As of this week, e-bikes that travel up to 30 miles per hour are allowed on bike trails in Wisconsin.
Gov. Tony Evers on Nov. 20 signed a bipartisan bill into law that reclassifies e-bicycles, that can be operated by traditional pedaling or by a rechargeable electric motor, to be ridden on trails.
E-bikes are growing in popularity worldwide, including in Wisconsin. Until now, they’ve been regulated in the state as motor bikes, banned from trails, and users have been required to have a driver’s license.
With the Glacial Drumlin State Trail running through downtown Deerfield, the change has a direct local impact.
In the winter, Deerfield residents are used to seeing snowmobiles, that at full throttle can easily reach speeds of 100 miles an hour, on the Glacial Drumlin State Bike Trail that passes through downtown.
Local residents know that walking dogs and generally using the state trail on foot in the winter is dangerous because of the presence of snowmobiles. We willingly cede use to them, however, knowing this is a longtime part of our local winter culture.
But during other seasons of the year, the state trail that stretches eastward and westward out of Deerfield on a historic rail bed, is reserved for non-motorized recreation. It has — until now — been a safe place for families to spend a summer day hiking or biking.
We recognize the argument that some high-performance traditional bikes can be pedaled at speeds of 25 miles per hour, and that e-bike speeds don’t rise much above that. The danger of speeding bikes already exists, some argue.
This, nevertheless, feels like a game changer.
There is not, for instance, a minimum age to operate a traditionally pedaled bike. There is a minimum age to operate some e-bikes.
There are three classifications of e-bikes listed in the new law. Class 3 is the top tier in terms of speed, with the motor operable up to 28 miles per hour (it automatically kicks off at that point and requires the rider to pedal).
The new law’s language restricts the use of Class 3 e-bikes to riders age 16 and older. That to take a Class 3 e-bike on a trail, you need to have reached an age that corresponds with the minimum age to drive a motor vehicle, is a red flag.
The new law does give municipalities and counties some control. They can locally regulate e-bikes, including setting speed limits, within their jurisdictional limits.
We hope the Deerfield Village Board and Deerfield Town Board, whose jurisdictions the local stretch of trail passes through, consider this possibility. But even if e-bikes were locally regulated, would the limited police force in our rural area realistically have the time to stand on the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, ticketing speeding bikers?
We understand that in urban areas, where e-bikes are an increasingly common means of transportation to work and school, an alternative to cars, buses and taxis, that this is a great step. And we can see the allure here of hopping onto an e-bike and zipping to Lake Mills or Cottage Grove in 15 minutes, almost as fast as travelling by car.
But we also see the potential for out-of-control high-speed crashes, and more lethal crashes as these bikes are bigger and heavier than traditional bikes. In other parts of the world where e-bike use has exploded, some data shows that serious injury crashes are on the rise.
We’re worried that a coming proliferation of e-bikes and anticipated abuse by some riders, will lead Deerfield families to avoid the local stretch of trail in the summer out of safety concerns. That would be sad.
We’re looking to the town and village to restore that sense of security by considering local restrictions on e-bike use, in tandem with a conversation with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office about what is realistically enforceable.
With snowmobile season now underway, we have the winter to figure this out.