assisted bicycle" means a vehicle that travels on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground and is equipped with (i) pedals that allow propulsion by human power and (ii) an electric motor with an input of no more than 1,000 watts that reduces the pedal effort required of the rider. Operators must be at least 14 years old or be under the supervision of someone at least 18 years old. An electric power-assisted bicycle shall be considered a vehicle when operated on a highway." VA Code § 46.2-100. Definitions
That means there are no license requirement and it can be legally driven on bicycle lanes, sidewalks and on the shoulder of a highway to pass cars stuck in traffic. For more information: see this VDOT Site
It goes 15 to 25 mph.
The Federal government, through the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has defined this type of vehicle as a "low speed electric bicycle" that is NOT a motor vehicle:
...a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph. [HR 727]
States regulate vehicles and there is some variability in their laws. Virginia, for example, increases the electric motor size to 1000 watts in their definition of an low speed electric bicycle and declares a top speed to 25 mph. However, the federal rules are a minimum:
[Federal regulations] shall supersede any State law or requirement with respect to low-speed electric bicycles to the extent that such State law or requirement is more stringent than the Federal law or requirements. [HR 727]
This vehicle is a bicycle and conforms to the 20 mph federal rule and also the maximum 25 mph Virginia rule and as such can be ridden any place that a bicycle is permitted.
Motor assist is optional and on steep grades without motor assist this vehicle, like any bicycle, can exceed 35 mph. If motor assist is engaged on steep hills the motor acts as a brake preventing one from easily exceeding the 25mph limit for electric-assist bicycles. Although this vehicle could be ridden at any legal speed using pedal power only (since there are no speed limits for bicycles) rudimentary suspension makes 30 mph a practical limit.
The primary benefit of electric assist is that the rider can maintain speed uphill. Electric assist provides no improvement in downhill speed. Average speed moving for long distance rides is 18 to 19 mph. See the "What do you do with it" section for a recording of my typical commuting speeds.
I use it to commute or run errands
I commute from Sterling to Tysons. It has a second seat that is great for giving rides to small people. It has plenty of room to haul a
shopping cart full of groceries.
Here's a map of recent travels that is pretty typical: 17 miles in 56 minutes, 18.2 mph average moving speed.
It is controversial.Some people object to seeing the ELF on shared use pathways like the Washington and Old Dominion trailway for these reasons:
- It is illegal because the sign says "no motorized vehicles" and the ELF has an electric motor.
- It is a dangerous public nuisance because it is too wide, tall, long, heavy, slow, fast, etc.
- It Looks like a damn SUV and mini cars aren't welcome in bike path communities.
1. It is Legal
The Virginia code is pretty clear that electric assist bicycles are regulated like bicycles. The W&OD trail is a multi-use bikeway trail and thus any bicycle (electric assist or not) is permitted to use it.
Virginia defines a shared use path as a bikeway (see 46.2-100.) Implicit in describing it as a bikeway is that bicycles are permitted to use it. Virginia Code defines two types of bicycles: bicycles and electric-assist bicycles. The Virginia Code sections that mentioned bicycles were recently updated to also include electric-assisted bicycles. This indicates a clear legislative intent to lump all bicycles together for regulatory purposes.
In addition to bicycles of all types, shared use paths are to accommodate "pedestrians, skaters, users of wheel chairs or wheel chair conveyances, joggers, and other nonmotorized users." Careless reading allows the mistaken interpretation that "and other nonmotorized users" phrase as requiring that bicycles, wheel chairs and skaters be nonmotorized.
A more reasoned interpretation is that "other nonmotorized" applies only to vehicles that have not previously been enumerated. Thus electric personal assistive mobility device (e.g. Segways), golf carts, low-speed vehicles, and mopeds are prohibited from trails because they are motorized, but electric wheelchairs and motorized skateboards are permitted even though they are motorized. A four wheel pedal car or a wagon sled pulled by dogs would also be permitted because although not enumerated as permitted vehicles, they are also not motorized.
If the definitions section isn't clear that all bicycles including electric-assisted models can be operated on a shared use path, the legislature explicitly gives permission in § 46.2-903 and § 46.2-904. Virginia Code also specifically declares that "...any device herein defined as a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, or moped shall be deemed not to be a motor vehicle." Therefore road signs or regulations that prohibit motorized vehicles on the W&OD are not referring to electric-assist bicycles, motorized wheelchairs or powered skateboards.
Section 46.2-904 does allow local jurisdictions to prohibit the operation of bicycles or skates in a public area that might normally be shared with pedestrians (like a shared use path.) This statute is worded to offer a choice to disallow skates, bicycles or both but does not allow local jurisdictions to prohibit a sub-category of skate or a sub-category of bicycle such as power-assisted ones. Thus local jurisdictions cannot legally enforce signs such as "No eBikes allowed".
A trail could be converted into a scenic trail and regulated under Virginia Code § 10.1-204 D which restricts traffic on state trails to any combination of “foot, horse, or nonmotorized bicycle use”. Using this law to eliminate electric assisted bicycles on a bike trail would also eliminate many other vehicles such as strollers, skates, wheelchairs, skies, dog sleds, etc.
2. It is Not Dangerous
After seeing an ELF on the W&OD for several months some cycle activists started a discussion on the BikeArlington listserve proposing to make ELF owners stop using shared use paths by cyber-shaming and bullying to accomplish what wasn't possible through legal means. A social media attack was started after failing to convince authorities that they should prohibit an ELF from using the W&OD. The discussion centered around what physical attribute could be used to single out ELFs without also prohibiting other routine users of the trail.
Too Wide: An Elf needs a full width lane. The Federal Highway Administration specifies a minimum width bike lane of 1.5 meters (5 feet) and provides some cases where a 4 foot lane is acceptable. The W&OD seems to meet or exceed the federal specifications in the portions of the path that the ELF is operated. The wheel width of an ELF is 44 inches and the overall body width including fenders is 4 feet. Two ELfs can pass each other on a regulation sized bike path. Cyclists groups that ride in two-by-two formation take up more lane width than an ELF and bike formations are considered acceptable on bike trails.
Too Tall: Trail users complain they can't see over a 5'1" Elf. Two or three pedestrians walking abreast also limit visibility. An ELF has front and rear windows which provides some limited visibility through the vehicle; a pedestrian wall does not have windows.
Too heavy: An ELF is a heavy bicycle but it is in the same ballpark weight as a tandem cycle with two riders. If weight matters because of stopping distance, the weight per tire of a 3-wheeled ELF is less than the weight per tire of many two-wheeled bicycles and has an additional brake. An ELF, unlike a bicycle, will not spill in a panic stop giving the operator a chance to steer clear and maintain braking. If the concern is relative momentum on impact, the ELF has a body that deforms on impact providing a life-saving cushion on head-on impacts that traditional bikes do not provide.
Too Fast: Strava records indicate that top cyclists on that same segment of the W&OD travel at speeds around 27mph compared to 19 for the ELF. There is no speed limit on the W&OD.
Too Slow: Cyclists think they are faster and come from behind to push in front of an ELF at traffic lights and crossings. True, on busier trails bicycles can speed down the path weaving in and out of other traffic and travel much faster than an ELF whose driver will likely be more cautious. However when the path opens up or includes an uphill, those speedy rabbits get subsequently passed by said ELF and their egos are bruised.
Too protected: Because the ELF has a shell protection, the complaint argues that its rider will ride with less concern for the vulnerability of others. This is a similar argument made against other transportation safety improvements such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, and seat belts. This bizarre argument, if true, would be used to force cyclists not to wear helmets in order to protect pedestrians.
3. It is too much....Like a car
After fighting with motorists to share the roads, bicyclists might see the bike path as their oasis. It is understandable that they don't want their status as top dog on the bike path to be demoted by the influx of mini-cars. The purists don't want older and less fit riders to keep up with cyclists in great shape. EBikes threaten the cycling caste system and old-school cyclists do not want to share the bike paths. Change is hard for many but dramatic changes in vehicle style and configuration is not in itself sufficient to prohibit the ELF on the W&OD.
I vehemently oppose ELFs. My ego is way to fragile to handle being passed on hills by people who are barely pedaling in what is more a car than a bicycle. -- anonymous
I bought it from Organic Transit
ELF models range from about $6,000 to $8,000 depending on options selected. I also purchased additional components from other vendors to customize the ELF.
Follow the Organic Transit link for details. Contact me if you live nearby and want a test ride. If you order one tell them you heard about the ELF from Owner #414 and I'll get something shiny and new for my ELF.