With e-bike popularity booming, Chesapeake sets some ground rules

Gordon Rago, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

For David Thomas, the business of e-bikes has been good.

Sales at his Virginia Beach Electric Bike Center, which he opened 11 years ago, increase each year. Today, he’s selling about 300 to 400 a year.

The growth in popularity of the electric bike is not unique to the boardwalks of Virginia Beach. Thomas says he gets customers from all over Hampton Roads and Virginia and from out of state, too.

The bikes are convenient for commuters, environmentally conscious young people and seniors who might be battling bad knees but still want to get out for a ride with the family. The industry has only gotten a boost during the coronavirus pandemic as more and more people sought to get outside.

“People are putting their car keys down more,” Thomas said.

With more e-bikes on the road, states and local governments have been passing regulations about where they can be used and what types are allowed. E-bikes come in three classes, based on speed and how much assistance the motor gives to the rider.

Last year, the National Park Service adopted a rule to allow e-bikes in parks with limits similar to those applied to regular bikes, such as not allowing riders to go into wilderness areas.

On Tuesday, the Chesapeake City Council entered the fray, unanimously adopting an ordinance to allow the two slower classes of e-bikes on “paved surfaces, paths, shared used paths, and trails where conventional bikes are currently allowed.”

Chesapeake is likely the first city in the region to adopt an e-bike regulation. Some cities in the region began regulating electric scooters when they started showing up on street corners a couple years ago.

E-bikes can be on the expensive side. Though some say there are more affordable options, you get what you pay for: Thomas says you’d need to spend around $1,800 to get a decent e-bike.

The bikes are broken into three classes: Class one is pedal-assisted, meaning you get the help of the motor from pedaling as opposed to a throttle. The assistance stops after the rider reaches 20 mph. A class two e-bike has a throttle to use the motor and also goes up to 20 mph.

Class three e-bikes, which Chesapeake is not allowing on trails and paths in city parks, are also pedal-assisted, but go up to 28 mph with the motor.

The city says the e-bike ordinance is in response to a state law that went into effect in July. That law gives electric bikes the same rights and privileges as bicycles. Virginia is now one of nearly 30 states where e-bikes are part of their traffic codes and regulated similarly to traditional bicycles, according to PeopleForBikes, an advocacy group.

Chesapeake wasn’t having any conflicts with people using e-bikes in the city, but Mike Barber, the director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said he wanted to act now to prevent any issues in the future.

The ordinance gives the city some leeway. They won’t be allowing e-bikes on some of the natural trails found in Indian River and Northwest River parks, Barber said, because their speed could make it dangerous to ride them on unpaved trails.

He says the best spot people have found for e-bikes is the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, which has miles of paved road for runners, walkers and bikers.

Enforcement will be tricky and the city will strive to educate people about speeds and where the bikes can be used instead of writing tickets. They won’t be going out looking for violations; instead, the city usually sends a park ranger out if someone complains.

“Are we going to set up a radar in the Dismal Swamp?” Barber said. “I would doubt that.”

Plus, people who use the trails tend to work out issues themselves, Barber said.

Thomas, the shop owner, said he got his first e-bike 14 years ago while living in downtown San Diego.

“The benefits were immediate to me,” he said. Parking wasn’t a worry. Getting from point A to point B was easier.

He moved back to Virginia Beach, where he’s from, to open up his store to get more people on the East Coast to join the bandwagon.

Thomas believes having regulations like Chesapeake’s new ones helps to keep everybody in line. Knowing the bikes are allowed and what the rules are could also draw more riders.

Whatever gets someone on a bike, Thomas says.

Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, gordon.rago@pilotonline.com