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Draft bylaw in Whitehorse seeks to encourage e-bike use

E-bikes may have a motor, but a proposed Whitehorse bylaw could soon recognize them as bicycles, with full freedom to use cycling trails. The draft bylaw's aim is to "encourage and legitimize," the technology, says the city's trails coordinator.

Proposed bylaw would welcome some e-bikes on city's cycling trails, but restrict more powerful models

E-bikes are defined by Transport Canada as being able to assist a rider achieve maximum speeds of 32 km/h. That category of vehicle would be welcome on City of Whitehorse cycling trails, says a proposed bylaw. (Markus Mainka/Shutterstock)

The City of Whitehorse's department of parks and trails is seeking to "encourage and legitimize," the use of e-bikes, by recommending a bylaw which would welcome them onto all city cycling trails. 

It would also consider most e-bikes as bicycles when it comes to use on roads.

Last week, department staff presented a draft of a proposed bylaw to city council and senior management. 

The department cites the city's transport survey as having found majority support for allowing e-bikes alongside regular bicycles on all city trails. 

E-bikes are electrically powered bicycles that still have pedals but also contain a rechargeable battery. Whitehorse retailers said last summer that sales of e-bikes were surging, as has been the case across Canada. 

The city's draft bylaw comes a few months after the Yukon government first offered a subsidy on e-bikes with the aim to promote the technology as an alternative to automotive commuting and to help fight climate change.

Sales of e-bikes have been surging across Canada, including in Yukon. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Meagan Wilson is projects and trails coordinator for the city. She says e-bikes do have a place in the city's transit plan, but says there has been a lack of clarity as to the relatively new technology.

"As it stands right now they're considered motorized vehicles. This [bylaw] would encourage people, and legitimize their use," she said.

Some limits considered on more powerful models 

The proposed bylaw would set some limits, however those would not affect most riders. 

Transport Canada currently defines e-bikes as having a maximum engine power of 500 watts and sets a top speed for assistance at 32 km/h — meaning the engine cannot run when the bike reaches or exceeds that speed.

According to the draft bylaw, the City of Whitehorse would share this definition and relegate anything more powerful to certain trails designed for motorized vehicles, in a similar way that all-terrain vehicles are regulated.

Bicycle retailers in Whitehorse currently sell only e-bikes which do not exceed Transport Canada's definition, and therefore would be allowed on roads and trails.

Some motorsport retailers in Whitehorse do sell electric motorcycles which do not have pedals and whose engine power exceeds 500 watts. These would not be considered bicycles under the bylaw.

Wilson says that category of vehicle can create a safety risk on trails given their higher speed. She also cites potential environmental damage such as tires creating ruts in the city's unpaved cycling trails.

Fines for operating a restricted e-bike in a non-permitted area would be set at $100 by the city.

Cycling advocate welcomes move

Brian Pincott, executive director of Velo Canada Bikes, a national advocacy group for Canadian cyclists, agrees with banning higher-powered e-bikes from designated cycling trails.

"They're not common and quite frankly nobody wants them on the trails. You talk to the mountain bike guys and [e-bikes] chew up the trails like you wouldn't believe," he said. 

As more e-bikes are sold, Pincott says more municipalities should be encouraging their use and clarifying rules. 

He thinks Whitehorse's proposed bylaw is moving in the right direction.

"It removes barriers that some people experience riding a bike. It opens up the possibilities to more and more people. People who are older get access to exploring their communities and getting around with an electric bike that they just wouldn't have with a non-assisted bike," he said.

The proposed city bylaw would also require helmets, brakes and lights on all e-bikes, and limit certain modifications such as homemade ways to boost power or circumvent maximum speed limiters.

The proposal doesn't mean a bylaw will be adopted. A final version of the bylaw would still require a vote from city council in the spring.

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