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Love riding your electric bike along Anchorage's trails? Well, guess what -- it's illegal.

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published May 15, 2016

Combine parts of a fat bike and mountain bike into a reverse tricycle, add a battery-powered motor and what do you get?

A bizarre creature with two front wheels and a fat tire in the back that can effortlessly spurt around Anchorage, smoothing out hills and adding stability over bumps, according to its creator, Jeffrey Todd Brown.

"I like to say it's the closest thing you'll get to a 'Star Wars' pod racer on wheels," he said.

But there's a problem.

Electric cycles can't legally be ridden on Anchorage's sidewalks, recreational trails and bike paths, according to the Anchorage municipal attorney. That includes commercially available electric bikes that, unlike Brown's unusual invention, look a lot like standard bicycles.

Anchorage's municipal code isn't the only obstacle. State law treats e-bikes like motor scooters that are limited to roads and streets.

Brown, who spent two years and more than $1,000 on his invention, has thoughts of one day selling it.

He said the law needs to support electric cycles that offer people new ways to commute. The electric rides might one day provide the basis for a new industry in Alaska, similar to popular fat bikes that originated here.

And Brown isn't alone. Advocates say they're as safe as traditional bikes and should be treated the same. A growing variety of electrically assisted bikes -- the motor kicks in when the pedaling starts, adding extra oomph to each stroke -- are showing up across the city.

But detractors say they present extra risk on bike paths because they're heavy and can boost speeds, increasing the potential for crashes.

Cary Shiflea, founder of Alaska eBike, said e-bikes are growing in popularity in Alaska and nationally.

His small business offers more than 60 electric bikes on its website, thanks to an explosion of styles from manufacturers outside Alaska.

The offerings include cargo e-bikes with strong propulsion systems, mountain e-bikes with shock absorbers that smooth rocky trails and motorized urban e-bikes with racks for groceries.

Pedaling them is sort of "like being on a moving walkway" at the airport, except the motor stops when the pedaling ceases, Shiflea said on Friday, as he showed a $2,500 Surface Boar fat-tire e-bike to a reporter.

The e-bike weighed about 55 pounds, about 20 pounds higher than many standard fat bikes. But the Surface Boar looked sleek, with the rechargeable battery mounted along the frame and a large rear hub housing the motor.

The motorized help is limited to 20 mph, meeting a federal requirement.

Going that fast takes effort. On Friday, a reporter on a flat street pedaled aggressively but couldn't exceed 19 mph on the digital monitor. As soon as the pedaling stopped, so did the electric help. The motor was set to its strongest level -- it can be hand-adjusted while riding. The e-bike gained speed more quickly than a traditional bike, but it also stopped quickly with disc brakes.

Shiflea said he officially launched the business last year, selling a dozen electric bikes. He is on track to more than double sales this year.

About three-quarters of his customers have been the elderly or people battling health issues, including former cyclists with bad knees or hips, he said. Some younger folks have purchased e-bikes as well, choosing them instead of cars to eliminate gas, insurance and other expenses.

"This will do for biking what the chairlift did for skiing," Shiflea said. "It allows anyone to get out there and ride."

One recent Alaska eBike customer was the Anchorage Library, which purchased a Spicy Curry cargo e-bike as part of a $7,000, grant-funded effort to create a two-wheeled bookmobile for outdoor events.

The goals of the Library-a-Go-Go program include drumming up public interest in literacy, with a portable Wi-Fi system that allows people to sign up for library cards and check out books on the spot, organizers said.

The library had intended to ride the electrically assisted bike for the first time on Saturday, traveling from the Loussac Library to a downtown spring festival a few miles away.

The library had checked with three municipal departments, including the Anchorage Police Department, to make sure the e-bike presented no legal complications. The library was told the e-bike could legally be operated anywhere a normal bike could, as long as it wasn't used at fast speeds, said Sarah Preskitt, a librarian.

But the library canceled the inaugural e-bike ride last week, after Anchorage municipal attorney Bill Falsey reviewed the municipal code. He said e-bikes can legally be operated on Anchorage's roads and streets. But sidewalks, recreational trails and bike paths are off limits under the code.

The library, concerned about the risk of riding the e-bike on Anchorage's streets, won't use the bike as originally intended, not unless the code is changed. For now, it plans to haul the e-bike to events in a van.

"We have to honor the law, of course," said Annie Reeves, the library's community relations coordinator. " The law is ambiguous, but we'd rather err on the side of caution."

Falsey said that e-bikes haven't presented an enforcement issue for Anchorage police as far as he knows. But municipal code considers bikes with electric motors to be a bicycle, as well as a motorized vehicle like a moped or car.

"Our sense is the code was probably not written with (modern) electric bikes in mind," he said.

The code could be "helpfully clarified," though such a step would require action by the Anchorage Assembly, he said.

Not everyone is open to the idea of e-bikes sharing space with standard bikes.

Christopher Souser, president of the Arctic Bike Club, said the 500-member group has not officially taken a position on e-bikes. But the club dedicates a page on its web site to spell out their legal limits. The club notes that state law considers e-bikes to be scooters, so riders must obtain an operator's license to use them on streets or roadways.

Souser said the post was created a few years ago as concerned club members begin seeing bikes that had been souped up by hobbyists with "weed-whacker engines."

But today's commercial e-bikes are still a concern, with some members worrying about safety.

"Personally, I'm torn," he said. "I think it's good to get people out bicycling, even if it is electric."

But like some of the club's members, he believes the bikes present a new risk on trails because they allow anyone to go faster than they normally would, on a heavier bike.

"To a degree it's also the spirit of the sport," Souser said. "Some people have ethical issues about whether it's truly bicycling or whether it's a motorcycle."

Shiflea said classic cyclists' opposition to e-bikes is "elitist." Just like most regular riders, e-bike riders will limit themselves to safe speeds, he said.

"It's a fairly biased assumption that people will use them as hot rods," he said. "I see them as increasing the overall bike community, creating more trail users and trail caretakers."

Because e-bikes are growing more popular, he'd like to see the laws clearly spell out that they can legally venture where any bike can.

Before he opened his e-bike business, he checked with state and local authorities and federal agencies on the e-bike's legal limitations. He said he got a thumbs-up.

Other states have cleared up "gray legal areas" and Alaska should too, he said.

"It's comical to think you have to go the DMV to get a permit to operate these," he said. "You ride them just like any other bike. So the law needs to be updated."

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