Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

11 Apr 2020

Conflicts between e-bikers & others nonexistent on dirt trails in counties where allowed

Posted by Adam Howell


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Conflicts between electrical-assisted bike riders and other trail users are non existent on natural surface trails in three counties in different states where they are legal, according to public officials there.

Conflicts associated with e-bikers on JeffCo natural surface trails are non existent, according to officials there. Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Bonnell, Visitor Services Manager at JeffCo Open Space.

Currently, e-bikes are allowed on some natural surface trails in Jefferson County and Boulder County in Colorado. They’re also allowed at McDowell Regional Mountain Park in Maricopa County, Arizona.

For JeffCo and Boulder County, their policy changes followed one-year e-bike trial periods when user-intercept surveys were conducted.

Subsequently, their experiences provide valuable insight for city of Durango officials that are learning how to regulate e-bikes on local trails.

It should be noted that e-bikers are now legally accessing some trails in Colorado thanks to a law that passed in 2017. Specifically, the governor signed House Bill 17-1151, entitled Electrical Assisted Bicycles Regulation Operation.

What the bill does is exclude e-bikes from the definition of “motor vehicle.” Secondly, it also defines three classes of electric assisted bicycles. Thirdly, it grants permission for class 1 and class 2 e-bikes to be ridden on bike or pedestrian paths where bikes are authorized to travel. At the same time, the bill allows local municipalities to prohibit class 1 and class 2 e-bikes on trails in their jurisdiction.

In response to the law, Jefferson County and Boulder County were the first to allow e-bikes on some of their natural surface trails.


Jefferson County reports zero conflicts with ebikes on natural surface trails

It began as a social science study in 2017.

During the study, people visited the trails to participate in a demo of ebikes. Also, around 400 visitors filled out a survey.

Leading the study was Mary Ann Bonnell, the Visitor Services Manager for Jefferson County Colorado Open Space, Bonnell said.

These are some excerpts from my conversation with Bonnell about JeffCo’s management of e-bikes:

“The e-bike presence on trails has been literally a non issue,” said Bonnell. “E-bikes have been involved in zero reported conflicts from our visitors.

There’s been plenty of mountain bike conflicts, but none of it has been specifically associated with e-bikes. Nor have we had any accidents or medicals that have specifically been associated with an e-bike. We’ve had plenty of mountain bike accidents and medicals, but non of them have been specifically attributed to an e-bike or has an e-bike been involved.

Nor have we had anyone who got their e-bike somewhere in the middle of nowhere and it ran out of battery power and they needed help getting out. That hasn’t happened either.

We have had some hurt egos over e-bikes. So people call in and say this person passed me, and I can’t believe you allow e-bikes. So we have had that. That was in the year when we were piloting it; people were frustrated with the idea of us allowing e-bikes, so we were getting some of those comments.”

Perceptions of e-bikes at JeffCo Open Space

Overall, JeffCo received a mix of feedback about e-bikes. Some of it was from people with hurt egos. Others was from disadvantaged people who were benefiting from their ability to share the trail experience with friends or family.

“There’s a couple of groups that you can predict will be anti e-bike.” said Bonnell. “One is the elite mountain bike rider. They believe they’ve earned their status, and they don’t want e-bikes having the same access that they do because they think it’s cheating.

That’s kind of a uniquely American attitude about the presence of e-bikes. When you go to Europe, that’s not a thing. To them, it’s everybody is riding a bike, and it’s a good thing. So that’s one visitor group you can count on being very vocally against e-bikes.

What we found is within the mountain biking community, the gen 1 riders, people who have been riding for a really long time, many of them are aging into an acceptance of e-bikes, because it’s allowing them to extend their time doing the sport. They are the ones that are writing in and saying now I can ride with my son again, which is super cool, or I can keep up with my wife. It’s allowing them to extend their sport, which is kind of cool.

That’s the feedback we’ve gotten from the mountain biking community that isn’t necessarily in that elite rider group. They’re more long time riders; they’re hoping to extend their ability to ride.

Some of them are really just about their Strava times. Like one guy emailed us and said, ‘I consider my Strava times equivalent to gold medals and I don’t want some stupid e-bike rider taking that away from me.’

Those are some attitudes and beliefs that you can count on from people.”

Misconceptions about e-bike noise and speed

Curiously, the e-bike perception study at JeffCo revealed that users complaints about e-bikes did not match their encounters.

“One of the interesting things when we did our human dimensions study is we did find that as an e-bike was passing someone and we asked them: ‘what are you concerned about e-bikes?’ They’d be like, ‘they’re loud,’ or ‘they’re too fast.’ And then you’d say, ‘have you seen an e-bike today?’ And they would say no. And you’d have to kind of keep to yourself, ‘well one was just went right behind you,'” said Bonnell. “So it was kind of that situation where people have a misconception about noise and speed.”

Conflicts caused by the rider, not their rides

“In one of our urban parks, I see a lot of e-bikes at that urban park, and the riders that I’ve seen that are going too fast are inevitably not on an e-bike, they’re on a road bike,” said Bonnell. “And they’re just plowing through the hoards of people in this urban park. And I’m like, ‘well that’s the problem right there, and it’s not an e-bike, it’s the rider.’

When it comes to bike conflict, it’s often the rider, and not the bike that they’re on.”

Conservation easement definitions same as state’s definitions

I did ask Mary Ann Bonnell about the conservation easements for their open space lands.

They follow the state’s definition of “motor vehicle” and “electric assisted bicycle,” and “bicycle,” she said. As such, their conservation easements allow e-bikes to co-exist as another type of bicycle, not as a motor vehicle.

“We did not look at that (conservation easements) in our decision making,” said Bonnell. “Our decision making was more around the survey information, but also practicality from an enforcement standpoint. Do we have bigger fish to fry? As class 1 e-bikes become more difficult to recognize, is this even something that we feel is important to single out as something we want to spend a lot of ranger time enforcing? Especially, when we have bigger issues like off-leash dogs and failure to yield, passing on trails. Things like that that create a lot more conflict and danger than an e-bike.”



Boulder County reports zero conflicts between e-bikers and other users on soft-surface trails

Boulder County does allow class 1 and 2 e-bikes on many of their soft surface trails, one of which is a natural surface trail.

Conflicts between e-bikes and other users are a non issue at Boulder County soft-surface trails, according to Tina Nielsen. Image courtesy of Boulder County.

For example, e-bikes are allowed at Boulder County’s Legion Park, a 0.9-mile natural surface trail.

What led to e-bikes being allowed there was a one-year pilot program that was approved of by the Boulder County Commissioners. The study began in January of 2019.

Tina Nielsen, the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Special Projects Manager talked to me about the trial, as well as the findings of the pilot program.

Specifically, the trial included a trail-user intercept survey. The number of e-bikes observed was documented. Researchers also clocked the speeds of e-bikers on trails where they are allowed and also where they are prohibited.

Interestingly, the data from the study shows that the average speed of e-bikes was not always faster than that of people riding regular bikes.

Here’s an excerpt from the Nov. 13, 2019 staff report to BOCC:

  • Perhaps counter intuitively, the average e-bike speed was less (13.8 mph) than the average conventional bike speed (14.5 mph), which may reflect the demographics of e-bike riders (based on research, e-bike riders are older, and thus perhaps more cautious and aware of their speeds given that most e-bikes have a speedometer). Because of the small number of e-bikes observed, these observations may not be predictive of future trends.
  • Not surprisingly, uphill e-bike speeds were faster than conventional bike speeds at 13.8 and 12.9 mph respectively. However, the average downhill speed of conventional bikes was faster at 15 mph compared to the average for e-bikes of 13.5 mph.

What kind of feedback did people provide during the Boulder study?

“People who had familiarity with e-bikes tended to have less concern about seeing them on open space trails,” said Nielsen. “and people who hadn’t seen them or ridden them or experienced them in some way had more concern.”

Do the e-bikers create negative interactions on the Boulder trails?

“Our experience so far is that e-bikes are a non issue,” said Nielsen. “We see them, and our rangers see them, but we don’t really feel that they’re causing great conflict so far.”


Absent any conflict, definition change was easiest, cheapest fix to allow e-bikers

Following the e-bike trial period, Boulder County declined to apply the state’s amended definition of “motor vehicle” as a means of permitting e-bikes on county trails. Alas, the Commissioners did not agree with the state’s definition as laid out in HB 17-1151, the e-bike regulation law. To clarify, the state’s definition of “motor vehicle” excludes “electrical assisted bicycles.”

In addition, the Commissioners also looked at divesting from the open space lands where people wanted to ride e-bikes. Instead of attempting to change local land use regulations, they looked at getting rid of the land to someone who would allow the e-bikes. After doing a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, they decided against divesting, said Neilsen.

Thirdly, was the option to update it’s definition of “passive recreation” in the open space section of the comprehensive plan to include the riding of e-bikes.

“In the end, the Planning Commission did adopt an expanded definition of “passive recreation,” said Nielsen.

This is what the new definition says:

Amended definition adopted by the Planning Commission, December 18, 2019:

Passive Recreation, referred to in the Open Space Element policies, is traditionally defined as non-motorized outdoor recreation with minimal impact on the land, water, or other resources that creates opportunities to be close to nature, enjoy the open space features, and have a high degree of interaction with the natural environment. Further,

  • Passive recreation requires no rules of play or installation of equipment or facilities,
    except for trails and associated improvements.
  • Passive recreation includes activities such as hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, photography, bird-watching, or other nature observation or study.
  • If specifically designated, passive recreation may include cycling, horseback riding, dog walking, boating, fishing, or riding e-bikes.
  • Though passive recreation is traditionally non-motorized, the sustainability and inclusion benefits of electrical-assist modes align with Boulder County’s mission and goals. Such modes may be considered for designated use if:
    • Travel speeds are comparable to non-motorized modes, or are dependent on the
    user’s condition, skill, terrain, trail conditions, and weather; and
    • Noise is no greater than that generated by non-motorized modes or other
    permitted uses; and
    • Potential trail damage is no greater than that caused by similar non-motorized
    modes or other permitted uses and can be mitigated through management actions
    such as trail closures; and
    • Potential impacts to land, water, other resources, and visitors are no greater than
    those caused by similar non-motorized modes or other permitted uses.

Previous definition of “passive recreation,” before advent of e-bikes:

Passive Recreation, referred to in the Open Space Element policies, is defined as non-motorized outdoor recreation with minimal impact on the land, water, or other resources that creates
opportunities to be close to nature, enjoy the open space features, and have a high degree of
interaction with the natural environment. Further,

  • Passive recreation requires no rules of play or installation of equipment or facilities, except for trails and associated improvements.
  • Passive recreation includes activities such as hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, photography, bird-watching, or other nature observation or study.
  • If specifically designated, passive recreation may include bicycling, horseback riding, dog walking, boating, or fishing.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that currently they are not allowed on our trails that are in the foothills or mountains,” said Nielsen. “Our decision makers weren’t really ready to go there.”

“The kind of trails where we are allowing them are the trails that are on the more flat part of the county. Those trails tend to be less crowded, they tend to be wider, they can function as a commuter trail, as well as a recreational trail.”

Nielsen speculated that over time the county might be willing to revisit that, said Nielsen. “I’m not sure when that might be, there’s no time table.”

Moreover, Boulder’s updated “passive recreation” definition is an example of how Durango could most easily change its own e-bike policy. Certainly, the most effective way to fully legalize e-bikers would be to exclude e-bikes from its definition of “motor vehicle.”


Maricopa County, Arizona reports zero conflicts between e-bikers and other users on natural surface trails

At McDowell Regional Mountain Park in Maricopa County, Arizona, conflicts between e-bikers and other users are non existent since they were legalized there two years ago, officials there said.

Conflicts at McDowell Regional Mountain Park in Maricopa County, Arizona, have been non existent, according to officials there. Photo courtesy of Ned Overend.

Teresa Retterbush, the East Side Superintendent at McDowell, answered a few of my questions when I reached her over the phone.

To start, I asked her if there were more or less conflicts at the park since e-bikes were first allowed there a little over a year ago.

“No more than the usual conflicts,” Retterbush said. “E-bikes have nothing to do with it.”

Have there been more or less impacts to the trails and wildlife since e-bikes have been allowed in the park?

“No sir,” Retterbush said.

Have you heard of any accidents occurring, in terms of injuries, in terms of people riding e-bikes?

“That’s not separated, whether it’s an e-bike or a regular bike. The amount of injuries, reports that we get are about the same. What we normally have on an annual basis. I don’t see an increase, I don’t see a decrease.”

At the same time, officials at McDowell displayed a lack of transparency in how they communicated with me as a member of the press.

For instance, someone hung up on me twice before Retterbush answered the phone.

Additionally, Retterbush hung up on me when I asked her about not answering my questions that I sent to her in writing. Retterbush would not answer any of my written questions that were forwarded to her by the Public Information Officer, citing the ongoing crisis.

Public Information Officer provides no information

Dawna Taylor, the Public Information Officer for Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department did not respond to my written questions. I sent her an email on March 23, 2020, where I asked her about conflicts and impacts associated with e-bikes at McDowell. Mailtrack reported that she did open the email, however.

Adam Howell is a writer who is on the city of Durango’s Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Board. His reporting and commentary does not reflect or represent the views of the Board or the municipal government. He can be reached by clicking on this link to the contact page.


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