E-bikes are becoming increasingly popular on island beaches and pathways. Discussion continues about a proposed Town ordinance to govern proper use of the bikes. COURTESY AVOCADO BIKES

If you’re not really paying attention, you might think all bikes are created equal. But a trend toward electric motorized bikes is causing much concern among users of the already congested pathways on Hilton Head Island.

After a number of residents raised repeated concerns about the growing use of the e-bikes along island pathways, the Town’s Public Planning Committee is looking to create an ordinance governing the proper use of the vehicles. The issue was brought to the Town in early 2021 and the discussion is just now gaining momentum toward an ordinance.

Electric bikes have a motor that can be triggered either by pedaling or by using a throttle similar to a scooter or motorcycle. The bikes have become popular among older residents and visitors who have eschewed pedaling a bike but want to continue to include biking as part of their exercise plan. They have also become popular with teenage bike riders and with commuters traveling across the island for work.

The popularity of e-bikes is exploding nationwide, with a 240% growth from July 2020 to July 2021. That is 16 times faster than the 15% growth of regular bike sales in the same period. What was at first seen as a fad by bike enthusiasts at the onset of the COVID pandemic has turned into  a sustained growth in both usage and in sales. There are a handful of businesses on Hilton Head that now exclusively sell and rent e-bikes, some that have up to a 100-mile range on one charge.

Town staff attorney Diane Busch made a presentation to the committee at its Dec. 16 meeting, outlining the scope of the issue, the potential problems the bikes create and the recommendations from staff on how to move forward.

Busch said that in staff’s examination of the industry and usage on the island, they support the industry insider belief that e-bikes are more than a fad.

“Yes, it’s a fashion trend, but it is staff belief that we need to make clear that e-bikes are here to stay and address the issue appropriately,” Busch said at the Dec. 16 presentation.

So how does the Town address the safety concerns and the regulation of the vehicles? At issue is the basic premise of what state law governs.

Busch and Town staff are interpreting South Carolina state code adopted in February 2020 as a mandate that e-bikes must be allowed on pathways, while groups like the Coalition of Island Neighbors (COIN) disagree.

“We feel the staff interpretation of state law is inaccurate … we do not have to and should not allow use of e-bikes on our pathways,” said COIN co-founder Patsy Brison, who provided the committee with multiple photos of potential problems with pathways being already too narrow and full of root growth over the asphalt that would make the continued use of e-bikes too dangerous.

Some e-bikes can reach speeds of 28 mph, which causes an immediate danger to regular bicyclists and pedestrians using the pathways.

The committee asked for further study of the issue and Town staff recommendations, which were presented by Deputy Town Manager Josh Gruber at the committee’s Jan. 27 meeting.

Gruber proposed a draft of an ordinance that would include a speed limit of 12 mph for the bikes, an education program initiated by the Town that would require distribution of safety and etiquette guidelines given to renters by bike shop owners with each transaction, and require the use of technology by the bike shops to restrict the speed of the bikes to a maximum of 12 mph.

Frank Babel of Bike Walk Hilton Head said during Jan. 27 comments that the organization’s major concern is the safety of all riders and that e-bikes do not discourage the overall use of bikes on the pathway.

“I encourage you all to go out, to take a look at both the high-congestion areas like the Pope Avenue corridor and U.S. 278 and the usage on side streets to see how this issue is evolving,” Babel said.

Gruber said that the Town has worked with bike shop owners, POAs and concerned citizens in moving toward an ordinance, and that all stakeholders agree that more safety information needs to be provided to riders. How that information is conveyed, whether by the staff or by groups such as Bike Walk Hilton Head, must be addressed.

“We believe that the recommendations begin to take steps to address concerns out there in a meaningful way, but that we are going to have to monitor this situation and the growth of e-bike usage,” Gruber said. He said that while there is a notion that these bikes are a millennial and teenage trend, one bike shop owner said their average renter is 54 years old.

The Town ordinance would require additional signage be placed on the pathways, especially in the high-congestion areas.

Committee members voiced continued concern that while the pathways are becoming more congested, there is not enough governance or attention paid to the problem.

“We give far more concern to beach regulation and maintenance than we do to the pathways and we need to address that balance,” said committee member Alex Brown.

Each committee member voiced concern that the e-bikes are allowed to be used on beaches and that any ordinance needs to address this and potentially limit beach usage.

“We have issues on the beaches, we haven’t properly addressed the impact of ordinances on commuters. This is just not an issue we should pay short attention to,” said committee member Tamara Becker. “We have to create regulations that we can actually enforce, not just regulation for the sake of regulation.”

To that end, committee member Glenn Stanford suggested that the town should employ dedicated enforcement staff on the pathways.

The committee approved by a 3-1 vote for Town staff to create a draft ordinance that would be presented at the committee’s February meeting, with hopes of a first reading to Town Council at their March 15 meeting and a second reading at the April 5 Town Council meeting. Committee members also wanted more study of overall bike and pathway usage impact in the town’s upcoming Pope Avenue Streetscape project.

While there is agreement that the Town needs to take action here, there is much disagreement on just how far the Town can or should go with governing e-bikes.

“Enforcement is going to be a key component to this issue,” said committee chairman David Ames. “Who is accountable for the abuses here? We have to get the purveyors of these vehicles to be our partners in ensuring the safe use of e-bikes moving forward.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.