WATCH: Toronto's surge in e-bike ownership creates concerns over safety

Toronto's latest transportation trend shows remarkable potential in helping to solve the city's need to move people, clear gridlock, and curb pollution.

Electric scooters and electric-assisted bicycles have for years zipped along busy streets in big cities across Europe and Asia and are now becoming a more common sight in urban areas of the GTA.

The findings of NEWSTALK 1010's investigation highlight concerns, though, that the growing popularity of these vehicles has become a blind spot for lawmakers and puts commuters at risk.

The Unregulated Ride: Toronto's Surge in E-Bike Ownership brings into the spotlight some of the issues connected to what could be a major shift in how Toronto moves.

A narrowing gap between 'e-bike' and electric motorcycle

Tour the showroom floors of some retailers in Toronto, and you'll find electric scooters that are styled after the latest sport motorcycles from Japan, or vintage cafe racers that summon memories of classic Hollywood films.

Gone are the days of battery-powered mopeds that offer limited options in terms of range and design.

The performance of so-called 'e-bikes' that are capturing a greater share of the commuting public's dollar are starting to match their motorcycle-inspired looks.

These vehicles are becoming faster, more durable, more maneuverable, and more like their gasoline-powered cousins.

Big gains in electric motor and battery technology are fueling demand in a surging market.

Safety advocates argue Ontario's traffic laws haven't kept up with the changes.

"I don't think today's level of speed or this type of vehicle was envisioned when the discussions (regarding possible regulations) around e-bikes started about 7 years ago," says Ontario Safety League President Brian Patterson.

"Back then, we were talking about 'power-assisted bicycles,' not electronic crotch-rockets."

Its possible that the feature that makes these scooters so affordable and accessible might also make some models hazardous, depending on who is behind the handlebars.

This is what Ontario's law says about e-bikes

Ontario's Highway Traffic Act is written so that as long as an electric scooter or electric bicycle has:

- Working pedals

- An electric motor with 500 watts of power or less

- A weight of no more than 120kg

Along with a top speed of 32km/h, then it meets the definition of a 'power-assisted bicycle.'

In other words, just like a regular bicycle, the rider is not required to have a motorcycle license, valid insurance, or have their vehicle registered with the Transportation Ministry to ride their e-bike on roads and streets.

Highway use is not permitted.

The rider must also wear a helmet, although the law states that it must be made to the standard of a bicycle helmet, rather than one designed to withstand the impact of a collision on a motorcycle.

There's no license or registration required to ride an e-bike

The law in Ontario says that as long as an electric bike or scooter is not capable of traveling faster than 32km/h, has working pedals, and meets certain weight and battery capacity limits, it is legal to ride on the street without any form of operator license or license plate.

According to Toronto Police, because these vehicles do not meet Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard legislation, they are not eligible to be registered with the Ministry of Transportation.

That means that as the rules are written, if an e-bike breaks the 32km/h maximum speed threshold, it becomes a motorcycle under the law.

However, because the vehicle does not adhere to Canadian safety regulations, there is no way to keep it legal for the street.

"These vehicles are changing on an almost daily basis," says Const. Clint Stibbe of the Toronto Police Traffic Services branch.

"The legislation has struggled to keep up with it."

Stibbe points out that the enforcement 'infrastructure' isn't in place to support a licensing and registration regime on e-bikes, similar to those surrounding motorcycles.

He warns the cost of putting together such a system would be an expensive public project.

Stibbe points out there are penalties for modifying e-bikes, like removing the pedals that qualify it as a 'power assisted bicycle' under the law.

He adds that an e-bike rider is under many of the same rules as the operator of any other type of motor vehicle, and that between the Highway Traffic Act and the Criminal Code of Canada, there are still legal means to prosecute an e-bike rider in the event of a collision.

E-bike technology is getting better

Thanks to the development of cheaper, more efficient, and more powerful electric motors and batteries, these scooters are not only capable of covering longer trips on a single charge, but they're also reaching higher speeds than ever before.

Vassili Kokkinias was once an engineer in the aviation industry but now is the co-owner of Green Choice Moto, on Danforth Ave.

He says sales are growing as more customers look to electric bike and scooters are a viable mainstream alternative to their gas-powered vehicle, or even public transit.

Kokkinias believes the growth of this market in Toronto can be a good thing for a city that's in the midst of a transportation crunch.

"It reduces traffic congestion, it reduces the space needed for parking, and it reduces pollutions," he says.

"Those are benefits that accrue to everyone, not just the person who rides."

A gap in the rules

Over the course of this investigation, NEWSTALK 1010 found retailers in Toronto offering some models of electric scooters capable of traveling up to 60km/h -- roughly double the mandated maximum speed of a 'power-assisted bicycle' in Ontario.

While there are many models that fall short of this threshold, the ones that cross it are selling quickly.

It presents a scenario where a customer can walk into a showroom to purchase an e-bike, and ride off into the street on a vehicle that looks like a motorcycle, handles like a motorcycle, weighs roughly 70 percent of a motorcycle, and can travel about as fast as a motorcycle in city traffic.

They can do so with no license and no training on how operate the vehicle and share the road safely.

One of the sales associates at Green Choice Moto showed NEWSTALK 1010 their newest model; one that instantly became a hot seller.

The look is modeled after a sport motorcycle and, according to this employee, is capable of speeds up to 60km/h, depending on the rider's weight.

Kokkinias says that while he and his staff do their best to ensure that buyers leave their store with safety instructions and the required head protection, it is up to the user to keep within the 32km/h limit.

Still, Kokkinias insists he supports regulations.

"I think people would find a huge benefit and require a plate on the e-bike as well as a basic requirement for a license (for the rider,)" he says.

"I don't think our customers will have a problem with that, in fact I think they would embrace it."

Some players in the e-bike industry complain that irresponsible retailers that do not put safety first could ruin their reputation and prevent e-bikes from being seen as a viable, mainstream alternative to commuting by motorcycle, by car, and even by public transit.

"Its a problem in this industry," says Nick Maalouf of Toronto-based Daymak Inc.

His company is a leading distributor of electric bikes and scooters, along with other electric-powered vehicles.

"The small shops that don't abide by the rules are giving the rest of us a bad rep," he says.

Daymak has 200 dealers across Canada and a showroom and service centre in North York.

There are hundreds of e-bikes for customers to choose from and Maalouf insists that not one leaves the parking lot without conforming completely to the definition of a 'power-assisted bicycle.'

He adds that the company is dedicated promoting safety.

Maalouf says business is booming and his ambition is to ramp up production in Canada, rather than relying on assembly and parts imported from China.

"Support from the government would be nice ... there's not a lot of financing available for our industry in Canada," he says.

"I don't even think we're on their radar or that the government knows we (as a sector of the economy) exist," says Maalouf, "we're trying to knock on the door but we're so small that they don't give us that much time."

E-bikes are affordable to own and ride

This advantage to e-bike ownership is undeniable, especially when compared to commuting on a motorcycle.

The gap in cost starts at the showroom and grows from there.

E-bike retailers in Toronto can sell customers a brand-new, well-equipped bike or scooter for about the cost of a used motorcycle -- often anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000, depending on the options and upgrades chosen.

Used e-bikes can sell for much less.

A new motorcycle from a dealership can cost well over $10,000, by the time taxes and fees are added to the purchase price.

When it comes to fuel, motorcycle riders in Ontario are grappling the highest gasoline prices they've seen since 2014.

For e-bike riders, while the rising cost of hydro electricity is likely to be a key issue in this June's provincial election, the average e-bike costs pocket change to recharge.

One retailer estimates it takes 18-25 cents worth of hydro per charge, depending on the model of the vehicle and the age of the battery.

These batteries can be charged overnight from a household power outlet and a typical downtown commuter might only need to recharge it once or twice per week.

Insurance doesn't factor into the cost equation for e-bike riders but motorcycle riders have to be insured to use public roads.

Data from the General Insurance Statistical Agency for 2016 shows the average premium for motorcycles in Ontario was just under $1,000 per year.

Reliable information can be tough to find

There's no strong industry association or advocacy group that speaks on behalf of the manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, and suppliers that serve the needs of Canada's growing e-bike market.

That makes it difficult to find accurate assessments of how much money e-bikes are worth to the Canadian economy.

Research is scarce, and some retailers are reluctant to discuss their sales results and forecasts.

The players involved admit that so far it has been difficult to find consensus in a sector of the economy that is relatively small but rapidly growing.

Some express concerns that there are differing visions of where best practices and standards should take the future of the e-bike business.

There's also a sense that some people with a stake in the business are reluctant to move toward regulations that might increase costs, or discourage customers.

Vassili Kokkinias says its pushback he experienced when he approached some of his peers in the e-bike industry about the idea of lobbying the government.

"Their response was 'don't rock the boat, just leave it the way it is,'" he says.

Kokkinias says the typical attitude was: "if the government wants to sleep, let them sleep."

Others say that presenting a united front will help e-bikes take 'the next step' toward becoming a mainstream transportation option in Canada.

"I think eventually (e-bikes) will need to be registered somehow," says Daymak's Nick Maalouf.

"There will be so many units out there that theft becomes a problem and you'll want to track ... what belongs to who."

On Wednesday's instalment of The Unregulated Ride: Toronto's Surge in E-Bike Ownership, reporter Siobhan Morris catches up with a company that trains aspiring motorcycle riders how to share the roads safely.