HILTON HEAD ISLAND — People move to Hilton Head for all kinds of reasons. The beach, the golf, the weather. Parker Wood came for the bike lanes.
“The fact that I was able to get around on my bike and have my independence was a big key,” said Wood, 20. Because he was born before his eyes were fully developed, he doesn’t see perspective well enough to drive.
But he can hop on two wheels and travel the 18 miles to and from his two jobs taking tables and making drinks at restaurants. When Wood turns on his e-bike’s pedal assist, the ride is both faster and easier.
“My e-bike is my car,” he said.
Not everyone is keen on sharing Hilton Head with e-bikes, which are heavier and can be faster than conventional bikes.
But last month, the city council passed a 5-1 ordinance allowing them to use the city’s 64 miles of public roads.
The only dissenting voter, Tamara Becker, told the Post and Courier that the island has not found a way to keep everyone safe.
“If you don’t have a solution that works, you don’t put something on paper and you keep doing it,” Becker said.
Small motorized vehicles are still prohibited on the trails.
However, for advocates, the vote to allow e-bikes isn’t just a concession to South Carolina law, which considers “electrically-assisted bicycles” and “bicycles with assist motors” merely bicycles, not mopeds. Instead, enthusiasts like Wood hope the new ordinance ushers in a future in which e-bikes are an integral part of the island’s transportation ecosystem.
Frank Babel, 80, is known for two things: cycling and perseverance.
When he retired to Hilton Head in 2004, he was appalled by its infrastructure for cycling. So he started a band called Squeaky Wheels.
“I was the one who went to these town hall meetings and said, ‘You know, your maintenance is terrible. The trails are dirty. We don’t have maps. How do I cross the street safely?'”
Eventually, he persuaded officials of his cause. The city has invested in crosswalks, traffic lights and safety islands. He widened the lanes and added others.
Today, a cyclist in Hilton Head can get just about anywhere on a paved trail that winds around neighborhoods and resorts, over wooden bridges and under canopies of trees. Accidents have also decreased.
Thanks in large part to Babel and its organization, which evolved into Bike Walk Hilton Head Island, the League of American Bicyclists has named the island a Bike Friendly Community three times.
Babel’s success offers both an example of how the island can evolve and an explanation of why e-bikers want to come here.
“We plan (our vacation) around the bike paths,” said Deb Camp, 68, who had come to Hilton Head from Florida with her husband, Warren Camp, 74. “He’s enjoying it. We’re getting out of the house.”
Camps are exactly the kind of people e-bike advocates say vehicles should benefit: those who otherwise couldn’t ride.
“I hurt myself on duty and broke my back,” said Warren Camp, who keeps a Vietnam Vet cap hanging from his bike frame. “Then I rode an e-bike in Fort Myers, and it changed my life forever.”
Compared to a regular bike, Camp says e-bikes are more comfortable and easier to ride. It uses the pedal assist feature “so I can go two, three times the distance without using a throttle,” he said.
Camp pointed to a speedometer on the handlebars that shows how fast he’s going — usually around 11 mph on the Hilton Head lanes, he said.
What if he encounters slower walkers or cyclists on the trail?
Camp touched a lever and tinkled cheerfully. “Everybody loves a little bell,” he said.
Hilton Head Electric Bicycle Co. owner Jim Hall said he saw a lot of people like the Camps.
“The vast majority of (e-bike rental companies) were the older ones,” said Hall, who started building his e-bike fleet shortly after he and his wife bought the business in 2020. spouses who wanted to ride together, people with new hips and new knees…. We outfitted bikes to allow people to put their crutches on them.
Data the Halls collected from around 500 e-bike customers belied a picture of buzzing swarms of youngsters tearing around the island; instead, “we had more people in their 80s than in their 20s,” Hall said.
Still, he acknowledged that some people react negatively to the sight of an e-bike. To someone used to the sleek silhouette of a road bike or the laid-back attitude of a beach cruiser, e-bikes can feel like they’ve been injected with growth hormone. Their tires are bigger and bigger, and the ones from Hall’s shop can weigh 70 pounds.
“In all honesty, people who are against e-bikes are worried about colliding with someone on this,” Hall said.
But e-bikes aren’t going away, at least that Hall can see. “There are more on the island every day, whether we sell them or people order them from Amazon,” he said.
The Halls are doing such a thriving business that they now operate two separate stores, what they call “the Electric Side” and “the Acoustic Side”. The electric side brings in more money.
“We were blown away,” Hall said. Ranging from around $1,000 to nearly $4,000, its e-bikes cost more and sell better.
Even he and his wife own a pair. With parking and traffic being such an issue in Hilton Head, “it’s a great way to get around and get out,” he said.
good problems to have
While e-bike enthusiasts can talk enthusiastically about their benefits – for commuters, parents, people with disabilities, the environment – the person responsible for handling collisions, the city’s new director of public safety, has offered a more pragmatic perspective.
“I have worked (on Hilton Head Island) for over 30 years,” Bob Bromage said. “I can assure you that there have been many accidents involving bicycles and vehicles.”
The way forward, Bromage said, is education.
On that claim, he aligns himself with both the city’s new ordinance, which requires anyone who rents or sells an e-bike to provide safety information, and the national Bicycle Friendly America program.
Amelia Neptune, who runs the program, said the organization now considers e-bike responsiveness when awarding Bicycle Friendly Community awards, which Hilton Head will apply for again in 2023.
“We want to see a community…allowing e-bikes anywhere there is a bike, but pairing that with education,” Neptune said.
For example, e-bike riders need to know trail etiquette, how to be heard when passing, and why going at a reasonable speed is important.
Neptune pointed out that on a road with cars, motorcyclists are at risk. On a path with e-bikes, pedestrians are in danger. In either of these situations, education protects the most vulnerable.
Additionally, city staff are exploring structural ways to improve safety, said community planning officer Missy Luick. These elements may include signs, rights of way and median strips.
Electric bikes are already here, Luick said. To the extent that the number and range of people using Hilton Head’s lanes presents challenges, she said, “these are all good issues to have.”