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Washington State laws governing electric bicycles are changing

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Starting this summer, many e-bikes will be allowed to ride on the sidewalk

As electric-assist bikes become more widely available through bike-sharing companies, Washington State is poised to make some major changes to laws governing the vehicles. The biggest one: In most cases, the state is nixing its laws that kept e-bikes off the sidewalk.

Bikes that can be assisted above 20 miles per hour—now known as “Class 3” electric bikes—will still be banned from the sidewalk, and riders will need to be 16 to operate them.

“Class 1” electric bikes, which pedal-assist up to 20 miles per hour, and “Class 2” electric bikes, which can be motor-propelled up to 20 miles per hour, won’t have age restrictions and will be allowed on the sidewalk, unless local laws prohibit it. The pedal-assisted bikes operated by Limebike would be considered Class 1, since they pedal-assist up to 15 miles per hour.

The new laws also lay out clear labeling guidelines for the bikes. Starting this July, manufacturers will have to clearly label which class each bike falls into with a label “permanently affixed” in a “prominent location.”

The bipartisan bill creating the new regulations passed out of the Washington State Legislature this session, and takes effect on June 7.

Of course, bike sharing isn’t the only way commuters in hilly Seattle encounter e-bikes; the assist makes a hilly commute easier and more accessible, especially for people that have to share cargo. And with biking in Seattle still carrying a certain amount of danger—237 bicycle-involved crashes in the past few years were serious or fatal, according to a city safety analysis—riding on a sidewalk is sometimes a safer alternative to taking your chances in the street.

Former Washington State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald argued in Crosscut that the law still comes at a compromise to pedestrian safety: “Pedestrians have long had reason to worry about the risk of getting nailed by cars in crosswalks,” wrote MacDonald. “What’s new this year, however, is that Olympia has made your Seattle sidewalks into all-out bikeways for the newest hottest thing on two wheels: 20 mile-per-hour top speed, battery-boosted, electric-assist bikes.”

Seattle Bike Blog presented a counterargument on Twitter: Both pedestrians and cyclists, electric-assisted or no, are both put in the greatest danger by cars.

“I also believe in a Seattle where nobody feels they need to bike on the sidewalk to get where they are going safely,” read a Twitter thread posted in response to the article. “That’s why I work for a safe and connected bike lanes. Build a connected network of bike lanes and we can talk about a sidewalk biking ban.”