Is it because I selected a career as a wilderness education instructor and guide, keeping me physically active most of my life? Who knows?
What I do know is that I’m grateful today that I’m on an e-bike as I approach the 20-mile mark of our 25-mile sojourn over logging roads with over 2,000 feet in elevation change.
I have used the bike’s pedal assist sparingly, but it has made all the difference as to whether I would have taken today’s trip. I had all but given up mountain biking. I still hike the peaks and paddle the rivers, lakes, and ponds, but found I just couldn’t get psyched for those long uphills on the bicycle. On my last mountain bike trek, before I got my e-bike, I found myself walking up many of the hills. I wasn’t having fun.
I didn’t realize that I was part of a wave that is sweeping the country. Electric bike sales jumped by 95 percent between 2016 and 2017. Estimates suggest the trend continued through 2018. The big question, though, is whether there is a place for these battery-powered “pedal-assist” bicycles in the Adirondack Park and its forest preserve. The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer is more complex.
The benefits may not be obvious, but e-bikes are a healthy form of recreation and are getting thousands of people off their couches and into the outdoors. In addition, they are environmentally friendly. E-bikes are emissions-free, low-impact, and they operate silently. We’re not talking pollutant-spewing, noisy internal combustion engines that require no physical effort. We’re talking about bicycles equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph. E-bikes complement one’s muscle power.
Most of the time, you ride an electric bike like any other bike — but you can get help from the motor when you are traveling long distances, pedaling against the wind, and going uphill. Despite some critics that proclaim e-biking is “cheating,” e-bikes do count as exercise and help people get fit. E-bikes burn 80 percent of the calories burned on traditional bicycles. Research indicates that people with e-bikes get out twice as often as they did with their conventional bikes. Riding an e-bike still takes work. Unlike a moped, e-bikes don’t mean you simply let the thing fling you forward. You’re still pedaling, but as you do, the motor enhances your efforts. When you climb a hill, you pedal with more force, and the bike provides just enough power to let you rise with less effort.
There are challenges and issues to be worked out for sure. New York State has yet to address the issue, so e-bikes are technically illegal to ride on most roads in the state. Only 10 states have created an e-bike classification system intended to differentiate between types and speeds of e-bikes. For our purposes we are talking about a Class 1 e-bike, which is a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph. I am not an advocate of Class 2 e-bikes, which have a throttle. Perhaps they should be treated as motorized vehicles and registered as such.
The State Land Master Plan states: “Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the re- sources in their physical and biological context as well their social or psychological aspects are not degraded.” To accommodate new recreational activities, in my mind, the activity needs to pass a test. Like the mandate that conservation easements have a “conservation value,” questionable recreation activities need to pass a similar test. E-bikes clearly pass the test because unlike internal combustion engines, they spew no gases, make no noise, and promote a healthy form of recreation. Allowing them where other motorized vehicles are allowed, including snowmobiles, seems appropriate. Exploring additional select locations also seems appropriate given their positive attributes.
If we want to limit use on forest preserve perhaps we should consider a reverse sort of licensing. We require an auto license at age 16; how about limiting e-bikes to those over age 60 or those with recognized limited physical abilities?
I agree with those who think that we shouldn’t allow recreational uses on the forest preserve just because they exist. I feel, however, that as new recreational uses evolve each needs to be evaluated on its own merits to see if there is both an environmental and social benefit. I think e-bikes provide both if appropriately regulated and managed. Class 1 e-bikes should be allowed on easement lands, select old logging roads in wild forest areas, and on multi-use snowmobile trails.
Photo of Jack Drury on his Class 1 e-bike at Great Camp Sagamore by Nancie Battaglia.
This essay originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.