A little-publicized new law in Ohio will have impacts that could change the way people ride bicycles on the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, the Ohio University campus, and around Athens city and county.
The Ohio electric bicycle law, signed by Ohio Gov. Kasich in December, legalized the use of electric bicycles (e-bikes) throughout the State of Ohio beginning on March 8 (this past Friday), and will allow the use of certain e-bikes with the electric motor engaged on the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, other paved surface bike paths and shared-use paths.
In addition, e-bikes may be ridden on sidewalks with the motor disengaged except where local ordinances exclude bicycles on sidewalks, such as in uptown Athens. Prior to the new law taking effect, operating an e-bike in Ohio was illegal on bike paths, shared-use paths and sidewalks.
Currently, the posted rules for riding on the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway state that the bikeway is a non-motorized public recreational path where motorized vehicle access is “limited to emergency, maintenance and handicapped.” Since the new state law supersedes these regulations, the rules governing motorized vehicles on the bikeway will need to be updated to keep up with the law.
E-bikes comprised the fastest-growing segment of bicycle sales in the United States over the past several years, with sales up by as much as 70 percent in 2016, according to Cycling Industry News, and in 2017 e-bike sales in the United States grew to more than a half-million bikes, a 25 percent gain from the prior year.
E-bike use on the bikeway seems to have been growing in recent years, despite the legal ban on their use. Andy Stone, service-safety director for Athens, confirmed that in the past year he has received two separate requests from companies interested in promoting traveling the bikeway on electric-assist rental vehicles.
E-BIKES ARE ELECTRIC motor-assisted pedal bicycles. The new Ohio law designates e-bikes into three classes based on maximum speed. The law treats e-bikes with a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour (Classes 1 and 2) as similar to traditional, human-powered bicycles. Class 3 e-bikes, which can reach a maximum speed of 28 mph, are categorized by the law the same as mopeds, with a 16-year-old minimum age and helmet requirement. Under the new law, Class 3 e-bikes are specifically prohibited on shared-use paths, bicycle paths and sidewalks, anywhere in the State of Ohio.
One of the potential benefits of e-bikes is that they can lower barriers for non-bicyclists to start riding a bike, regardless of their level of fitness. E-bikes can enable the elderly or those with partial physical disabilities to get out and exercise, or even get around town.
A study of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s e-bike sharing system confirms that e-bikes can serve as a gateway to active transportation for sedentary individuals. Users replacing car, bus or other less-active transportation trips with e-bike trips are receiving greater physical activity benefits by choosing a more active transportation mode.
On city streets, e-bikes enable riders to travel close to car speeds, potentially making it less stressful to ride with traffic and bringing a sense of improved safety. E-bikes also make it easier to ride up hills, which could enable more people to ride to uptown Athens, and on the numerous hills around Athens County and southeast Ohio.
Reportedly, discussions between Ohio University and bike-share providers have included the potential addition of e-bikes to a bike-share system at OU, due to the hilly terrain in and around campus. E-bikes can enable bicyclists to ride to more distant locations, and to more easily haul groceries and baggage, and it could then be a boon to getting around town without needing to drive a car, reducing the number of cars on the road.
Such benefits can improve the physical health of the e-bike user, but also reduce their environmental impact, and increase community sustainability and resiliency.
WHILE E-BIKES MAY SOUND like a win-win, there are almost always downsides. One barrier to e-bike adoption for some will be the relatively high price of e-bikes. Most e-bikes cost between $1,000 and $3,000, with higher-end models in the $4,000 to $6,000 range.
Nationally, with the rise in use of e-bikes, some people have raised concerns that they are more dangerous than traditional bicycles. The additional speed and acceleration of e-bikes are possible issues that require caution, especially by less-experienced cyclists as they take up e-biking. However, a study of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s e-bike sharing system did not find much difference in the average travel speeds and the average top speeds of e-bikes and traditional bicycles, and that riders of e-bikes behave similarly to riders of bicycles.
Pedestrian advocates are also expressing concern for the safety of pedestrians when they mix with e-bikes on shared-use paths, but this concern could be moderated by the fact that e-bikes must be operated without motor assist on sidewalks, according to the new Ohio law.
When asked what advice he has for those who want to ride electric bicycles in and around Athens, Stone replied that bike path and sidewalk riders should be aware of fellow users and be courteous and safe. He also pointed out that “regardless of the change to the state laws allowing e-bikes, specific sidewalks in the uptown area prohibit ALL wheeled vehicles (including skateboards, roller skates, etc.) regardless of whether they are electric or not.
“In recent years, the administration requested and City Council acted to shrink the area where this restriction was imposed to only Court Street and short sections of the intersecting streets, specifically to promote active transportation,” Stone continued. “Athens Police, Parking Enforcement, and Code Enforcement officers are all empowered to enforce the restrictions by citation. Likewise, reckless operation of any vehicle, anywhere in the city, could result in citation.”
The Ohio e-bike bill, titled “Establish Requirements for Using Electric Bicycles,” passed the Ohio House and Senate without a single vote in opposition. Part of the reason for this was that this common-sense bill also includes provisions for local governments to maintain control of e-bike use within their jurisdiction by allowing them to pass restrictions on e-bikes with local ordinances, as needed. In addition, the law specifically does not authorize the use of e-bikes on natural surface trails, unless the local jurisdictions specifically allow it.
According to Andy Stone, the city of Athens supports active transportation and has taken great efforts to expand opportunities for travelers to use modes other than cars, for both the health benefits to the traveler and wider environmental benefits. E-bikes, scooters, and other new modes of transportation are a logical progression in this area. Regarding the possibility for the city to implement bike-share or e-scooter share systems, Stone said, the city has looked at legislation and experiences in other communities, and believes a “wait-and-see” approach is best for now. Should problems develop, they will consider recommendations in the future.
ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Ohio is the 31st U.S. state to pass legislation to define and legalize e-bikes on bike paths. Last month, Wyoming became the 32nd.
The future for e-bikes looks bright. There is interest in e-bikes that likely relates to the rapidly growing electric “micromobility” movement that is taking place in cities across the United States. Micromobility includes bike share, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other small electric-assisted transportation devices.
Companies including Uber and Lyft have made huge investments in bike share, e-bikes, and e-scooters. Just last month, General Motors Corporation (GM) announced plans to sell a line of e-bikes, called ARĪV. Yes, the largest car manufacturer in the U.S. realizes that e-bikes are part of the future of mobility. GM will initially sell its e-bikes in Europe, but sales in the U.S. will likely follow quickly.
Editor’s note: Robert Delach of Athens serves on the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway Advisory Committee.