The Public Works Committee has put the brakes on a proposal to allow electric scooters in bike lanes.
A city staff report released last week recommended changing by-laws to permit e-scooters in painted on-road bike lanes, but not on separated cycle tracks or off-road trails.
The idea angered many riders of traditional bikes who say the heavier, faster electric scooters are a hazard when they mix with cyclists.
In a four-to-two vote Thursday, councillors decided to defer the recommendation until the provincial and federal governments clear up the murky legal status of electric bicycles, which fall somewhere between pedal-powered bikes and small motorcycles.
"We need to make sure that the bike lanes - which is the safe place for cyclists on the road - are protected," said Councillor Mike Layton, who moved the motion to defer.
"Until the province and the federal government get their act together, this is an example of technology outpacing public policy. We need to get on top of it."
Current legislation governing e-bikes is confusing.
The major problem, according to city staff, is that federal and provincial laws don't recognize that there are two distinct types of e-bikes: a pedelec, which is a motor-assisted vehicle that closely resembles a regular bike; and an e-scooter, a larger vehicle that is akin to a small motorcycle and can be operated without pedaling.
Both are considered "power-assisted bicycles" under federal regulations.
Ontario's Highway Traffic Act considers power-assisted bikes to be bicycles, meaning e-bike riders don't require a license and must follow the same rules as cyclists. But by setting a maximum weight of 120 kg and top motor speed of 32 km/h, the act allows e-scooters to be much larger and quicker then traditional bikes.
And unlike the federal rules, the provincial act stipulates that power-assisted bicycles must be "capable of being propelled solely by muscular power." This has caused confusion because e-scooters have pedals, but on most models they can't effectively propel the vehicle.
Both types of e-bikes are currently prohibited by city bylaws from riding in bike lanes. But the committee voted Thursday to allow pedelecs to go wherever regular bicycles are permitted, pending council approval at its meeting next month.
The sticking point is e-scooters, which Jared Kolb of Cycle Toronto says are "neither fish nor fowl." Because they can only go up to 32 km/h, they're not fast enough to travel with car traffic but they conflict with slower, lighter cyclists when they're pushed to the side of the road.
Kolb initially supported the idea of allowing e-scooters into bike lanes as a reasonable compromise to keep scooter riders safe. But after hearing from his organization's members he now says he wants "greater clarity" from the province and federal government about how the vehicles should operate.
"We still think that that definition of a pedal-assisted bicycle is just too general," he said. "By allowing scooters into bike lanes, we potentially solve one problem while creating another. I think this is the prudent course of action that we've taken today."
Kolb suggests that a possible solution would be to raise the 32 km/h speed cap on the vehicles to allow them to travel as fast as cars, which would enable them to stay out of bike lanes.
Doug Beatty, president of the Toronto Electric Riders Association, calls that idea "the stupidest thing in the entire world."
Allowing e-scooters to go faster would likely necessitate licensing riders, forcing them to carry insurance, and modifying the vehicle design. That would defeat the purpose of e-scooters, Beatty says, which is to provide a less expensive, safe and environmentally friendly alternative to motor vehicles.
"If you're going to do that, buy a motorcycle. Get a diesel Vespa," Beatty said.
Public Works chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong opposed the decision to defer. He believes e-scooters should be allowed in bike lanes because their riders need to be protected from cars, just like cyclists.
"If the cyclists are arguing for more safety and more bike lanes, there's no reason why they should not accept another similar mode of transportation," he said. "What they say is ‘share the road.' Well they're getting bicycle lanes, they should be able to share their space as well."
He warned that other levels of government were unlikely to respond quickly to the committee's request to review the status of e-bikes.
"My concern is that the province will not make a change very quickly, and that we'll still be in an area where a decision will not be made," he said.
While the city awaits a response from Ottawa and Queen's Park, it's unlikely that much will change much on Toronto's roads. Scooter riders often travel in bike lanes already, and the bylaw against it is rarely enforced.
It's not known how many e-scooters there are in the city, but estimates range from 15,000 to 30,000.