Eskating Is Not a Crime

How sad is it that I feel I have to say that? Yet here we are, about to discuss my perspective (as a central Florida resident) of electric skateboarding with regards to the law. Let me back up a little first and say that I don’t really feel like I’ve been persecuted or even picked on by authorities, but I have been denied access to some of the best riding spots there are by those various authorities. I’ve been asked to leave paved bike trails, been told that “those things are not allowed here”, and have even been literally run off the road by glorified trash men in trucks of the “parks & rec” variety. Thankfully no one was injured, and luckily for them it wasn’t on video, so we’ll just skip over that bit for now. It may also be worth mentioning that different counties and cities have different views of the matter. While Orlando, for example, is giving PEVs the cold shoulder, Tampa seems to be trying to embrace them to some degree. But even within the same county or city, riders are getting mixed signals. 

The throbbing anxiety knot pulsating in the center of the question here is “why.” Why are electric skateboards and other small footprint personal electric vehicles (PEVs) not allowed everywhere a bicycle is, or even anywhere a regular skateboard is? I’m about to break this whole thing down and attack every reason that I can think of individually, and hopefully make sense of this.

Skateboards already have a bad rap, and now they have motors

Yeah, they still kinda do. It wasn’t too long ago (in my mind anyway) that we were being run out of plazas and mall parking lots or having our trick boards confiscated or even sawed in half by cops. Of course that was the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the world is far too litigious for that sort of thing to happen now.  But that vibe is still present in the eyes of the older generations that recall us as kids and see us now as middle aged hooligans on super expensive death traps that threaten the puppies and children. And those are the people in charge of everything at the moment. And of course the noisy few, the small number of rebels who reside in any group and give everyone a bad image with their recklessness, are present and accounted for.

Many, if not most of us, are in fact gainfully employed  middle aged well-behaved ex-hooligans who are just trying to enjoy our mid life crises in peace. We are also college kids who got a deal, girlfriends/boyfriends of people consumed by eskate enthusiasm, and in general just regular people. What we are not, however, the belligerent little punks flipping off the cops and trespassing in locked parks. So now we need to change how we are seen, or maybe, be seen not misbehaving. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to get that chance.

Electric skateboards are, well, electric

And because of that they’re not allowed on this or that paved path. This is something I feel like I’m personally running into at the moment in a number of areas. Eskates are not allowed not because they’re dangerous, not because the riders are rude or because statistics say they will cause bad things to happen (there are no real statistics, but we’ll get to that later), but simply because they have motors and fall under some arbitrary interpretation of existing and possibly irrelevant policy. Try to bear with me for a minute on this. Bike paths are for pedestrians, cyclists, longboarders, skateboarders, inline skaters, roller skaters, unicycle riders, dog walkers, joggers, power walkers, old people with walkers, and people out for a stroll. And to be inclusive, they explicitly allow power chairs and pedal assist bicycles to comply with general handicap etiquette. What’s not allowed on these trails, and obviously for good reason, are golf carts, dirt bikes and other motorcycles, mopeds, cars, or anything else powered by gasoline or electricity on one, two or four wheels that carries people. Guess what has motors and isn’t a recognized handicap assist vehicle? That’s right, your electric skateboard. And also, your electric unicycle, your electric scooter, your electric heelies, your hoverboard, your hover shoes, your kid’s Jeep shaped power wheels, and anything else you can stand or sit in or on and move that has a battery, regardless of its actual intended use or limited capability.

This argument is the real killer in my opinion. This one not only is purely legalistic and semantic, which is bad enough because it allows letter to violate spirit, but also it clearly outlines the shortsightedness of those in charge of these pathways. Here lies an entire network of automobile free pavement that one can ride on for neither leisure nor commute because of arbitrary discrimination centered around the idea of dedicating these pathways for only unpowered recreational use. This is rich in irony, due to the health concerns inherent to every individual driving their own dinosaur detritus burning carbon emitters to the office every day because buses are both still diesel, wholly unreliable, and often unpleasant. So for the sake of some people staying healthier and getting manual exercise, one should ride in the street where one can get killed by a car.

Of course the sidewalk is always an option. That is, until it isn’t. Sidewalks are often in terrible condition or under some sort of construction, and getting through crowded bus stops can be tricky. Many times myself and people I know have been told by police officers to get off the sidewalk. Sidewalks are for pedestrians and bicycles and roller blades and skateboards, etc, they say. However these same police officers seem to have no beef with us on the paved trails, or the neighborhood streets or even bike lanes on the major roads. I don’t think they want us in traffic either, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The place that makes the most sense for us is the bike lane, after all. Except there aren’t bike lanes everywhere, and a lot of the ones we do have are afterthoughts in either terrible condition, such as covered in glass or other debris and full of holes, or in a terrible position, such as running alongside the driver’s side of parked cars.

They’re too fast and they aren’t safe

The same could be said for bicycles on a number of points, but lets focus on capabilities. Bikes are perfectly capable of speeds in the same ballpark as most of the commercial boards out there which are usually capped around 22 mph if they can even get to that. Sure, most people probably cruise on average around 12 to 15 mph on a bike. In my experience that’s what most eskaters do too. But then you have the spandex wearing enthusiasts on $3000 bikes pushing past 25 mph on those same paths, whizzing right past the same dogs and people. Not sure what I’m missing, but if they can be there, why can’t a guy with no real desire to go that fast with a board that probably can’t even go that fast anyway be there as well?

Bikes and boards don’t just have similar speed capabilities. They also have similar braking capabilities. That’s right, electric skateboards have brakes.  In fact, its regenerative braking, which is a lovely shade of eco friendly. And on most boards, they’re pretty stiff and can easily stop within the same range as a bike. So while those bike brakes are squeaking and irritating the dogs and not stopping any better, my esk8 brakes are quietly charging my battery while halting for any obstacle. And probably also irritating dogs because lets face it, anything can and probably will irritate a dog.

And don’t forget the perception bias. Remember the noisy few? They’re the ones that get noticed, so obviously all eskaters, like all cyclists, are zealous speed freaks in brightly colored suits who want to make everyone very nervous by going way to fast and zipping by way too close to you, startling you out of your zen moments. I think that image is the real issue here.  Stereotypes are once again swooping in for the shit bomb, but i’ll try to wipe it off for you. In reality, the guy that spent $3000 on a bike and another wad of cash on suits and helmets and bike computers isn’t your enemy. He wants to ride that trail, and he wants to be able to ride it in the future, so he’s not going to go out there and be a jerk on purpose. And watch out, here’s another wammy for you: that guy who spent anywhere from $2000 to $4000 on a high performance electric skateboard is also going to behave himself on that trail, even if it is capable of speeds far beyond a bicycle. For all the same reasons. The paths are lovely, and he wants to enjoy them and not ruin it for himself, his friends, or anyone else.

But never mind the obvious comparisons of electric skateboards to bicycles and eskaters to cyclists. Let’s just focus on the “aren’t safe” part for a minute. There is almost nothing out there statistics wise regarding electric skateboards. There simply isn’t enough data because the industry is too fresh to the mainstream, so what is that opinion based on? All that’s left is personal bias and knee jerk reaction to perception.  If you’re basing this misguided assessment on news regarding battery fires in cheap Chinese boards from two years ago or a video you watched where one guy did something stupid without a helmet, you should try harder to find relevant information. In fact, there are a whole lot of stats on bicycle safety, with one source (pdf) even pinning them as the cause of more injuries than skateboards or skates in people 19 years of age or younger, so following that logic we may not want our kids to bike there either if safety is such a concern. The vast majority of the eskate community are just people who want somewhere to ride and will follow the rules if they are allowed to be included. Rules like staying to the right, staying under a posted speed, slowing down around people and animals, sharing the path, the common sense things most people do anyway.

It doesn’t do them any favors

A more easily understood dimension to the issue at hand may be that it simply doesn’t present any obvious reward to the officials or their offices to go through the effort of updating policies. While this idea may cause you to bring what constitutes reward into question given the obvious benefits of greener transportation and fewer automobile related injuries, you have to consider the idea that their most direct tap on what’s going on is more than likely only feeding them bad news. I doubt anyone is stopping by to let them know that they met the nicest eskater today and its a shame that he can’t ride here. What they do get, however, are complaints. A constant feed of complaints of every sort.

So if the idea is to lower complaints, and therefore raise the perception of safety, then why would they want to introduce a wild card into the mix? Especially when that wild card has almost no history or statistical data to give them any indication of relative safety compared to existing allowed vehicles, is dominated by a group of individuals who still drags that old skateboarder bad rap around like a ball and chain, and just doesn’t look all that safe in general to most people. This reasoning alone is enough to decimate any hope for immediate change. And unfortunately, no promise of a greener and cleaner future will overwhelm the squeaky wheels who think eskaters are all reckless hooligans and should be banned.

Current local policy may actually be working against our health

Urban personal transportation is in dire need of an overhaul. Individuals driving their own cars to work or play instead of carpooling or taking public transit or finding alternative electric vehicles are clogging up the streets with traffic and dumping around twenty pounds of CO2 per vehicle per mile into the atmosphere. Individuals riding electric skateboards to work or other destinations are not dumping any CO2 into the atmosphere at all except for the usual heavy breathing, and are recovering even more clean energy every time they hit the brakes. People commuting in cars are sitting still, entombed and detached from their surroundings. People on electric skateboards and other PEVs are moving, constantly adjusting to the environment, and getting some good ol’ blood pumping and stress reduction because they’re having fun, something you usually aren’t doing stuck in traffic on your way to work.

This adds up to a bit more than irony in my opinion as the net result is less exercise and more carbon dioxide in the air. If the whole point of building and connecting all these paved trails is to get people out of traffic, provide alternate routes for commuting, and maybe get people into some leisurely fun and fresh air, then the current policy of no PEVs is detrimental to the cause. These pathways are increasingly providing a much safer and friendlier commute opportunity for people who would like to do their part for the global community while spending less money and having less stress in their life. They should be allowed to do this, even if it means they have to set very basic initial guidelines to allow them on and adjust over time accordingly.

Yeah yeah yeah… but what can we do about it?

Change is going to be a very long and frustrating process. Contact your local  representatives and elected officials and start asking questions. Get the discussion happening and create the buzz in your area. More people may be receptive to the idea than you think. Petitions don’t hurt either. But probably the most important thing you can do as an eskater in The Sunshine State is to set a good example. Wear your helmet and gear, be respectful to the other people on the path that you’re probably not supposed to be on anyway but nobody seems to be kicking you off of, and follow the usual bicycling etiquette. That, and hope for the best.

PEVs, including electric skateboards, are not going anywhere. More people acquire these types of vehicles every day, and society is going to have to make room for them weather they like it or not. I just hope we can all get along until that happens.


damon wood