By Stephen Smoot
Electric bicycle use across the United States has exploded in the past two years. While city residents see them as an easier alternative to automobile or public transportation, much of the growth in use has come in tourism. Older individuals who may struggle with long distance hiking or traditional cycling now find electric bicycles as a less strenuous and more convenient option to access trails and sites.
Because of the rise in popularity, the West Virginia House of Delegates is considering two bills to modernize the code regarding these vehicles.
House Bill 2753 seeks “to more closely comport to federal law; creating new definitions of e-bikes in West Virginia; permitting Class 2 e-bikes to use throttles; allowing e-bikes to be operated on public lands so as to increase their usage and accessibility; and stating that e-bike users will not be given special privileges not otherwise given to similarly situated riders.”
If passed, the legislation would replace the current legal definition of an e-bike and what it can do with federal rules. Currently, e-bikes conforming to federal rules can use trails on US government owned trails, such as those traversing the national forest. The same e-bikes cannot be used on state forest or park trails because of more restrictive state laws.
Additionally, the legislation states an intent “to facilitate increased access to public lands that may otherwise be inaccessible to those with disabilities, health issues, or age-related limitations.”
E-bikes come in three classes. The legislation will allow trail use for classes one and two, but not for class three. One of the key differences lies in the fact that the first two classes do not allow for additional power when the vehicle hits 20 miles per hour. A class three e-bike will continue adding power until the vehicle reaches 28 mph.
The bill also prohibits modification of a class one or two e-bike to bypass the 20 mph limit.
House Bill 2198 proposes safety standards, including requiring a speedometer on class three e-bikes and age limitations on their use. E-bikes will not have to follow laws on registration, drivers license, title, and other requirements applied to automobiles and other motor vehicles.
One of the driving forces behind the rising use of e-bikes lies in how they help older or disabled individuals to enjoy access to places now mainly accessible by traditional bicycle or hiking.
If the State Legislature eases regulations on their use, Pendleton County and other tourist areas in the state could see benefits. Amber Nesselrodt, the incoming Pendleton County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director noted that “this will help draw a wider variety of tourists with a different dynamic.”
Laura Brown, Pendleton County Economic and Community Development executive director, added that “there is a market in Pendleton County for electric bikes. The majority of the users are middle-aged people who still enjoy biking, recreational activities and enjoying the outdoors.” Brown explained that “local businesses can take advantage of this new recreation opportunity by offering food, lodging, specialized equipment, and welcoming visitors into our county.” She added that the new Sweetwater Farms trail system near Sugar Grove is just another opportunity for e-bikes.
Other tourism-oriented states have seen major growth in use of e-bikes. Chris Skilling, vice president of rural biking at VBT Bicycling Vacations, a Vermont-based international excursion provider, explained to USA Today magazine last month that, “About 25 to 30 percent of our guests opt for them now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is over 50 percent in the next five years.”