Prediction: Bike trail war in our future

eneloop bicycleAmong the many snazzy gizmos unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show was a new electric-assist bicycle, the $2,300 Eneloop Hybrid.

The bike features a lithium-ion battery that, when engaged, can take a rider up to 46 miles on a single charge, and recharges as the rider brakes. In Auto mode, it recognizes when the rider is going uphill and delivers more power to compensate for it.

This and other electric-assist bicycles promise to bring the possibility of 2-wheeled commuting to a much wider population of couch potatoes. It also poses a threat to the fast-growing American network of bike paths and trails.

When federal funds are used to build a trail, electric bikes are not permitted unless state or local authorities permit it. Most states don't bother to define an electric-assist bike or put limits to their usage, and most don't require a license to operate.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission, for safety standards, defines electric bikes as having motors producing less than 750 watts and reaching speeds up to 20 mph with a 150-pound rider. (20 mph is very, very fast for an urban trail.)

Simply calling them bicycles is enough to convince users that they are entitled to use the bucolic alternatives to car byways, although most trails restrict their rights of way to human-powered vehicles. Bicyclists already have to contend to dog walkers, three-abreast power walkers/talkers, and other discourtesies.

Reports from China suggest that, thanks to improved battery technology, the new generation of electrically-assisted bicycles provides enough energy to power the riders at a much brisker pace than they could achieve with legs alone, and has made its traffic problem worse. The same problem will threaten legitimate trail users.

I'm not against electric-assist bikes, but I do believe that more cities should ban them on bike paths and trails. Those byways should be limited to muscle-powered travel.
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