If you were thinking of taking refuge from the crowds in Bar Harbor by slipping off into Acadia National Park, think again. On Aug. 29, David Bernhardt, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, issued a “secretarial order” which “simplifies and unifies regulation of electric bicycles (e-bikes) on federal lands” managed by his department.
The order came without warning and without the public input provided for in the regulatory process. The three-page order instructs federal officials of the outdoorsy kind to adopt, amend or rescind policies as necessary to implement the order within their departments.
The Secretary’s stated intention is to eliminate uncertainty about just what an e-bike is. Is it a bicycle? A motor vehicle? Says the Secretary: “This uncertainty must be clarified.” And clarified it is. The order uses the definition provided by the Consumer Product Safety Act for a low-speed electric bicycle: two or three wheels, fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 horsepower). This motor, according to the act, produces a speed of less than 20 mph on a paved level surface with a 170-pound rider.
E-bikes can run up to $12,000, but your basic bike is in the neighborhood of $1,500. Says bicycling.com: “The $1,000 price level is where e-bikes can get sketchy.” Yes, it is an “excellent way for visitors…to experience America’s rich natural heritage,” (per the Department order) but a pricey one.
The order cites three classifications of “low speed electric bicycles.” Class 1 e-bikes are “equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling” and cuts out at 20 mph. Class 2 e-bikes may be ridden under motor power only, with no pedaling at all; these also cut out at 20 mph. Class 3 e-bike motors, as with Class 1, run only when the rider is pedaling but can achieve a speed of 28 mph.
“The addition of a small motor has caused regulatory uncertainty regarding whether e-bikes should be treated in the same manner as other types of bicycles or, alternatively, considered to be motor vehicles.” Only a bureaucracy could question whether the presence of a motor causes “regulatory uncertainty” about whether the vehicle should be considered motorized. The order makes twelve mentions of a motor but still “clarifies” that e-bikes should be treated as non-motorized.
The argument in favor of this change is not without merit. It is “intended to increase recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations…stemming from age, illness, disability or fitness, especially in more challenging environments, such as high altitudes or hilly terrain.” OK, but what is the risk of an ill or aged park visitor on a motorized bicycle in a “challenging environment?”
There are already problems with the current mix of walkers, runners, bicyclists, strollers and dogs on leashes on the carriage roads. Add motorized bicycles traveling at up to 28 mph, fast in bicycle terms, and the danger of close encounters of the ouchy kind will only increase.
At least e-bikes do not create much noise; their motors are nearly silent. So that’s good, right? Well, not if you don’t hear them coming and happen to veer to the side of the road to check out a wildflower or a bird’s nest and step into the path of an e-bike.
The order takes effect immediately. An Aug. 30 policy memorandum from the deputy director of the National Park Service gives further guidance to managers of park lands and requires implementation of the order within 30 days. The memorandum adds this: “Using the electric motor to move an e-bike without pedaling is prohibited.” Picture the park rangers, nice folks all, standing on the side of a carriage path yelling: “You! Pedal!”
As it is, our national parks do not have the resources for basic maintenance or enforcement of existing regulations. The National Park Service put the maintenance backlog at $11.92 billion nationally (September, 2018). In Acadia it is over $60 million. That’s just for maintenance. In a news article in December 2018, Friends of Acadia president David MacDonald said Acadia is “already underfunded and understaffed.”
Now the park will need to monitor the use of e-bikes which, according to the order, “in many cases…appear virtually indistinguishable from other types of bicycles…” There is also the question of how much and how quickly motorized bikes will degrade the condition of the carriage roads.
What the Secretary calls “restrictive access policies” were put in place with overall visitor safety in mind. With the greatest respect, we must say that our summer visitors, vacationers all, often undertake physical activity to which they may not be entirely accustomed, and for which they are ill-prepared. The proposal should have gone through a thorough public process before making such a significant change in the rules.