With snow covering the ground it might be a stretch to ask people to think about defining the proper use of electric bikes (e-bikes) on federal lands. Currently, on most Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service managed lands e-bikes are only permitted on roads and trails open to motorized use. This will likely change in some areas by next summer.
The rationale to allow e-bikes on non-motorized trails is to increase user access. This change would allow older people or individuals, like myself, who don’t ride much to keep up with their spouses on these trails. This change also reflects that e-bikes are the fastest growing segment of bike sales.
The primary concern with allowing e-bikes on non-motorized trails is safety. It is easy to understand this risk when walking across Utah State University’s campus among the e-bikes, e-skateboards, and e-scooters that occupy the sidewalks. These machines pose an even greater risk when turned loose on circuitous single-track trails. E-bikes also pose risks to the user. Battery powered assistance allows novice riders to go up hills they would never consider if they had to pedal. Then as they turn these bikes downhill, the increased weight of the bike makes them harder to control.
While e-bikes are the current issue, the bigger question is how should electric powered vehicles be managed. A benefit of electric motors is they produce less pollution so this partially defends their use in environmentally sensitive areas. Determining policies for e-bikes must focus on safety and limiting pollution while protecting wildlife and maintaining fairness among users.
Research has generally shown wildlife respond in similar ways to bikers and hikers. Bikers travels at 10 mph while a hiker covers only 3 mph. This suggests someone on a bike will disturb three times more area per hour than a hiker. If an e-bike is used at an average of 15 mph, they would disturb even more wildlife. This difference has an even greater effect if battery powered assistance lets e-bikes penetrate farther back into the woods.
Then there is the question of fairness. As a kid in the mid-1970s I rode a bike down the dike of the Turpin Unit at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area to hunt ducks. This was a classic 10-speed bike (mountain bikes were not yet invented) with the only modification being the brakes were removed so they wouldn’t clog with mud. At that time, I was doing what any motivated but fiscally limited teenager would do. This low-cost strategy is no longer an advantage as modern motorboats now have engines that efficiently move through shallow waters. If e-bikes are allowed on dikes of refuges and waterfowl management areas, this could further alter who has access to remote areas of the marsh.
So what’s the solution? It begins with understanding that e-bikes are divided into three classes. Class I (1) are bicycles that only provide electric assistance when the rider pedals and stops helping when traveling faster than 20 miles per hour. A class II (2) bike has the same speed restriction but continues moving in the absence of pedaling. A class III (3) bike only provides assistance when pedaling but has a top speed of 28 miles per hours. E-bikes are different from other motorized vehicles in they have operational pedals.
Identifying which federal trails can be used by e-bikes must be open to public discussion. Finding trails to open to these low powered bikes should be possible given there are almost 160,000 miles of trails on Forest Service lands alone. About two fifths of these are already open to motorized use and one fifth will be difficult to open as they traverse Wilderness Areas. Of the nearly 60,000 miles of remaining non-motorized trails, it seems like some portion could be identified for use by class I e-bikes. I would focus on flatter trails close to population centers that are wide and have plenty of visibility – but I am sure others would have different opinions. Identifying trails under both federal and state management should provide numerous additional opportunities for e-bike use. If this topic is of interest to you, there will likely be several opportunities in the near future to weight in on the subject.
For those of you that receive some type of a mountain bike over the holiday, this topic may gain even more importance. On that subject, I hope all of you have a very Merry Christmas.