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COVID-19 Drives E-Bike Sales and Pilot Program in Toronto

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

June 23, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted transportation patterns in cities across Ontario. In Toronto, for instance, TTC ridership has plummeted to 20 per cent of the norm, and there is no guarantee that ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels even once the public health crisis has subsided. Indeed, in light of physical distancing imperatives, Toronto urban planners have warned that COVID-19 could reverse progressive pre-pandemic planning policies geared toward higher density neighbourhoods, public transit use, and decreased reliance on private cars.

However, between bulky cars and cramped streetcars, there is an increasingly popular, sustainable alternative to urban travel: the electric bicycle. Electric bicycles, or “e-bikes” for short, are bicycles equipped with a small electric motor that assist riders as they pedal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, e-bike sales have shot up throughout North America since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, the City of Toronto recently announced plans to launch an e-bike pilot program introducing 300 e-bikes and 10 e-bike charging stations to select wards throughout the city.

While the popularity of e-biking is clear, the regulatory framework attaching to these hybrid vehicles has been a longstanding source of confusion in Canada. In British Columbia, for example, e-bike advocates were dismayed when a Supreme Court judge recently upheld charges against a man who rode an e-bike without insurance, even though the man argued the law doesn't require it.

Under Ontario law, one does not need insurance to ride a “power-assisted bicycle”, under which most e-bikes fall. However, there is a fine and consequential distinction between “power-assisted bicycles” and “motor-assisted bicycles” (under which, for example, mopeds are captured). To avoid cumbersome licensing and insurance requirements, e-bikes must be carefully manufactured to conform with specific definitional requirements prescribed under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act and Canada’s Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Manufacturers and sellers of e-bikes should take note of the Government of Ontario’s safety and operational requirements. Generally, e-bikes must not weigh more than 120 kg (includes the weight of bike and battery), must be capable of being manually operated, must not exceed a power output greater than 500W and a speed greater than 32 km/h, and must include a permanent label from the manufacturer in both English and French stating that the e-bike conforms to the federal definition of a power-assisted bicycle.

If the current trend continues and e-bikes become commonplace, one should expect still more regulatory controls, and still more debate over their proper application.

Author: Luke Devine


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