Electric bikes can be the perfect solution for the transportation needs of some people. They offer the convenience of a bike, but the power-assist can accommodate a much wider range of abilities. So electric bikes should fit right in with Arlington’s mission to get more people out of cars and on to bikes, right?
Well... It’s a little tricky at the moment.
Electric bikes in the streets? Arlington’s cool with that. But it looks like electric bikes may not actually be permitted on Arlington’s trails. As recently raised on the Donaldson Run blog, the signs posted at many of the entrances to Arlington’s trails bar “power driven mobility devices.” And yes, that appears to mean electric bikes.
The Arlington County Code, Chapter 14.2 - 64.1 (B) states:
The use of [trails] by persons operating vehicles other than bicycles is prohibited and violations of this section shall be a misdemeanor.
This, of course, is eminently sensible on its face, even if not immediately so to the occasional clueless car driver you find on the trail near Bluemont Junction. But how does this ban electric bikes? Well, the code immediately goes on to state:
“Vehicle” used herein means any motorized vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, electrical motor, or other electrical device.
It’s this provision that’s been read by some Arlington County staff to mean that electric bikes aren’t technically permitted on Arlington’s trails. This was recently confirmed by Arlington County staff in an email, and lines up with the conversations I’ve had with staff in recent years.
To be clear, no one to my knowledge has been cited for using an electric bike on Arlington’s trails, and I would be shocked to ever see a ticket written. That said, more electric bikes are coming, and it’s probably time to update the law.
Any update, in my view, should accomodate the growing interest in and utility of electric bikes. It should also be mindful of the fact that electric bikes do, in fact, bring some possible negatives to the trails.
First, some can be extraordinarily heavy, and if that’s combined with excessive power-assisted speed, the consequences on the trail could be greater than we’re willing to accept. Some jurisdictions have attempted to address these issues by limiting acceptable electric bikes to a given wattage or top speed.
I’m confident Arlington could adopt reasonable limits on the capabilities of electric bikes that owners can use on the trails. Electric bikes don’t need to be outside of the law when on our trails. Let’s fix it.
Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.
There’s a big bike event in Crystal City this Saturday – the Diamond Derby. Part parade, part race, and a whole lot of party. Admission free. More information at the link.