The headquarters for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District is situated on a point overlooking Wehrspann Lake, a man-made reservoir built for flood control and community recreation: fishing, small boating, picnicking, hiking and, yes, biking. You drive past it on Interstate 80 on the southwestern edge of Omaha.
This time of year, of course, the trees are naked of their leaves and the surface of the lake is a cold slate gray; in a way, both reflecting my inner mood as I drive the 8.4 miles, according to Google Maps, from my home to the NRD board meeting. Jim Thompson had called late in the afternoon to suggest that I attend the meeting so that, should the need arise, I can speak in support of a potentially controversial amendment to the District's policy that would allow electric-assist bicycle access to the trail system NRD manages. Thompson, a board director, had championed the change as a way to induce more people to use the trails, especially baby boomers like me.
I had approached him earlier in the Fall with the idea and he was supportive of it. Even earlier in the year, I had allowed several NRD staffers, including Eric Williams, to try out the Haibike Xduro Currie Technologies has loaned me. They loved the experience. In an October meeting, the staff had proposed an amendment to its policy that would include electric-assist bicycles in the definition of a 'bicycle' rather than considering them 'motor vehicles', which are prohibited from NRD trails. It is, admittedly, a fine line. Yes, it's clearly a bicycle, but it also has a motor, albeit a small, silent, pollution-free one.
Federal statute considers them 'bicycles' and places them under the purview of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The stipulation is the motor cannot exceed 750 watts or 1 bhp (most electric-assist bikes sold in the USA are less than 500W). The motor-assisted top speed is 20 mph, at which point the motor must disengage; and it must have operative pedals.
Of course, these limitations haven't prevented people from bending the rules and creating 'e-Bikes' that can do 50 mph, as a much-watched video on Youtube reveals.
It is this type of abuse that understandably worries the members of THOR, the acronym for Trails Have Our Respect, a local trails support group. From the comments on their Facebook page, it was crystal clear that they didn't want to see a change in policy. NRD would be 'opening Pandora's box', as they put it, if they allowed eBikes on the trails.
This is what occupied my mind as I pulled into the NRD headquarters parking lot, wondering how many THOR members were already inside, waiting to testify in opposition. I wasn't as prepared as I would have liked to have been. I wasn't even sure if the board members actually knew what an electric bicycle was. Would they too share the perception of outlaw riders on high-speed bikes careening through the park, endangering hikers and other cyclists? Would I be the lone voice in support among a room-full of opponents?
I grabbed my five copies of the quote I had extracted from the interview I had done in May 2013 with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's president Keith Laughlin, thinking that I might be able to use them as handouts to the board.
Jim Thompson greeted me and reassured me that he believed the board would support the change. What we didn't know is how many of the 30 or so people in the audience represented the interests of THOR or similar advocacy groups.
As the meeting got underway with the Pledge of Allegiance, I took my seat and held my breath. Deliberately, inexorably the board moved from agenda item to agenda item, in a few cases calling for clarification on a point from legal counsel or asking for public comment. The closer we got to the eBike item, the more nervous I became.
Then came the policy changes agenda item, the eBike question being just one of them. Public comment as solicited and a tall, trim gentleman wearing the cyclist cap and green silk jacket asked if this was about the electric bicycle change.
It was, replied the board chairman, David Klug.
The gentleman took a seat at the table reserved for public testimony, gave his name and address, and explained that he worked on bicycles, including some electric models in years past. He pointed out that some eBikes can do 40 miles per hour and that he was opposed to allowing them on the trails, at least until the Colorado city of Boulder had decided on how they would treat eBikes on their trail system after having experimented for some six months. A board member asked him how fast a regular bicycle can be ridden, and he thought maybe 30 mph. The chairman thanked him for his testimony. Jim glanced my way and I raised my hand. Now it was my turn.
I took my seat in front of the microphone, gave my name and address and explained that I have been covering the world of electric vehicles now for more than 17 years, include electric bicycles.
I began by acknowledging that Boulder is, indeed, testing whether or not to allow eBikes on their dedicated trail system, but that I suspected they would agree to allow them continued use. I pointed out that the Canadian city of Toronto had already decided on the matter. They now allow electric-assist bicycle on their segregated pedestrian and cycling trail system, but restrict the more moped-like models to the city's bicycle lanes on the street. I urged the board to take that into consideration in their decision.
As to the question of eBikes going 40 mph, those are the exceptions, I noted. Compliant eBikes are only permitted to do a maximum of 20 mph before the motors shut off. So while there will always be outliers to any policy, I didn't believe that over-powered eBikes would be a serious problem in the parks, any more than someone driving a motorcycle on the trails illegally.
Finally, I read Keith Laughlin's quotation to the board excerpted at the 20:00 minute mark in my May 2013 interview:
"We do not have any problem at all with an electric-assist bike that is a basically street-legal, non-registered vehicle… that has a maximum speed of 20 mph, and it's not … a moped device. It's really an authentic bicycle with a motor assist like a hybrid. And so we have absolutely no problem with those kinds of vehicles on our trails. We do not support motorcycles on our trails, but see there being a very distinct line between these two types of technology."
--- Keith Laughlin, President, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, May 2013.
A board member asked me if the Consumer Product Safety Act of 2002, which established the definition of an eBike, included gas-powered bicycles. I replied that it only applied to electric models. Gasoline motor-assisted bicycle are not considered bicycles under these rules, essentially because they are noisy and they pollute.
With that I took my seat and the board began their own deliberations. Director Patrick Bonnett, who had launched the online survey that elicited the 15-or-so negative comments explained his reasoning, which while valid in that the groups he surveyed are active trail users, presumed that these groups were familiar with eBikes. Based on the testimony of the one individual who did make the effort to show up for the meeting, as well as my personal experience showing eBikes to various individuals and groups in the community, I would guess that most are likely not familiar with eBikes, other than those renegade bikes featured in Youtube videos, which clearly are not compliant with federal code.
Bonnett proposed that the amendment be amended to allow for more public comment before making what he thought was a precedent-setting policy change that would also impact the trails outside NRD jurisdiction.
Director Tim Fowler, who works with wounded warriors on a volunteer basis, spoke in favor of the amendment since it would, in his view, work to the benefit of recovering veterans who could use eBikes for their rehabilitation.
Finally, Jim Thompson spoke in favor of the change from the perspective of the Boomer generation in that it would give them an added incentive to get out and ride more and do it in safe setting. He concluded by reading one of the THOR group postings that spoke favorably of eBikes in the context of the writer's parents now being able to get out and lead a more active lifestyle because they ride eBikes.
Chairman Klug asked if there were a second to Director Bonnett's request to amend the amendment. I held my breath.
There wasn't a second. The motion to amend the amendment, which might have effectively killed the change, itself died a quick death. Klug asked for a vote on the original amendment and the secretary called out the name of each board members in succession.
The vote was unanimous. Even Director Bonnett said 'Yes.'
Ebike owners can now ride their bikes on NRD trails. However, as staffer Eric Williams noted to me afterwards, now the hard work begins since parts of the Greater Omaha and Sarpy County trail system are administered by other local government entities and the ruling does not affect those areas. So, some accord needs to be reached with those bodies, which will be the NRD staff's responsibility.
The board moved on to other business and Eric, who was seated next to me, gestured that it would take some time to complete and I could leave if I wished, but I decided to see it through and thank the directors - Jim Thompson especially - for their support, including Director Bonnett.
As the meeting adjourned, the THOR representative (I apologize, I am terrible at remembering names) and I had a chance to chat afterwards, he saying that he hoped there were no hard feelings. There were and are none, I assured him.
"I don't want anyone who regularly rides a bicycle to switch to electric," I said. "I want those of us who don't ride to have one less excuse for not doing so, and I want them to have a safe place to ride."
As we walked out into the reception area where a table of Christmas goodies had been set up, I told him the amazing story of Rhonda Martin and how she'd lost 277 pounds and now runs half marathons, in part because she rides an electric bicycle to work every day.
Deciding that I would be better served if I passed up on the holiday sweets, I stopped briefly to thank both Director Fowler and Chairman Klug for their support. Fascinatingly, both expressed their own personal interest in eBikes with Tim Fowler suggesting that he'd be interested in seeing eBikes made available to veterans as part of their physical rehabilitation. I promised I'd follow up with him in the New Year after I got my special ZeHus Bike+ powered eBike up and running.
Director Bonnett was standing near the exit and I stopped to thank him for his vote and said that he had raised important issues that needed addressing and I appreciated that. Then something curious occurred.
He asked me if I sold eBikes. I replied that I didn't but that I was planning to start a pilot program to rent them in Omaha's Old Market.
"I think that's the wrong market," he replied, much to my surprise. "I think you should rent them out here."
By 'here' he meant at Wehrspann Lake. Funny, he of all people should bring this up, because I have been thinking about exploring the feasibility of doing just that. He added a lot of "guys" ride their fat tire bikes around the trails here in the Winter. I hadn't planned to use fat tire bikes, but it might be something worth considering, I replied.
I thanked him again and headed out the door, embullient in the knowledge that I was one important step closer to my goal of seeing eBikes accepted as bicycles across Nebraska.
Next stop: the Unicameral, our state legislature in Lincoln.
Definitely to be continue...
Posted By: Bill Moore [20-Dec-2014]
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