Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Surging ‘E-bike’ popularity raising eyebrows on Wrightsville Beach

This page from a Wrightsville Beach memo lays out the crux of a new conundrum: Beach leaders don’t necessarily have a problem with bike riding, but the law is on the books. The emergence of the ‘E-bike’ trend has forced leaders to reconsider the rule as it stands. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wrightsville Beach)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Shakeups in the world of bicycles have led the Town of Wrightsville Beach to reconsider a long-standing ordinance that prohibits vehicle travel on the beach. 

Any sort of vehicle — even human-powered ones like bicycles — have been outlawed on the sand since 1989. Exceptions are granted for government vehicles, and events like the U.S. Open Fat Bike Beach Championships held last year, which was sponsored by Wrightsville Beach businesses and brought in tourism dollars for the town.

At a board of alderman meeting Thursday night, the beach town government might update the ordinance. 

Calls for reform have been sparked partly by the advent of new bicycle technology. Last month, chief of police David Squires presented different options to board members. 

“Just recently, there have been reports of fat tire E-bikes on the beach,” according to a board of alderman memo. “E-bikes are capable of reaching a lot higher speed than bikes operated under human power. The presence of these bikes have prompted a review of the entire bike ordinance.”

Referring to bicycles that bolster human pedaling with motorized aid — which have spiked in popularity among locals and tourists cruising county beaches in the past year — Wrightsville Beach is reviewing its all-around bicycle ordinance.

Shawn Spencer, the owner of Bike Cycles in Wilmington, said there are three classes of “E-assist” bicycles. Distinguishing the throttled and pedal-assisted variants can be difficult he said, and bikes that can reach speeds higher than 20mph have only been prevalent on the market for a short time.

Class 1 bikes have motorized assistance that allow for speeds of up to 20mph, with no throttle. Class 2 bikes have a similar speed limit, but users yield a throttle. Class 3 bikes are pedal-assisted with no throttle, and can reach 28mph.

The National Park Service allows Class 1 bikes in its jurisdictions, Spencer said.

“I think the issue might be the rental of Class 2 bicycles in and around the area,” Spencer said. “Because you have people coming in riding these bikes with throttles, who are possibly going out on the beach with a throttle, effectively having a motorized vehicle on the beach.”

Spencer predicts that cyclists might soon flock to the Cross City Trail in motorized E-bikes, which could cause headaches for municipal leaders, as the rise in the product’s popularity has predated regulation.

According to Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller, authorities have historically been lax in enforcing the prohibition of bikes on the sand. Riding bikes on beach sidewalks is also outlawed.

“If you look at our website, evidently there’s a bicycle on our website, on the beach,” Miller said. 

According to options presented to the board by Squires, beach town leaders have a few paths forward. The ordinance could be kept as written, and police would begin enforcing it. Secondly, the text could be rewritten to allow for bicycles on the beach in some capacity. 

Bicycle violations, as it stands now, are not a significant source of complaint, injury or enforcement actions, according to town documents. One proposal that’s been floated is continuing to disallow vehicles while lifeguards are on the stands.

While Option 1 would lead to a blanketed prohibition of all bicycles, and presumably a higher degree of enforcement, Option 2 could involve carve-outs for regular bicycles. 

As Option 2 is presented in the memo: “We modify the ordinance to allow for human powered bicycles and continue to prohibit the use of power assisted bicycles on the beach.” 

“They don’t want to just completely destroy the fat tire, below ten mile an hour, 50-year-old dude riding his bike on the beach, early in the morning for sunrise,” Spencer said. “They don’t want to kill that because that’s almost become part of the culture here. What they do want to try to figure out is how to keep people from going 25 miles per hour down the beach with a throttle.”

Miller said he doesn’t understand why a bike ban was ever put on the books in the first place, though previous leaders probably had strong reasons, he added.

“I don’t know who thought that was a good idea, but I don’t think it was,” he said.

According to Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller, the board revised the policy to limit pedal-assisted and manual bicycles from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the window of April 1 to Oct. 1.

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