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Roanoke approves e-bikes on city's greenways and trails

Roanoke approves e-bikes on city's greenways and trails

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Gordon and Janice Goodwin show their electric-assist bicycles outside their home in Bar Harbor, Maine. On Monday, the Roanoke City Council decided to allow e-bikes on the city’s paved greenways and unpaved trails.

Ken Potter’s electric bicycle keeps him healthy — not just by providing exercise, but also by keeping an eye on his heart.

“It’s the coolest thing,” said Potter, a Roanoke resident who owns a Levo electric bike, also known as an e-bike, which features an electric-powered motor that assists with pedaling.

Potter, who suffered a serious heart attack in 1996 when he was just 34 years old, has a smartphone app that monitors his heart while he rides. If his heart rate gets to 140 beats per minute, the app prompts the e-bike motor to start doing more of the work, so that he doesn’t overexert himself.

“The app connects to the bike and increases the amount of assistance,” Potter said. “I truly smile when I think about what it allows me to do. I almost laugh out loud when I’m going up a steep section of trail and the darn thing starts kicking in. It makes it easier on me.”

Potter, 58, has been riding his Levon e-bike along the rocky trails on Mill Mountain, which was actually not allowed in Roanoke. That’s about to change.

The electric whir of e-bikes will soon be heard on Roanoke greenways, Mill Mountain trails and at Carvins Cove following Roanoke City Council’s unanimous vote in support of e-bikes following a lengthy public hearing Monday night.

Previously, e-bikes had been banned from city trails and pathways. However, a new state law that goes into effect July 1 permits the use of e-bikes on all shared-use trails.

The city council approved an ordinance that allows all classes of e-bikes, which have electric motors that push the bikes to speeds up to 20 to 28 mph. The ordinance goes into effect July 1.

Monday’s public hearing, which was conducted via online videoconferencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, included more than 90 comments, which featured summaries of 64 emails and 25 speakers who addressed the council during the video meeting.

The comments ran about 2-to-1 in favor of allowing e-bikes on Roanoke trails.

Potter, who lives in south Roanoke, talked about his experiences with e-bikes since his heart attack. He said they will help more people get on the city’s trails.

“Not everyone is at the same level of physical ability, but they still have some love of the outdoors,” Potter told council. “E-bikes are another way to get people outside.”

Supporters of e-bikes pointed to the increasing popularity of electric bikes among riders, the fact that people who cannot pedal regular bikes can have access to trails and greenways and the reality that many e-bikes riders are already using greenways despite the prohibition as reasons for the council to end the ban.

Kyle Inman, a longtime Roanoke mountain-biking advocate and race organizer, told council members that e-bikes are no different than regular mountain bikes, and that they do no more damage to trails than other types of bicycles.

He recalled how decades ago, some people did not want bikes, hikers or horseback riders at Carvins Cove, but now that’s “the crown jewel” of Roanoke’s outdoors amenities. E-bikes are the next logical addition to those offerings.

Inman said that many people were already ignoring the e-bikes ban, and that trying to enforce the prohibition would be “difficult, expensive and tedious.”

When Roanoke parks and recreation director Michael Clark was asked by the council if he knew of any incidents between e-bike riders and other trails users, Clark said he knew of none.

The new law places e-bikes into three classifications: pedal-assisted, no-throttle bikes that can cruise at speeds up to 20 mph; bikes with no pedal assistance but with throttles that can reach 20 mph; and pedal-assisted, no-throttle bikes that can reach 28 mph.

The council approved all three categories for use on Roanoke trails, but several council members noted that the city could revisit the issue if any problems surface in the future.

Other electric vehicles such as scooters and skateboards are still prohibited on greenways and trails.

Not everyone is a fan of the electric bikes. Other speakers were concerned that e-bikes could be safety hazards on trails and could cause damage and erosion to natural trails such as those at Carvins Cove and on Mill Mountain.

Liz Belcher, Roanoke’s longtime Greenway Coordinator, urged the council to take more time to study the issue before allowing e-bikes on the paved greenways, which she said were not designed with electric bicycles in mind. She said e-bikes shouldn’t be allowed at Carvins Cove or other dirt trails.

“I do not support e-bikes of any class on any natural trails,” Belcher said.

Mike McAvoy, executive director of the Western Virginia Water Authority — which manages Carvins Cove — also asked the city to take more time to study the effect of e-bikes on natural trails. He said that the city should at least keep the ban at Carvins Cove.

A few council members said that they had ridden e-bikes. In fact, council member Trish White-Boyd tried out an e-bike for the first time last weekend to prepare for the vote. The experience made her favor allowing e-bikes.

“In my mind, I thought I’d be riding off like a motorcycle, but it’s not like that,” White-Boyd said. “You have to pedal. If you don’t pedal, that bike is not going anywhere. … I think this is the thing for older people.”

Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, who also has ridden an e-bike, said that ending the ban will help the city embrace more options for transportation. Some e-bike proponents said on Monday that opening the greenways to electric bicycles would make commutes for work and shopping easier.

Councilwoman Michelle Davis, who is a cycling advocate, said that high speeds of e-bikes concerned her, but that regular bikes can travel at inappropriately fast speeds, too.

The council has several options it could have considered, which included allowing some classes of e-bikes on certain trails and banning other classes from different trails, but in the end it voted to allow all classes on all trails, which comports with the new state law.

“We can’t regulate the minutiae of what bike is in which place,” council member Djuna Osborne said.

Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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