Motorized bicycles are gaining traction as alternative means of transportation in Collier County. But people shouldn't get too gassed up about the fuel-powered cycles out there warned, Sgt. Bob Brown of the Collier County Sheriff's Office traffic unit.
"Unfortunately there are people getting sold a false bill of goods," Brown said of local retailers offering gas-powered motors for bikes.
There are primarily two types of motorized bicycles . Both are sold at stores in Collier County and online, but only electric-powered bikes are legal to ride on sidewalks and roads, Brown said.
"There are gas-operated and electric motors. There's a world of difference between the two," he said.
Electric ones are legal on sidewalks, bike paths and roads. However, the gas-powered motors are not to be operated anywhere but on one's own property, said Brown.
"These (gas-powered bikes) are causing a lot of problems. These bicycles were designed for human power. They become an unregistered motor vehicle. They're not lawful on bike paths, on the roadway nor on the sidewalk," Brown said.
The Sheriff's Office reports that most bicycles and motorized bicycles are seen in East Naples and Golden Gate City, primarily because of the convenience for people who have a relatively close commute between home and work in those communities.
Bike shop owners said they are getting conflicting information on what's legal.Swifty Power Bikes, located in East Naples on Arnold Avenue, sells gas-powered bikes. Owner Michael Zito said he believes they are legal on the road and has sold more than 2,000 of them, including shipping some out of the country.
That conflicts with information provided by the sheriff's office.
Nonetheless, some customers come in with their own bike and add the motor, plus other modifications to handle the additional speed, while other customers buy brand-new bikes modified with a 49 cc motor. The cost is about $325 to $600 or more.
Fuel Free Recreation, owned by Chris and Shelly Thomson in North Naples offers Pedego brand electric bikes, which are legal.
"We've stayed away from the kits," said Chris Thomson, as he sat behind the counter of his shop on U.S. 41 North near Immokalee Road.
While some of his clients are people who have lost their driver licenses due to getting a DUI, most are not. That's because of the formidable price tag: $2,000, Thomson said of the electric bikes he carries.
The Pedegos, he said, are popular with former cyclists looking to get back into it; immigrants without papers who are working but can't get a driver's license; and commuters.
"I just sold to a couple who works at Whole Foods and live in Naples Park. They had a really nice car. It's just: Why pay for gas and maintenance? It's inherently good, right? The impact on parking, traffic congestion and in terms of fitness it can be tremendous," Thomson said.
Most people who ride the e-bikes use the motor as an assist when they're getting tired or to avoid getting too sweaty if on their way to work.
A spike in gas prices and a challenging economy haven't yielded a major spike in electric bike sales at his shop, Thomson said. He did see more people buying conventional bicycles to use for commuting as a longterm savings.
"E-bikes just haven't made it to mainstream yet. It's now trying to get the masses introduced to do it as an option," he said.
Sally and Jim Thomson, who live in Toronto in the summer and spend their winter in Marco Island, were at their son's store Saturday and said they hadn't learned of Pedego electric bikes until Chris and his wife Shelly Thomson opened the store a few years ago.
"I just rode it (his Pedego) to the gym this morning. … Marco Island has great bike paths," said Jim Thomson, 63.
He usually pedals the bike, but will use the electric assist to go farther than he might on his own.
"You can drive the island tip to tip," he said.
Jim Thomson said he used to be into cycling for sport, but now he's in it more for easy-going exercise.
"Sally and I went for a ride and wanted to race. She took off like a bat… Now I can keep up," he said of he and his wife, 62, who both ride e-bikes now.
The people of Marco Island respect bikers, Sally Thompson said, and, bicyclists seem to know and follow the rules of the road more so than in their hometown of Toronto.
Safety is a signifigant concern because of a spike in bicyclist fatalities in Collier County a few years ago, Brown said.
"It's important people aren't taking a regular bicycle and strapping an engine on there. They're just not made for the extra speed. The brakes aren't designed for it," he said.
When operating an electric bike, people have the option of operating it like a pedestrian on the sidewalk or bike path, or they may operate it like a vehicle on the roadway, Brown advised. However, they can't just bounce back and forth. If operating on the road, stop at stop signs and signals alongside vehicles. When operating as a pedestrian, Brown said, it is safer to get off the bicycle and walk it across intersections.
Helmets and lights for night riding are inexpensive and more than worth their weight in gold when it comes to injury prevention, he said.
"Let's have fun, but safe fun," said Brown.
That's what Sally Thomson is all about too, she said.
"I like the electric bike because I can go fast. That's fun."