Electric bikes drive trail use debate in Aspen, Pitkin County
August 6, 2010
ASPEN – Pedal-style bicycles that offer a battery-powered boost are blurring the definition of a motorized vehicle and generating renewed debate about what should and should not be permitted on Aspen-area bike trails.
Helping drive the discussion was the opening earlier this summer of Pete’s Electric, renting electric bikes, or e-bikes, from an outlet off Puppy Smith Street, near the Aspen entrance to the Rio Grande Trail.
The board of trustees of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program was put on notice last month that staffers at both the Aspen Parks Department and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority were “sympathetic” to allowing e-bikes on the Rio Grande Trail, which links Aspen to Glenwood Springs. The county oversees the trail in the upper valley, while RFTA maintains the trail from the county border to Glenwood.
It’s time for the city, county and RFTA to revisit the policy to ensure the three jurisdictions are consistent on the matter, suggested Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails land steward, during a board meeting Thursday in Aspen.
Currently, motorized vehicles aren’t permitted on county trails. The prohibition includes various vehicles, including snowmobiles, mopeds, motorized bicycles, motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles.
“No motors is no motors,” said board member Anne Rickenbaugh.
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Pete’s Electric is co-owned by Chuck Ankeny, a Boulder resident with a residence in Snowmass Village. He has Pete’s Electric locations in Boulder and Wayzata, Minn., and opened a small rental outlet headquartered in the Aspen laundry and dry-cleaning business owned by Matt Monaghan in June. Monaghan helps run the rental enterprise and uses one of the e-bikes regularly to zip around town picking up and dropping off laundry for customers.
Several Aspen Parks Department officials came down to give the bikes a try and were “generally supportive,” Monaghan said.
Austin Weiss, city trails coordinator, said the city’s ban on the bikes on its trails remains in effect, though discussions are ongoing.
Weiss was, however, impressed with the e-bike he tried out – one that offers no power assist unless a rider is actually pedaling.
“It’s pretty close to a bike,” he said. “You can’t just sit on it and go.”
Other models of e-bikes, however, go too fast and would change the dynamic on the trails, Weiss said. Allowing some types of e-bikes but not others would be an enforcement challenge, he said.
Thus far, e-bikes on the Rio Grande Trail have not been an issue, said county Open Space and Trails ranger John Armstrong, who explained the ban on electric bikes to the rental business when it opened.
Monaghan said he advises customers to avoid the trail when they rent a bike, even though the bikes can be ridden strictly with pedal power, in conformance with trail rules. He sees advantages to allowing them on trails, though.
“The models we’ve been offering are more about access than anything else,” Monaghan said.
The battery power assists a rider with pedaling to the extent they need it, Monaghan explained. It means someone who, for example, has trouble with Aspen’s altitude, or is an older rider, can join their family for a ride down the Rio Grande and hit the throttle for a bit of juice to help with the ride back up to Aspen. And, there are the bikes that offer no power unless the rider is pedaling.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” Monaghan said.
Top speed on the bikes is about 20 mph, he added.
“They’re not what we used to think of as an electric bike,” Armstrong conceded. “It’s important that we keep an open mind. Times change. Technology changes.”
Pete’s Electric has been renting a couple of models of e-bikes – one is a BMX-style bike with fat tires; the other looks like a standard bicycle.
With the battery built into the frame, it’s difficult to distinguish the bikes from any other bicycle, Armstrong noted.
The county, however, posted an “Absolutely No E-Bikes” sign at the entrance to the Rio Grande Trail off Puppy Smith Street.
Michael Wampler, owner of nearby Aspen Velo, a standard bike shop, said he agrees with the policy.
Electric bikes can pose a safety hazard, given the heavy use of the trail and the potential for riders who are inexperienced with the operation of an e-bike, he said.
Proponents of e-bikes have argued they are becoming increasingly popular with commuters, but in Aspen they appear to be primarily a tourist amenity, according to Tennenbaum. Still, there is demand to ride them on bike trails, said Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director.
“There’s a lot of people who would like to be out there doing it,” he said.