Less than a year ago, Brad Hepfer thought his beloved daily bike rides in the great outdoors were over.
The 72-year-old, a diabetic, underwent two knee replacement surgeries and just as he was feeling fit, he suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.
But on a barren Sunday, the Quarryville resident pedaled across the Safe Harbor railroad trestle, which connects two of Lancaster County’s most popular rail routes.
Rather than hang up his bike and give up his trips to the great outdoors, Hepfer has cycled 3,300 miles since his heart surgery. Thanks to an e-bike.
“It was a stroke of luck,” he says.
Electric bikes, commonly referred to as e-bikes, are one of the hottest things in cycling and outdoor recreation these days. They are used both for commuting to work or for locomotion on city streets, as well as for riding on Lancaster County’s many public multi-use trails.
“The pandemic just got it rolling. People wanted to do something and decided to try it,” says Ryan Finger, co-owner of Lancaster City electric bike shop and rental Let’s Roll, which opened in 2022. Business was so good that Finger and his law partner-in-law Tim Hill opened a second location a block from the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail in Columbia in April.
With a nearly silent electric motor and battery, a rechargeable e-bike helps you pedal when you need it. Many e-bikes also have the option of going full throttle and pedaling completely for you.
In pandemic times, when record numbers of people are going out into nature, e-bikes are exactly what the doctor ordered for many seniors and people with physical disabilities. Even healthy people find that they can ride further and see more with the pedaling assistance that bikes offer.
“Seventy-five percent of our customers are elderly. They just need a little help up the hill or want to go a little further,” says Finger. “And it’s a great way for families to do things together outside.”
But there was also pushback from some trail users, most commonly complaining about high speeds and startled by the silent ships zooming past or racing towards them.
“I was kind of pushed off the beaten track by people coming at me down the path at godless speed. They don’t pedal at all. You are basically dirt biking on the trail. Her hair blows in the wind,” says Jim Hearn, a member of the Martic Township Rail Trail Advisory Committee that directs use on the Enola Low Grade Trail. “There is a real politeness issue that we expect to become more common.”
But Hearn also has friends who are starting to ride bikes again because they bought e-bikes. “What we see are older people. People who would otherwise not ride a bike are now pedaling in the open air. This results in many positive aspects.”
An e-bike can allow someone to keep up with a partner, leading to more time together outdoors. Some trail users polled on Rail-Trails in the county grumble that e-bikes are some kind of fraudulent way to ride a bike.
Amid this sudden and growing popularity of e-bikes, trail and country managers across the county are struggling to determine what controls, if any, should be imposed on the new kids on the block.
The results were all over the map, with many officials waiting to see what others will do.
Here is an overview:
Enola Low Grade Trail
Officials from the six communities bordering the rail line will soon meet to draft a proposal to regulate e-bikes based on new guidelines announced in December by the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for state forests and state parks .
After a public comment period with 640 responses, these regulations allow e-bikes that use pedal-assist motors and shut down when the bikes reach 20 mph (32 km/h) to be ridden on trails and roads that are currently legal for other types of bikes. The purely motorized driving of e-bikes without pedaling is prohibited. Bicycles may not have motors exceeding 750 watts.
Manor Township Enola Low Grade Rail Trail
“We currently allow all e-bikes. There are no rules against them,” says Ryan Strohecker, township manager, adding, “We’ve had no real problems and no complaints.”
Lancaster Junction, Conewago Rail Trails, County Parks
District commissioners are expected to act later this month on proposed new regulations that would reflect the new DCNR rules for pedal-assist-only e-bikes and a 20-mph speed limit.
“As with all of our parking businesses, our e-bike users appear to be as diverse a group as any other group we encounter. All in all, the e-bikes haven’t harmed our parks,” says Robert R. Devonshire Jr., director of the Office of General Services.
E-bikes would still be allowed on trails where conventional bicycles are allowed.
Northwest Lancaster County River Trail
Officials from the communities the trail passes through are expected to meet soon to consider updating the regulations, possibly based on the new DCNR rules. E-bikes up to 300 watts are currently permitted. However, most e-bikes now have more powerful motors.
“We certainly had some complaints about the speed,” says Hope Byers, director of the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center.
Rail Trail from Warwick to Ephrata
E-bikes with motors up to 300 watts are permitted.
“We have a decent number of e-bikes using the trail and get the occasional call about speed, but overall it doesn’t seem like a big issue,” says Warwick Township manager Brian Harris.
Rails-to-Trails in the Lebanon Valley
E-bikes with pedal assistance only are permitted with motors up to 750 watts. The maximum speed is 15 km/h.
Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick
E-bikes are prohibited in the park, even on trails that allow mountain bikes.
“We’re waiting to see how this affects other countries,” says park naturalist Audrey Wells.
State Playing Countries
E-bikes are prohibited on state wildlife areas, including roads open to public traffic.
The use of e-bikes to help older hunters and anglers get to indoor areas had been provisionally approved in January 2020 but was defeated 5-3 in a final vote eight months later over concerns about wild place conservation exist in wild areas.
Lancaster Conservancy preserves
E-bikes and mountain bikes aren’t banned in canned goods, but they are discouraged, says Phil Wenger, CEO and president. Where bicycles cause an environmental problem, they are banned, which has only happened a few times so far.
“It’s not a rule because it’s not a problem,” says Wenger.
Although speed and other issues with e-bikes were raised by a wide range of trail users interviewed for this column, the majority had no real concerns about their fellow travelers.
The most common observation from both trail users and managers is that if everyone follows common trail etiquette, everyone can share the trail safely and with courtesy.
Ring a bell or alert someone when you hand over a bike. Control your speed when sharing the trail with many others.
As Deb Cech, a Berks County resident who recently hiked the Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail, noted, “You just have to know who’s traveling with you and be kind to them.”
Ad Crable is a LNP | LancasterOnline Outdoor Author. Email him at [email protected]
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