Let’s keep our bike trails mo­tor-free

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

In the on­go­ing, heated bat­tle be­tween bicyclists just try­ing to stay alive and mo­torists try­ing to shave a few min­utes off their com­mutes, the mo­torists have gained an im­por­tant ally: bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers and bi­cy­cling ad­vo­cates.

The man­u­fac­tur­ers are hop­ing elec­tric bi­cy­cles will help them dra­mat­i­cally in­crease sales. And they’re work­ing with some sur­pris­ing part­ners to win elec­tric bi­cyles ac­cess to the pre­cious few ar­eas where bicyclists now are free from mo­tor­ized traf­fic: off-road routes such as the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail.

The head of na­tion’s largest or­ga­nized cam­paign for cre­at­ing paved off-road bike trails ac­knowl­edges he has some­times taken his own mo­tor­ized bike along the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail with­out be­ing sure if it’s al­lowed. (It’s not.)

Who would ben­e­fit from al­low­ing ar­ti­fi­cially pow­ered bi­cy­cles on trails? The world al­ready has in­nu­mer­able modes and venues for mo­tor­ized tran­sit. Elec­tricbike ad­vo­cates de­scribe a de­sire to ac­com­mo­date an ag­ing and outof-shape pop­u­la­tion that still wants to ex­pe­ri­ence bike trails. “I don’t think hav­ing ad­di­tional peo­ple try­ing to use al­ter­na­tive means of trans­porta­tion is nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing,” said Alex Lo­ge­mann, a pol­icy an­a­lyst at the in­dus­try­funded Peo­pleForBikes ad­vo­cacy group.

But ad­vo­cates of­fer no data de­mon­strat­ing the de­mand or ex­plain­ing why there isn’t enough paved road­way where mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles al­ready are le­gal.

“There are many chal­lenges with mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles on a shared-use path,” said Christo­pher R. Cherry, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of civil and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Knoxville. “Safety be­ing first and fore­most.”

An in­dus­try lob­by­ist, Larry Pizzi, of­fers an egal­i­tar­ian vi­sion where trails are no longer the ex­clu­sive do­main of rid­ers phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble of ped­al­ing a bike. “It sort of lev­els the play­ing field,” said Pizzi, pres­i­dent of e-bike maker Raleigh Elec­tric and chair­man of the e-bike com­mit­tee of the Bi­cy­cle Prod­uct Sup­pli­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

It’s all be­ing done, Pizzi in­sists, in a way that en­sures that mo­tor­ized bikes are tame com­pan­ions to their pedal-pow­ered coun­ter­parts. The le­gal lan­guage he has been prod­ding states to adopt de­fines three cat­e­gories of mo­tor­ized bike. The least pow­er­ful — “pedal-as­sist” mod­els with a top speed of 20 mph — is the type that com­mu­ni­ties would be ex­pected to al­low on paved bike-pedes­trian trails. But all three cat­e­gories al­low up to 750 watts of power — “a lot of power,” Pizzi ac­knowl­edged.

This re­gion’s main bi­cy­clist ad­vo­cacy group, the Wash­ing­ton Area Bi­cy­clist As­so­ci­a­tion, sup­ports al­low­ing mo­tor­ized bikes on the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail and other trails. The group thinks mo­tor­ized bikes “are im­por­tant to get­ting more peo­ple rid­ing,” said its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Gre­gory Billing.

But WABA has not asked its mem­bers in its an­nual opin­ion sur­veys whether they agree. He rec­om­mended a 2015 sur­vey by the League of Amer­i­can Bicyclists — claim­ing that a ma­jor­ity of bicyclists sup­port the use of mo­tor­ized bikes on off-street paved trails — as “il­lu­mi­nat­ing to the at­ti­tudes and opin­ions of” bike rid­ers. That sur­vey’s au­thor, Ken McLeod, a le­gal spe­cial­ist at the League of Amer­i­can Bicyclists, ad­mit­ted his fig­ures were not a re­li­able mea­sure. The sur­vey was merely a com­pi­la­tion of post­ings to the league’s so­cial-me­dia ac­counts, and a full quar­ter of the 700 par­tic­i­pants said they al­ready own mo­tor­ized bi­cy­cles. The sam­ple was “not likely to be ob­jec­tively rep­re­sen­ta­tive of bicyclists in gen­eral,” McLeod said.

Given the ac­qui­es­cence of their own ad­vo­cates, bicyclists may not even re­al­ize the po­ten­tial changes await­ing them on the trails. De­spite be­ing the na­tion’s lead­ing force for cre­at­ing paved off-road bike trails, Mary­land res­i­dent Keith E. Laughlin said he’s barely aware of the is­sue of al­low­ing mo­tor­ized travel on them. The D.C.-based Rails to Trails Con­ser­vancy, where Laughlin serves as pres­i­dent, has no for­mal po­si­tion on the mat­ter. Laughlin said the trails they sup­port were al­ways “in­tended to be used by non-mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles.”

Laughlin has an elec­tric model among his bikes and is open to the in­dus­try’s ar­gu­ment that even a to­ken amount of pedal as­sist is an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion when con­sid­er­ing trail-use le­gal­i­ties. He said he typ­i­cally uses his e-bike for com­mut­ing to work along main roads such as Wis­con­sin Avenue but has some­times taken it on the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail.

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice does not al­low mo­tor­ized bikes on its trails, in­clud­ing the D.C. sec­tion of the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail and the Mount Ver­non Trail in Alexan­dria. The usual fine would be $100, though Lt. Christo­pher Cun­ning­ham, com­man­der of the U.S. Park Po­lice unit re­spon­si­ble for the D.C. part of the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail, said he doesn’t know of any such ticket hav­ing been writ­ten.

On the Mary­land side of the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail, mo­tor­ized bikes be­came il­le­gal just this sum­mer, the re­sult of a de­ci­sion by the Mary­land Na­tional Park and Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, which has ju­ris­dic­tion over Prince Ge­orge’s and Mont­gomery coun­ties.

In Ar­ling­ton, which al­lows mo­tors on routes such as the Custis Trail, state law al­lows the use of elec­tric-pow­ered bikes ca­pa­ble of trav­el­ing up to 25 mph. Ar­ling­ton’s bi­cy­cle and pedes­trian plan­ner, David Pat­ton, ini­tially said there is no speed limit, then later ac­knowl­edged there may be one. “I am not a lawyer,” he said, “but there ap­pear to be sev­eral am­bigu­ous points in the state law.”

The un­cer­tain­ties per­sist as the Custis Trail pro­ceeds west. Jeff An­der­son, pres­i­dent of the Fair­fax Al­liance for Bet­ter Bi­cy­cling, said he, too, wasn’t sure of what was le­gal where. “It’s just not on the radar in Fair­fax,” he said.

The stealthy le­gal­iza­tion cam­paign for mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles on trails sug­gests deep dis­ap­point­ment awaits ei­ther the in­dus­try or bicyclists. That’s be­cause even the in­dus­try isn’t sure how many peo­ple would ac­tu­ally buy a bi­cy­cle that costs sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars if they’re not per­mit­ted on bike trails. That, how­ever, should re­main a prob­lem for the man­u­fac­tur­ers and not be­come one for the trail users.

KATHER­INE SHAVER/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Ge­orge­town Branch ex­ten­sion of the Cap­i­tal Cres­cent Trail.

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