By PHIL BROWN
The electric bike revolution has begun, whether the Adirondacks are ready or not.
In 2017, some 34 million e-bikes were sold around the world, mostly in Asia and Europe. The newfangled contraptions account for half of the bike sales in China and for 20 percent of the sales in Germany.
The United States has been slower to adopt e-bikes, but that is changing. In 2017, more than 260,000 e-bikes were imported into the country—a 25 percent rise from the prior year.
“The United States is 10 years behind Europe, but we are now mimicking Europe in terms of sales growth,” said Ed Benjamin of eCycleElectric, a consulting firm that follows e-bike trends.
New York is behind some other states in coming to grips with the new technology. Even though bicycle shops throughout the state, including in the Adirondacks, sell e-bikes, it remains illegal to ride them on roads in New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed e-bike legislation, but critics see it as inadequate. Indeed, one observer said it would in effect ban the bikes from the Adirondacks, whose hilly roads and scenery seem tailor-made for e-bike tourism.
E-bikes also are banned on the forest preserve, meaning they can’t share the trails with regular mountain bikes. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has no plans to change the rules, but some people argue that state officials should at least consider the idea.
Legal restrictions notwithstanding, people are already riding e-bikes on roads and forest preserve trails. Evidently, many riders are unaware of the law.
The Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA), which builds and maintains mountain-bike trails, has received numerous reports of e-bikes on the preserve. In a few cases, there have been nasty confrontations between traditional mountain bikers and e-bikers. Jim Grant, a BETA volunteer, once pointed out to a rider on a trail in Wilmington that he was violating the law. The cyclist did not react well. “He said he was going to ride his e-bike up my ass,” Grant recalled.
What are e-bikes?
All e-bikes have electric motors, but most of them still must be pedaled. The motor cuts out when the rider brakes or stops pedaling or if the bike reaches a certain speed. The cyclist is still working, but the motor augments his or her muscle power.
The industry divides e-bikes into three classes:
— CLASS 1. A pedal-assist bike with motors that generate up to 750 watts of power. The motor cuts out at 20 mph.
— CLASS 2. These e-bikes have a throttle and do not need to be pedaled. Again, the motor cuts out at 20 mph.
— CLASS 3. These pedal-assist bikes can reach 28 mph before the motor cuts out. Some Class 3 bikes also have throttles.
In December, the Adirondack Park Agency authorized the use of Class 1 e-bikes on a proposed rail trail that would extend 34 miles from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. The state’s original plan to build the trail was blocked by a judge, but the state is taking steps to address the court’s concerns. The rail corridor is not part of the forest preserve.
The APA also added a definition of “electric-assisted bicycle” to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan that is consistent with the definition of a Class 1 e-bike. The plan says nothing about the other classes. If the state were to open up the forest preserve to e-bikes, they probably would be of the Class 1 variety.
Like regular bicycles, e-bikes come in models designed for pavement (road bikes), gravel and dirt roads (hybrids), or trails (mountain bikes). Most of the e-bikes sold in the United States are road bikes or hybrids.
A 2018 report by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities says people buy e-bikes for a variety of reasons, such as commuting, running errands, or recreation. Their owners like riding longer distances with less effort, especially on hilly terrain. E-bikes enable aging riders and riders with medical ailments to continue cycling. The survey found most e-bike users are over 45 years old. Nearly a fifth are over 65.
Lee Keet is a Saranac Lake resident who for years has regularly cycled a 17-mile loop that takes him out of town and up several steep hills. At 78, with two joint replacements, he decided last summer to purchase an e-bike. He still rides the loop, though now with a little boost from the motor. “You’re still pedaling pretty hard, but you don’t have the feeling that you’re not going to make it to the top of the hill,” he said.
After he gets more experience on the e-bike, he hopes to take it on the municipal trails at the Dewey Mountain Recreation Center outside Saranac Lake. “It’s hellishly fun to ride,” he remarked.
Keet argues that e-bikes should be regulated as bicycles, not as motor vehicles. “Wherever mountain bikes are allowed, e-bikes should be allowed,” he said.
That would include roads and many forest preserve trails.
E-bikes on roads
Gov. Cuomo proposes to amend the state Vehicle and Traffic Law to allow counties and municipalities to open up roads within their boundaries to e-bikes—but only on roads whose speed limit does not exceed 30 mph. The proposal would allow only Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes, which are characterized in the bill as “locally authorized motorcycles.”
BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson lauded the governor for addressing the issue after years of inaction in the state legislature. If the proposal becomes law, he said, “people will have the chance to lobby their local elected officials to allow e-bike use on public highways.”
Yet some see the bill as seriously flawed.
Fred Monroe, a spokesman for the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, noted that a tourist riding an e-bike on a multi-day expedition or a long day trip is likely to pass through a number of towns. “You can’t expect users of e-bikes to know what jurisdiction they’re in on a long trip, much less to have studied the local laws,” he said.
Consider, for example, the scenic 100-mile ride on the roads encircling the High Peaks Wilderness. Whether done in a day or a few days, it’s a tough haul. Presumably, e-bikes would enable more cyclists to undertake the trip. However, the circuit passes through nine towns, three villages, and three counties. If one town or village failed to authorize the use of e-bikes, a rider could not complete the route without breaking the law.
There is another problem. Most of the High Peaks circuit is on roads with speed limits above 30 mph. Under Cuomo’s proposal, e-bikes would not be allowed on these roads. Indeed, it would be illegal to ride e-bikes on most roads connecting Adirondack communities.
“Most of the roads in the Adirondacks are posted for 35 miles an hour or more,” Monroe said. “This would effectively bar e-bikes from the Adirondacks.”
And that would mean the region could not capitalize on e-bike tourism. The Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) has promoted bicycling for years, touting the region’s quiet roads and natural beauty. Yet, the mountainous landscape can pose a challenge to cyclists. E-bike riders would be able to manage the hills much more easily.
“Class 1 e-bikes would offer individuals who have physical challenges the opportunity to experience the beauty of our region in ways they would otherwise be unable to (and do it with their friends and family),” ANCA’s Jacob Vennie-Vollrath said in an e-mailed statement. “Allowing Class 1 e-bikes to be safely operated on all public ways in New York State except express state highways where signs prohibit bicycles will create more inclusive recreational opportunities for all and result in greater economic impact for our region.”
Vennie-Vollrath organizes ANCA’s annual Bike the Barns tour. The organization wants to allow e-bikers to participate, but this would not be legal under the proposed law, given the highway speed limits. Likewise, e-bikes would not be legal in other long-distance tours, such as the multi-day Cycle Adirondacks and the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Ididaride. Nor would it be lawful to use e-bikes on the many Adirondack bike rides described on ANCA’s website.
Keet believes the law would be unenforceable, noting that motors on modern e-bikes are so small that it’s difficult to distinguish an e-bike from a regular bike. “The proposed regulations are simply stupid,” he said. “It puts pedal-assisted mountain and other bikes into the class of motorcycles and would make them illegal in much of the Adirondacks. The government clearly does not understand that all this will do is ensure illegal operation.”
Asked to respond to criticisms of the proposed law, a Cuomo spokesman issued the following statement: “The proposal included in the (governor’s) executive budget would authorize municipalities to evaluate local factors in order to make their own determination regarding the legalization of e-scooters and e-bikes. The state’s proposal does include specific mandates related to safety, including the use of helmets, reflective gear, some sort of bell or horn, and also a max speed limit of 20 mph.”
E-bikes on trails
Most forest preserve lands are classified as wilderness or wild forest. Mountain bikes are prohibited in wilderness but allowed on trails in wild forest areas. Since state law regards e-bikes as motor vehicles, they are not allowed on any trails in the forest preserve.
Because of this prohibition, the owners of four Adirondack bicycle shops contacted by the Explorer say they do not stock mountain e-bikes (though they can get them on short notice). They would like the state to make some accommodation for e-bikes on trails.
Kenny Boettger, owner of Placid Planet in Lake Placid, suggested “less technical trails” such as old woods roads would be appropriate for e-bikes. “If it opens up the riding experience for more people, I think it’s a good thing, but there should be some regulations and restrictions as to where,” he said.
Brian Delaney, owner of High Peaks Cyclery, another Lake Placid shop, agrees that e-bikes should be allowed on some trails. “If it gets people out and having fun and getting exercise, and they’re not degrading the trail, I don’t see it as a big problem,” he said.
“If a mountain bike is allowed, there should be no reason not to allow a pedal-assist e-bike,” said John Dimon, owner of the Human Power Planet Earth bike shop in Saranac Lake.
Proponents of allowing e-bikes on the preserve face an uphill battle. It would require an amendment to the State Land Master Plan, and neither the APA nor DEC favors such a change. What’s more, there would be opposition from the park’s environmental groups.
“They are a mechanical device that is not suitable to a trail experience, either in wild forest and certainly not in wilderness,” said Peter Bauer, executive director or Protect the Adirondacks. “Wild places are more important than the ability to ride an e-bike.”
BETA also opposes opening up wild forest areas to e-bikes. One issue is trail damage. Although proponents say e-bikes don’t tear up trails any more than regular mountain bikes do, Wilson says the question has not been sufficiently studied.
The bigger issue, though, is the speed of e-bikes and the potential for user conflicts. Twenty miles an hour—the top speed of Class 1 bikes—can be dangerously fast on a narrow trail. And then there’s the annoyance factor. Imagine a rider laboring uphill on a traditional bike being tailgated by an e-biker relying on a motor.
“Managing electric bicycles as essentially no different than human-powered bicycles and allowing motorized electric bicycles to operate on non-motorized trails would significantly blur the distinction between mountain biking and motorized recreation,” Wilson said.
If e-bikers ride responsibly, however, other riders might not even take notice of them. Thus, Keet contends that Class 1 e-bikes are more akin to bicycles than motorcycles and should be regulated as such. “If you have to pedal it, it’s a bike,” he said.
Monroe, of the Local Government Review Board, said the APA and DEC should at least study the pros and cons of opening up trails to e-bikes.
What happens next?
The Cuomo administration will work with state lawmakers to pass an e-bike bill this legislative session. If the proposal is adopted as written, e-bike use in the Adirondacks will be severely restricted. Riding on many roads, if not most, outside communities would be illegal. You might be able ride within villages and hamlets, but not between them.
So where else might you be able to e-bike?
Two possibilities are the state’s two toll roads in the Adirondacks—up Whiteface Mountain and Prospect Mountain. The speed limit on both highways is low. Both are more than five miles long, with substantial climbing, so many riders would welcome an electric boost.
Forest preserve roads are another idea. The Moose River Plains Wild Forest, for example, has miles of dirt roads that could be open to e-bikes under the proposed law.
As for trails, riders of mountain e-bikers could seek out routes on private or municipal lands. Bauer suggests that DEC could work out agreements to permit e-bikes on conservation-easement lands. There are now 780,000 acres of easement lands in the Park, and the state owns recreation rights on most of the land.
Whatever happens, Wilson wants DEC to crack down on illegal use of e-bikes on trails in the preserve. “It is important for land managers in the Adirondack Park to develop signage, educational information, and a management strategy now, before this illegal use of forest preserve lands and trails becomes entrenched and unmanageable,” he said.
DEC says it intends to begin a campaign this spring to educate the public about the ban on e-biking in the Forest Preserve. Violators can be fined up to $250 and jailed for up to 15 days.
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