Commissioners support pedal-assist E-bikes

The five Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday indicated their support for allowing one type of e-bike on hard-surface trails in the county.

The discussion at the commissioners’ regular weekly work session was the first step toward changing the county’s Open Space and Trails regulations to allow pedal-assisted, or class 1 e-bikes, to use them.

Commissioners will consider an ordinance allowing that change at their regular meeting today. Public comment will be taken on the matter during second reading of the rules change, scheduled May 23.

“At best this is a compromise and at worst it’s a safety disaster,” Commissioner George Newman said.

The change was prompted by Colorado state law, which changed in August and reclassified class 1 and 2 e-bikes as bicycles and not motorized vehicles, thus allowing them on trails, said Gary Tennenbaum, director of the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

Class 2 e-bikes can be powered by a throttle and do not necessarily require pedaling. Class 1 and 2 bikes cannot travel more than 20 mph, which is the speed limit on the Rio Grande Trail set by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

In August, Pitkin County commissioners passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting all e-bikes on county trails so county officials could gather information about what to do about the new state law.

Earlier this year, the county hired a firm to conduct gatherings in the Roaring Fork Valley and Colorado River Valley that gave people a chance to try out an e-bike, while at the same time asking area residents to fill out a survey on the subject.

That survey — which received nearly 1,000 responses — found that nearly 70 percent of residents in the Roaring Fork Valley and communities along Interstate 70 from Glenwood Springs west favored allowing class 1 e-bikes. Nearly 25 percent opposed or strongly opposed allowing class 1 bikes.

However, more than 40 percent of respondents opposed or strongly opposed allowing class 2 e-bikes, Tennenbaum said.

“I really believe people understood the difference between class 1 and class 2,” he said.

The Open Space and Trails Board on Thursday recommended allowing class 1 bikes on hard-surface Pitkin County trails that include the Rio Grande, Owl Creek, Brush Creek, Crystal, Aspen Mass, Basalt Old Snowmasss, Emma, Lazy Glen and East of Aspen trails. That board also recommended adopting the 20 mph speed limit on all hard-surface county trails, Tennenbaum said.

Open space board members were particularly concerned about rental e-bikes, Tennenbaum said.

“(Open space) rangers have big concerns,” he said. “We had issues last year.”

Those issues included people not used to being on a bike — much less an e-bike — riding bikes in big groups and not being cognizant of the etiquette and dangers presented by various changes in trail terrain and topography, Tennenbaum said.

The rental shops that plan to offer e-bikes are mainly in Aspen, so it will be necessary to work with the city to come up with a safety plan for rental e-bikes, he said. One idea was to require all e-bikes to have bells, for example, he said.

“The city is very much on board with developing a safety plan and looking to see if problems develop with rental (e-bike) fleets,” Tennenbaum said.

The two bike shops in Aspen planning to rent E-bikes will only offer class 1 E-bikes, he said.

Newman said enforcement of the speed limit and the use of only pedal-assisted e-bikes will be a challenge. He also encouraged county officials to work with bike shops up and down the valley on an e-bike education campaign for customers and said he’d like to see a 15 mph speed limit in urban areas.

Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper worried about moving forward with changing e-bike regulations before other jurisdictions, saying that one of the goals of imposing the moratorium was to come to a consistent, valley-wide policy.

However, Tennenbaum said some jurisdictions — like Aspen and Snowmass Village — are waiting to see what Pitkin County does because a good portion of the trails that could see e-bikes are in the county.

RFTA, for example, decided last summer to allow class 1 and class 2 e-bikes on the Rio Grande Trail, which it manages. However, that decision was made hastily just as the Grand Avenue Bridge project was about to happen in Glenwood Springs, where E-bikes had been touted as a solution to impending traffic woes, Newman said.

The RFTA board, on which Newman serves, likely will revisit that decision in light of the survey results and Pitkin County’s decision allowing only class 1 e-bikes, he said. Commissioner Steve Child said he rode his e-bike several hundred miles last summer and feels they are a good way for older people or those with physical limitations to go for a bike ride. His e-bike can become a class 1, class 2 or even class 3 version — class 3 can go as fast as 28 mph — though he prefers the class 1 pedal-assist because it provides some level of exercise, Child said.

Child also pointed out that e-bikes can be dangerous for the uninitiated, and that getting used to the power they provide can make for a steep learning curve.