The clock was ticking.
Their work in Anchorage was done, but with return flights scheduled for later in the afternoon, the trio of visitors wanted to do some exploring in the few hours they had remaining.
Shalaya Morissette, Rephel Martin and Jimmy Hendrix rented e-bikes downtown and rode the city’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, nearly reaching Kincaid Park before returning back.
Between Alaskans and tourists to the state, more e-bikes are finding their way onto Anchorage trails and streets this summer. They offer riders added range, mobility and approachability. But they also potentially bring an added element of increased speed to mixed-use trails that are already buzzing with activity.
For the three visitors traveling to Anchorage for work with the U.S. Department of Energy, the experience checked all the boxes: it was fun, accessible and efficient, even allowing for a moose sighting from the trail.
“Hiking is great but you can only hike so far in so much time,” Hendrix said. “(On an) e-bike, we were able to do 20 miles where we may have done 2-3 miles hiking and were able to see so much more. In a place like (Alaska), you can really put some miles in and see some things.”
It’s a common refrain among visitors as e-bikes have become a more ordinary sight around the popular Westchester Lagoon this summer.
In May, the Alaska Legislature passed House Bill 8, controlling how e-bikes are classified under state law.
The bill divided the bikes into three categories that are standard within the industry. Under the bill, classes 1 and 2 reach up 20 miles per hour and class 3 goes up to 28 mph. The main difference between class 1 and class 2 is the inclusion of a throttle.
As long as they have functioning pedals that allow for the e-bikes to be self-propelled and have motors that generate less than 750 watts of power, they are categorized as bikes and not with other powered vehicles like mopeds or motor scooters.
Anchorage already had in place a law — AO-2016-67 — that allowed low-speed e-bikes, less than 20 mph, on local sidewalks, trails and pathways.
Although the bikes vary in body style, most look like traditional bikes and have batteries that attach to the frame and can be swapped out for charging. The bikes are generally significantly heavier than traditional pedal bikes. They have been increasing in popularity around the world, especially in China, where they are produced and used at high rates.
At Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals on the west end of downtown, owner Antonio “Pablo” Luca Portillo has seen a brisk increase in his stable of e-bikes, which now outnumber traditional bikes in his rental fleet. Just a few years ago, e-bikes made up only a sliver of his overall stock.
“It’s been consequential for sure,” he said of the increase. “Dramatic.”
While he estimates 70% of his rentals are to tourists, he still counts locals as a big chunk of his business as well as regular returning visitors like pilots and other airline crew members.
He said the bikes have also offered a major mobility boost to riders who otherwise couldn’t ride standard bikes. This summer he took his mother, who was recently in a serious car accident, for a ride on a tandem e-bike.
“To provide that for my mother and for all kinds of seniors, people with disabilities, it’s been a change,” he said. “It’s more inclusive. More happiness all around for sure.”
Michele Gray is one of those riders who are having their mobility increased.
She and her husband, Bob Gray, were visiting Anchorage from New Zealand in June and rented e-bikes to get around town. Regular riders on the coastal trail back in their home of New Plymouth on New Zealand’s North Island, she planning a big trip to bike on the South Island next spring.
“I’ve got a health problem and it makes it just so much easier to get out and use,” she said.
While e-bikes might be a natural inclination for aging riders, they are by no means the only constituency.
‘More people on bikes is good’
A 2020 survey analysis by then-UAA student Toni Clark indicated riders age 35-44 were the most populated group out of 174 local respondents with experience riding e-bikes, at 27%. Other groups were very close, with 22% of surveyed each in the 25-34 and 45-54 groups and 21% ages 55-64.
That more broad interest has been the experience of Alaska eBike founder Cary Shiflea. He’s been in business since 2014 and focuses mainly on sales with a small fleet of rentals mostly reserved for test-riding. He believes his clientele includes a near equal split between commuters, mountain bikers and in-town trail riders.
“The standard customer is a little bit of everybody really,” he said. “It’s everybody from the cycle freak who is already riding 100 miles a day ... and then the person who hasn’t bought a bike in 10 years. So it’s really hard to kind of put a finger on who is that customer. It is all across the board.”
Jacob Powell, a board member of Bike Anchorage, a local group focused on bicycle advocacy and education, said his organization is excited about the influx of e-bikers and believes recent legislation is a positive development.
“More people on bikes is good,” he said. “E-bikes increase accessibility and make bikes a lot more viable for more trips and decrease the barrier to entry to use them for more trips. And there’s a lot of data that backs that up.”
But more trips often means more traffic on Anchorage trails. And with speeds of up to 20 mph, some local trail users worry about safety issues. Powell said that while trail safety is a priority for the organization, he views it as an opportunity to engage in discussions on trail etiquette and best practices.
“That is really the solution,” he said. “Conversations as a community around norms and expectations. And I think in that beginning stage where more people are using e-bikes and there’s more of them, there’s going to be more conflict. But I’m not worried about it. I guess because as more people use the bikes, they’re gonna realize this is amazing. The technology is not the problem. It’s the behaviors.”
At Pablo’s, Portillo said they set the e-bikes to top out at 18.5 mph. Shiflea believes it’s not really about the speed for most riders but about receiving an opportune boost.
“Most of our customers aren’t trying to go fast,” he said. “The commuter guys might want to kind of get to work fast. The general customer wants to ride a bike at like 10 miles an hour, but they don’t want to have to pedal hard up a hill or into a headwind. So just because their bike goes up to 20, I would say most customers, their reaction is ‘Wow, I don’t need to go that fast.’ ”
Clark’s analysis also asked respondents about perceived trail etiquette. On a range of 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest or best, the average etiquette score for traditional cyclists was 6.76. E-bikers had an average score of 5.68.
Both Shiflea and Powell acknowledge in-town multi-use trails may be increasingly busy with more e-bikes, but say that’s simply an indicator for a need for more bike infrastructure. Shiflea believes traffic on the Coastal Trail has demonstrated a popularity level to justify widening it significantly in stretches.
“We need more bike lanes and we need more infrastructure that makes people feel safe to use bikes,” Powell said. “E-bikes allow more people to get out on bikes which means we need more capacity on the trails and in our bike infrastructure.”
While the United States saw a significant boom in e-bike popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the country still lags behind some places in Europe and, especially, in Asia. Still, Powell believes the phenomenon is here to stay and Anchorage should prepare for continued growth.
“My mom and I go for bike rides now and I have to tell her to slow down and that’s amazing,” Powell said. “We can go for so much longer. I think e-bikes really are so transformational in the way that you move around. It’s just like very exciting and good for the future of our city.”
Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed House Bill 8 in May. Dunleavy did not sign the bill; he vetoed it on July 20.