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E-Bikes vs. E-Scooters: Differences, Similarities, and Rules of the Road

Person commuting on e-scooter

Commuting by two wheels is more popular in urban areas than ever before thanks to developing infrastructure, economic and environmental factors, and new technology. Even those with longer, more challenging commutes around the San Francisco Bay Area can enjoy the open road with the help of electric-assisted bicycles and scooters. 

Having an extra push on your ride is the main attraction of e-bikes and e-scooters, but the two differ in several ways. Even the law applies differently to the two modes of transportation in some instances. 

Which option is right for you? It may come down to personal preference and what you prioritize on a ride. Here’s what you need to know about the two options.

What’s an E-Bike?

An electric bicycle (e-bike) is a bicycle that is equipped with an electric motor to help the bicycle travel faster and give it more power. There are various kinds of e-bikes — some are equipped with a hand throttle, while others have pedal assistance. E-bikes can travel between 20 mph and 28 mph. 

California law defines an e-bike as having operable pedals as well as a motor of less than 750 watts, and categorizes them in three ways: 

  • Class 1: Provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph
  • Class 2: Operates via pedal-assist or throttle and ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 mph
  • Class 3: Provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed of 28 mph

It’s important to know the class of e-bike you’re using because laws may differ. With variances in classes from state to state, it may not be clear from the manufacturer which category applies to the e-bike. A bike shop may be able to help best identify the class if needed.

What’s an E-Scooter?

When it comes to motorized rides, there are a lot of options. Motorcycles are defined as having two wheels and an engine size larger than 150 cc, while a “motor-driven cycle” is defined as having 149 cc or less. Both require motorcycle licenses. 

An e-scooter, however, is defined by the California DMV as having “two wheels, a motor, handlebars, and a floorboard that you can stand on while riding it.”

An e-scooter doesn’t require any sort of specialized driver’s license to operate — just a valid driver’s license — and doesn’t need to be registered like motorcycles and other motorized two-wheel vehicles do. 

While the state doesn’t currently require a license to operate an e-bike, that may change in the future. A 2023 bill seeks to require a license and training.  

Same, But Different

When it comes to motorized options, e-scooters and e-bikes are more similar than they are different. Neither require registration of a driver’s license, and you may be able to drive each along the same routes in some cases. 

Prior to 2016, e-bikes across the state were considered to be more similar to mopeds, but as popularity has grown so have regulations and classification. Many of the same rules and regulations that now apply to e-bikes also apply to e-scooters. 

Youth helmet law: For riders 17 years and younger, helmets are required on e-bikes and e-scooters. Class 3 e-bike riders of any age are also required to wear a helmet. 

Bike lanes: Both e-bike riders and e-scooter riders should occupy a bike lane when possible and avoid riding on sidewalks, which is a violation of the California traffic code. There is one caveat here — under the California traffic code, local authorities have the power to restrict e-scooter access to bike lanes (CVC §21230).  This means if a local government doesn’t allow e-scooter users to ride on bikeways, trails, or bicycle lanes, then e-scooters users must comply with those laws.

No insurance required: Neither option is obligated to obtain insurance like a vehicle or motorcycle driver, but it may be more likely that an e-scooter operator has some sort of auto insurance policy because a regular driver’s license is required by law. 

Passengers: No passengers are allowed on either an e-bike or e-scooter. 

License plates: Neither require a license plate because the state doesn’t maintain that e-bikes and e-scooters need to be registered.  

What’s the Difference?

Besides looking much different and e-bikes offering an operator to sit while commuting, there are other ways they differ from e-scooters. 

Max speed: E-scooters, by definition, only travel at about 15 mph, while e-bikes can hit a high speed of 28 mph (for Class 3 e-bikes only). This means that if you’re traveling long distances, it might be helpful to opt for an e-bike with its additional power and comfort. 

Traffic laws: E-scooters must follow all vehicle traffic laws, even though they are permitted to travel in bike lanes when available. This means that the California DUI law is also applicable to e-scooter operators. E-bikes are now permitted on many bikeways across the state, but it’s best to check local rules, as they may vary by municipality. Lawmakers are also seeking to update laws and regulations for e-bikes, so stay in the know and update your riding routine accordingly. 

Finding the right option

At the end of the day, choosing between an e-scooter and and e-bike will depend on how far and how fast you want to travel and what you are most comfortable with. 

Consider the differences in laws and regulations between the two. While operators are subject to many of the same rules, the differences may help you make a final decision. 

For e-bike riders, many local and state organizations help to lobby, advocate, and educate cyclists. CalBike, for example, lists a full page of e-bike resources on its website. E-scooter groups can be more difficult to come by, but meet-ups and group rides are available in many regions.