OCEAN CITY — A clearly divided council voted this week to prohibit any electronic bikes, or e-bikes, on the Boardwalk after a lengthy and tense debate.
With the increased popularity of e-bikes in and around the resort area, the Mayor and Council for the last month or so have been debating if they should be allowed on the Boardwalk at all, and if so, how they should best be regulated. The issue began at the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), came before the Mayor and Council in September, got bounced back to the town’s Police Commission, and finally came back to the Mayor and Council this week.
The BPAC’s recommendation was to allow only the Class 1 e-bikes on the Boardwalk following the usual time of day and time of year restrictions for regular bikes. The Class 1 e-bikes are pedal-assist bikes capable of reaching speeds achieved by riders on most regular bicycles. They require riders to continuously pedal the bikes, but the low-powered engines are ideal for riders who are rehabilitating an injury, have limited capabilities or bad knees or other ailments. The Class 2 and Class 3 e-bikes have higher capabilities.
During Tuesday’s work session, Ocean City Police Sgt. Allen Hawke, who serves on the BPAC, presented his findings regarding the various classes of e-bikes along with a review of ordinances regarding e-bikes in other coastal resort communities. Hawke said the OCPD’s recommendation was not to allow any e-bikes on the Boardwalk.
Councilman Tony DeLuca, who chairs the BPAC, said the OCPD’s recommendation was enough for him.
“I’ve actively listened to everything and I’ve listened to Sgt. Hawke,” he said. “A week ago, we had a presentation at 65th Street and what was striking to me was you can’t tell the difference between the classes. I’ll make a motion to prohibit all e-bikes on the Boardwalk.”
Councilman Matt James said his concern was making such a blanket prohibition on e-bikes, especially heading into the offseason where at least the Class 1 bikes could be allowed on a trial basis.
“I get the concerns,” he said. “I just think it’s too broad. I think we should include language that follows our bicycle ordinance. I don’t think there would be any problem with them right now. I’m not sure about July and August.”
Councilman John Gehrig said enforcement should focus more on the behavior of the individual operating the e-bikes, or any bicycles for that matter, than the vehicles themselves.
“I think it’s more the behavior than the device,” he said. “It’s like the gun debate. I don’t think that the e-bikes are a problem. I think it’s the behavior of some on the e-bikes that could create a problem. We don’t need to ban something before we see if there is a problem. We are assuming they would be a problem.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said he also supported allowing at least the Class 1 e-bikes.
“How many crashes or collisions involving e-bikes on the Boardwalk? Zero,” he said. “It shocks me that without warning we’re going back on this. It’s the person on the bike and not the bike we need to be worried about.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said it would be a burden for the OCPD to have to distinguish between the different classes of bikes with everything else they have to cover on the Boardwalk.
“I just don’t see adding another layer of enforcement up there,” he said. “There is just too much risk in allowing motorized vehicles up there.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said she wasn’t entirely sure those on e-bikes would self-regulate.
“Right now, you can rent an e-bike in West Ocean City and they would instruct you to only pedal when on the Boardwalk,” she said. “We all know people don’t follow the rules and recommendations.”
Gehrig said the e-bike debate was like so many others from his colleagues on the council.
“We make massive assumptions based on fear and personal bias and not based on facts,” he said. “We’re really good at that as a body. It just seems irresponsible.
James asked if there was any interest in amending the motion to allow just the Class 1 e-bikes on the Boardwalk.
“If we’re just basing the decision on facts, we might as well ban the Boardwalk tram because that has caused more bodily harm over the years than any bicycle, motorized or otherwise,” he said.
However, Deluca was not interested in the compromise Class 1 option, citing the difficulty in telling the different classes apart.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “You’re obviously not listening. The bottom line is this. You can’t tell the difference. This seems like a simple discussion.”
After considerable debate among the elected officials, the council voted 4-3 with James, Gehrig and Paddack in opposition to prohibit any electronic bikes on the Boardwalk.