Motorized Bicycles

More and more Arizona bicyclists are putting add-on gas or electric motors that allow their bikes to reach legal speeds of up to 20 mph on city streets. The appeal behind these bikes are that riders don’t need a license, registration or insurance to operate a motorized scooter, and building this type of bike is significantly cheaper than operating a car (gas, insurance, registration, etc.) or even riding the bus.

In 2011, there were 89,000 premanufactured electric bikes sold in the United States, according to Pike Research, a clean-technology market-research firm in Boulder, Colo. That was up from 70,000 the year before. It has been predicted that the number will double by 2015. Powered bikes come in a range of types and prices. The lowest-cost option, powered by a lawnmower engine, can be had for the price of a garage-sale bike and a $180 kit. Premade electric bikes sell for an average of $810, according to Pike, while custom models can cost as much as $30,000. Customers can save money by buying batteries and installation kits online and doing the work themselves.

Almost all motorized bikes offer the option of pedaling. Some have a clutch that shifts between pedal and automated power. Some gas-powered models can be fitted with boosters, such as nitrogen tanks, to increase their speed. By federal law, they are considered bicycles as long as they can be pedaled, go slower than 20 mph, and have batteries smaller than 750 watts or engines smaller than 49 cubic centimeters. In Arizona, that means they can legally travel anywhere a regular bike can, which is everywhere: streets, bike lanes and sidewalks. A typical gas-powered bike with a half-gallon tank can go 75 miles. A common battery can last 40 miles at high speeds before it needs to be recharged.

Phoenix traffic engineer Kerry Wilcoxon, who runs the city’s bike program, began noticing powered bikes a couple of years ago. Now he sees them a couple of times a week. He’s worried about the safety implications, but the issue hasn’t risen to the attention yet of the police or City Council. “I’ve seen them on travel lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks,” Wilcoxon said. When powered bikes become numerous enough or there is a bad enough accident, something made more likely by their higher possible speeds, the city may take more notice, he said.

Until then, ride safe!