Ocean City puts off e
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OCEAN CITY — E-bikes do not operate recklessly on the Boardwalk.
Some e-bike riders do, residents told City Council as members took up an ordinance banning the battery-powered two-wheelers from the Boardwalk on Thursday.
Most on council agreed, delaying a vote to allow time to gather more information, with a potential for the creation of a committee to weigh the issue.
Mayor Jay Gillian's administration proposed an ordinance keeping e-bikes off the Boardwalk but allowing them on other bike paths and routes in the city, citing safety concerns about the operation of the bikes.
For more than a year, council has heard from residents concerned about the operation of the bikes on the Boardwalk. The bikes are capable of reaching high speeds, at least relative to the other, pedal-powered bikes riding on summer mornings, and some had stories of reckless behavior by riders.
Council member Bob Barr brought up a similar story, saying a friend of his had a close call with an e-bike recently. He said his friend could have been seriously injured as a teenage rider whizzed by, apparently not paying attention.
The bikes are heavier than other bikes, with the potential to do more damage.
"We need to send a clear message to these teenagers," Barr said at the meeting. "This cannot be tolerated."
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Ocean City has been searching for tools to deal with young people this summer, after rowdy crowds overran the Boardwalk over Memorial Day weekend. Gillian first raised the possibility of an e-bike ban at a news conference outlining strict new rules aimed at rowdy teens, including an earlier curfew, beach closings at 8 p.m. and a ban on backpacks on or near the Boardwalk after 8 p.m.
But the people speaking against the proposal Thursday were not teenagers.
"I’m 73 with a heart condition and a proud owner of an e-bike," said resident Bill Eberle. He and other speakers said the power assistance of e-bikes allows those with limitations to exercise regularly and to enjoy the Boardwalk. Eberle said his doctors appreciate that he is keeping active, and he enjoys his time riding the boards.
Eberle was one of several people to speak against the proposal. He described the ordinance as unfair and arbitrary, and said it would ban the bikes all year, even though the Boardwalk only gets very crowded in July and August.
Resident Keith Beale asked rhetorically what the problem was with e-bikes.
"Are they too fast? No. Do they swerve into people and are reckless? No. Do they ride where pedestrians are walking? No. Then what's the problem? Nothing," he said at the meeting. "The problem's with the drivers of the bikes. And not just e-bikes."
The proposed ordinance would address low-speed e-bikes and scooters, by definition those designed to travel 20 mph or slower. There are powered bikes that can travel much faster. But at least one speaker suggested that many of the bikes can get close to 40 mph right off the rack, and with some changes could reach 70.
"I don't think anybody here are the irresponsible people doing 38 on the Boardwalk," said David Spengler. "Will there be somebody? In a freaking heartbeat."
In the summer, bicycles are allowed on the Boardwalk until noon. In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that categorized low-speed electric scooters and e-bikes in the same way as bicycles.
That means they can be operated on streets and bike paths throughout the state. In addition to governing where they can be ridden, the e-bikes do not require registration, insurance or a license.
Some at the Thursday meeting suggested further limiting the time for e-bikes on the Boardwalk, perhaps allowing them until 9 or 10 a.m. before crowds reach their peak.
Most members of council agreed more study and review were needed before a ban is put in place.
"I don't want to make a rush decision," said Council member Terrence Crowley, who suggested a committee be created to find more information. "To sit here and make a gut decision, we’re going to miss something."
Crowley made a motion to table the ordinance, which would allow it to be taken up again at a future meeting or modified. Council member Karen Bergman was the lone vote against tabling it, although she indicated her mind was changed by the comments at the meeting, and calls and emails she received before it.
"Before coming into this meeting at the beginning of the week, I was all for this, because I saw it as a safety risk," Bergman said. She raised the possibility of a child getting hit or another serious accident. But she also expressed sympathy for the people asking that the bikes be allowed. "I guess I never really understood just how many people depend on these bikes for exercise."
With the tourist season already underway, Bergman did not want to see a delay in the process, saying the ordinance could be amended before a final vote.
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But Council President Pete Madden pointed out that even if the ordinance moved forward Thursday, it could not take effect until August at the earliest, because it would need to be advertised before a public hearing and final vote, and then would not take effect for 30 days.
Council member Jody Levchuk said there are plenty of safety concerns with e-bikes, and not just on the Boardwalk. He appealed to parents to enforce safety rules, and said he often sees young people operating the bikes without wearing helmets.
"How are you not worried sick about what's going to happen to your kid the way they’re flying all over town on their e-bike?" he said. "I hope that's the best thing to come out of this, that people are thinking about how their kid is leaving to go to school tomorrow and coming home from school on their e-bike."
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