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By Marc Lutz
Wrangell Sentinel 

E-bikes gain in popularity, but the rules are not entirely clear

 

August 9, 2023 | View PDF

Marc Lutz/Wrangell Sentinel

Jaynee Fritzinger, manager of Breakaway Adventures on Lynch Street, takes a ride on one of her shop's e-bikes on Aug. 3.

It's hard to miss: Groups of people whizzing down the streets of Wrangell on what looks like a cross between a bicycle and an old-school moped, sometimes down the middle of the street or dangerously close to pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Increased use of electric bicycles, or e-bikes for short, has some questioning how the law applies to the machines, specifically where they can and can't be ridden.

Wrangell Municipal Code states, "No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within the central business traffic district or any business district," and "whenever any person is riding a bicycle upon a sidewalk, such person shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give audible signal before overtaking and passing such pedestrian."

No such code exists for e-bikes, which are basically bicycles with an attached electric motor and generally run on a 750-watt battery.

Part of the problem is the confusion over the definition of an e-bike. Is it a motor vehicle that must be registered with the state or is it a bicycle? And, with increased use, guidance is necessary, said Police Chief Tom Radke.

"There's just not a lot of guidance. It's all based on locality," he said. "The state is leaving it out there."

Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently vetoed legislation that would have provided clear definitions on e-bikes and where they would and wouldn't be allowed. The bill had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature. Dunleavy's reason for the veto was "because it creates unnecessary bureaucracy by regulating recreational activity," stated a spokesperson for the governor.

Though plenty of kids and adults ride regular bicycles on sidewalks, creating dangerous situations, e-bikes can reach up to 25 mph, increasing the chances for accidents.

Jayne Fritzinger, shop manager for Breakaway Adventures, said ever since someone posted a complaint about people riding on sidewalks, she's advised e-bike renters to avoid that where possible.

"I always give them a spiel that you're not allowed to ride on the sidewalks unless nobody is downtown, then go ahead and ride on sidewalks if you like," she said. "But if there are pedestrians, get off the sidewalk."

People aren't necessarily penalized for riding on the sidewalk, but police will try to inform e-cyclists on rider rules and etiquette whenever possible. "We're trying to educate people and tell them to stay off the sidewalks," Radke said. "The first function of police is education. If you're on the sidewalk and someone comes out of a doorway, there's not a lot of time to hit the brakes."

Radke fears it will take a few bike-versus-pedestrian incidents before more definitive rules are put into place. Though, he said, there has been discussion at the borough level.

Breakaway Adventures requires a parent's signature for renters 17 and younger. Wrangell Extended Stay, another business that offers e-bike rentals, will not rent to anyone under 18 without a parent biking with them. Neither operator will rent to anyone under 14.

State law, however, requires 14- and 15-year-olds to possess an M2 permit, which allows them to operate a motorcycle, motorized scooter or bicycle with a motor smaller than 50cc. Radke pointed out that e-bikes are not fuel-powered and still require the user to pedal them, so it's unclear if a state permit is needed for people using e-bikes.

Regardless of the uncertainty in state law, Radke noted that more and more people are using the e-bikes.

Lydia Matney, co-owner of Wrangell Extended Stay, said the business only has four to rent, and fewer people have been renting from her since Breakaway started offering rentals. Both businesses rent to tourists and locals alike. "People who stay with us tend to rent them," she said.

"I would say it's about 50-50 with tourists and locals," Fritzinger said. "I've had a lot of people coming in, couples, renting the e-bikes and doing date nights."

Both businesses make sure to explain to renters to pay attention and follow the rules of the road.

"I tell people to respect the law riding the bikes," Matney said. "Basically, it's like driving a car. Follow the rules and be respectful. I have everyone sign a waiver that they're responsible for anything they incur, any injury or if they destroy the bike."

 

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