I remember my mother and I walking down a narrow trail near our apartment. I was about 8 or 9, and happy to be out in the embrace of nature. Suddenly the peaceful silence was interrupted by an approaching gas engine. We turned around to see a dirt bike traveling at a high speed toward us. We scurried out of the way to avoid being hit by the teenager recklessly piloting his gas powered dirt bike at speeds exceeding 30 mph. The sound of the small engine was deafening as the vehicle sped by on the skinny right of way. The speed was dangerous, and the noise was obnoxious.
Fast forward 30 years to this past weekend, when I was riding my Sondors electric bike along the Empire State Trail (Erie Canalway Trail) on a 40-mile round trip to Spencerport, New York. With each road I crossed, I was greeted by a familiar sign that I had seen so many times before… “NO MOTOR VEHICLES.”
Technically, my electric bike has a motor. It can be used in pedal assist mode (which is what I do 99% of the time) or I can use the handlebar throttle. Either way, the maximum speed the motor can reach before hitting the “limiter” is 20mph. No faster than the average MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra) can cruise on his $3,200 racing bike. And let’s be real, I can maintain this speed on my $199 fixed gear bike as well if fitness was the reason I rode… but it’s not.
Furthermore, my ebike is quiet… the only difference between my motor-assisted ride and a regular bike is a faint “whirring” sound from the motor which is so subtle you might not even hear it.
In short, while my ebike technically has a motor, making it “illegal” on most trails, it’s not really the kind of motor these signs were intended to prevent. “No Motor Vehicles” signage was created to ensure that cars, trucks, gas powered “go-karts” and dirt bikes… all heavy, loud, fast and disruptive… are explicitly forbidden to blend with bikes and people on foot. These warnings do not account for the new waves of quiet, small, light micro-mobility devices which travel about the same speed as your average bike. The difference between an ebike, an electric scooter or skateboard and a regular bike is negligible. The potential speed remains about the same… the only difference is the amount of effort it takes to reach that speed.
“No Motor Vehicles” signage needs to be replaced by “No Gas Powered Vehicles,” along with a reasonable trail speed limit, or a speed limit when passing pedestrians. Electric powered or assisted mobility has changed the definition of the “motor,” and we need to embrace this change as one that makes our trail networks better.