Unsure how to navigate around these new road users? We’ve decoded these devices to keep you up to date, and safe on the road.
Defining the device
Electric devices offer expanded travel ranges, are highly portable, and emission-free. These zippy rides are a new way to get around cities and come in a variety of options. Electric bikes look like their pedal-powered cousin, featuring a seat, handlebars, and two wheels, paired with an electric motor to deliver assisted pedal strokes. Toronto's municipal by-laws classify these as "pedelecs."
Electric scooters bear a resemblance to small motorcycle or Vespa-style scooters, but trade gas for batteries to move. Sometimes called e-bikes, these electric scooters go faster than their pedelec counterparts, posing more of a risk to other road users. Electric scooters aren't self-propelled at all, using a throttle and brake on the handlebars to accelerate and decelerate.
The last category is for the electric kick-style scooter, a two-wheeled option without a seat. Rather than pedal, the user must push off with their foot, much like how a skateboard is powered. Handles are atop a longer centre tube, while the wheels are much smaller than a bicycle, measuring in at a maximum diameter of 17 centimetres.
Device choice is up to the user, as each option offers different benefits. Pedelecs and electric kick-style scooters are more portable, while electric scooters offer longer ranges and more comfortable rides. For some, this may be a defining characteristic. Commuters may opt for a speedier, portable option, while delivery drivers may look for longer ranges and carrying capacity.
Riding by the rules
Ontario regulates the three categories of electric bikes and scooters very differently. The province began a five-year pilot program to test kick-style electric scooters, outlining operating protocols for users. This includes a maximum operating speed of 24 km/h, a maximum scooter weight of 45 kg, and an operator age of 16 years or older. Riders under the age of 18 require a helmet, and passengers aren't allowed. Ontario has left it up to municipalities to pass a by-law allowing the kick-style scooters, causing quite a stir in council chambers. Toronto has yet to pass one, prohibiting the devices, while Ottawa has launched a pilot program.
Electric bicycles and kick style scooters are allowed to use the road the same as standard bicycles, and are governed by Ontario's Highway Traffic Act. Rules include using cycle tracks, road lanes, multi-use trails while staying off sidewalks and equipping the device with front and backlights, as well as a bell.
Electric scooters are treated little differently, however. Municipalities require the speedier scooters to use road lanes like a regular vehicle, banning them from multi-use trails and cycle tracks. Both provincial and municipal governments have specific regulations related to cargo carrying capacity (electric scooters can transport, while pedelecs and kick-style scooters cannot). Note that none of the three devices require a driver's licence to operate.
Courtesy and safety
There’s a lot of regulatory overlap between the different device categories, and it’s recommended that all users do their research before heading out with a new device. Keeping safety and courtesy top of mind is our recommended operating principle.
While provincial regulations don't mandate helmets for pedelec and kick style scooter users over 18, it’s always a great idea to protect your head with a properly fitting helmet. For electric scooter users, a helmet is required. Given the higher speeds, wearing closed-toe footwear is also a great idea.
In cities that have approved kick-style scooters, organizations like Bird and Lime are moving in with their shared ownership model. Users can rent kick style scooters for as long as they like. Using a dockless model, scooters can be left wherever they complete their trip, although cities remind users to park with courtesy. Some scooters have been left in the middle of sidewalks, prohibiting other pedestrians — particularly those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices — from travelling through. Accessibility concerns have been such an issue that Montreal cancelled their scooter sharing program, banning the devices for the rest of 2020 after only 20% of scooters were correctly parked.
If you're trying out an electric device for the first time, practice in a safe area, like an empty parking lot. With faster speeds than a typical bike, electric options can quickly lead to collisions if users aren't used to the braking system. Stay predictable in traffic, obeying the Highway Traffic Act and local municipal by-laws. Other road users may not anticipate the higher speeds of travel, so signal appropriately, making your travel intentions clear.
The commuter landscape is changing rapidly, and trends predict a continued investment in alternative transportation options. Knowing your options and how to safely navigate your neighbourhood is key to an enjoyable ride — one that may be faster, thanks to an electric boost!