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Washington State Considers Limiting E-Bike Park Access

As electric-powered bicycles continue to gain popularity, not everyone agrees on whether e-bikes should have the same access to trails and parks as non-motorized bicycles. Many worry that e-bikes will cause extra damage to nature trails.

(TNS) — The rising popularity of electric bikes raises some difficult questions for land managers in Washington state and around the country.

Nearly everyone appreciates how e-bikes can encourage more people to go outside by improving accessibility for those unable to ride traditional mountain bikes or otherwise enjoy trails. But disagreement persists on what kind of e-bikes, if any, should be allowed in places where they could create additional safety risks or cause damage to fragile environments.

"The whole debate is where do you draw the line on e-bike to motor scooter and then where do you draw the line on how much assistance is actually necessary to get people out there?" said Braydon Shields, a mountain bike racer and the primary contact for customers looking to buy e-bikes at Sporthaus. "It varies. It definitely does."

Most of the e-bikes sold at Sporthaus go to customers interested in using them on roads for their commute, perhaps to help them avoid rising gas prices. When the motors and batteries are added to mountain bikes, the question of where they can travel becomes much more complicated.

Rules vary by agency, with national parks, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service largely allowing e-bikes to travel where other mountain bikes go unless local administrators institute specific guidelines. The U.S. Forest Service announced new guidelines in March to allow all e-bikes on motorized roads and trails, then let local officials decide beyond that, which the agency said opened up 38 percent of all trails with the possibility for more soon.

In May 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5452, requiring the Department of Natural Resources to undergo a public process to collect info on e-bikes and obtain feedback from various groups, including tribes, disabled people, conservation organizations and various recreational users. That information must be submitted to the Legislature by Sept. 30 and could lead to policy that would replace current regulations essentially treating e-bikes as equal to motorized vehicles.

Different Bikes, Different Opinions

For many land managers in Washington and elsewhere, whether to allow an e-bike on trails depends on where the bike falls on a spectrum likely to keep expanding as technology improves.

The general consensus among speakers at recent WDFW and DNR meetings held that class 1 e-bikes should be allowed on any trails with mountain bikes, since the motor only engages through pedaling and stops assisting at 20 miles per hour. They're essentially a heavier traditional bike capable of climbing noticeably faster, which avid biker and Single Track Alliance of Yakima vice president Will Hollingbery said can create some additional risks.

Some critics worry about trail damage, although a study by the International Biking Association in 2015 showed e-bikes caused only a minimal amount more damage to trails than traditional mountain bikes. However, they also noted the use of a throttle can cause significantly more issues, and Shields pointed out the increased range of an e-bike will inevitably lead to more damage.

Class 3 bikes are mostly commuter bikes and can go up to 28 miles per hour with a pedal-assist, but the throttle comes into play with Class 2 e-bikes. Those bikes, which are the only type prohibited by Washington State Parks on its bike-friendly trails, drew considerably more pushback in the state's conversations.

"It's a motorcycle, virtually," Shields said. "It's a great tool for commuting, cutting your expenses, maybe even cutting your commute time to stay out of traffic, but it doesn't have a whole lot of practical use on a nonmotorized trail."

Some e-bike advocates disagree, noting the motor stops assisting at 20 miles per hour and allows access for those who may be unable to pedal for health reasons. The state's current regulations make an exception for Class 1 and Class 2 riders, allowing them on trails if they display an ADA parking placard.

Otherwise a $99 failure to obey penalty can be given to e-bikers on nonmotorized trails or roads, although DNR spokesperson Stacia Glenn said enforcement prefers to focus on education. Hollingbery and others at the state's virtual town halls also voiced concerns that some e-bike users, especially those with Class 2 bikes, may be less experienced, something Shields said is definitely true in his limited experience selling bikes.

Uncertain Future

Efforts to allow e-bikes on trails have already drawn significant pushback, likely offering a preview of the debates to come.

When the Trump administration announced a plan to allow all e-bikes on trails allowing bikes at national parks, a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit claiming the government didn't follow the appropriate process for assessing the effects of the change. The Biden administration later gave park superintendents the authority to ban e-bikes, and last month a judge ordered the government to take a closer look at e-bike impacts.

Cowiche Canyon Conservancy spokesperson Cy Philbrick said the Yakima nonprofit's awaiting more information before formalizing its unofficial rule of allowing e-bikes on its trails. He said the construction of the trails generally restricts speed and their regulations ask all bikers to stay below 15 miles per hour.

"We want to do our due diligence and make sure we're looking at the data and looking at what other federal and state management agencies have decided so that we can most reasonably mesh with those decisions," Philbrick said.

Glenn said more than 100 people at each of the state's two town halls and nearly 4,000 people who have filled out an online survey indicate plenty of interest in determining to what degree e-bikes belong on public lands. Manufacturers could also play a role in policy or perception, according to Shields, who said some big bike companies such as Specialized and Giant have started to sell their e-bikes through motorsport dealers, in part because they're better equipped to create financing plans to help customers with prices far higher than traditional bikes.

Advocates and critics agree more evidence and experience is needed to fully determine what those trends and the e-bike industry's rapid growth means for trails already seeing a noticeable increase in users in recent years. Shields expects to see a typical trial-and-error process as land managers try to determine the best path forward.

(c)2022 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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