Motor power will have place on Pitkin County bike trails
June 3, 2011
ASPEN – Wrestling with a policy to govern use of motorized transport on trails where it hasn’t been allowed previously, the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board agreed Thursday to trust the public to do the right thing.
A new federal law requires the county and other jurisdictions to embrace motorized transport in order to accommodate “mobility disabilities.” As a result, open space officials have been trying to draft a policy that allows use of electric bicycles and other devices on routes like the Rio Grande Trail by those who have an impairment, but that doesn’t open the door to a flood of able-bodied Segway users, for example.
Ironically, three people received citations for using a prohibited motorized vehicle on the Rio Grande Trail late Thursday morning.
“The timing was uncanny,” said John Armstrong, Open Space and Trails ranger. The trio of Segway users passed at least one “no motorized vehicles” sign, he said. Each was ticketed; the fine is $100 for a first offense.
The three Segway users were healthy, young people, according to Armstrong, but under the federal law, little proof of a disability is required. A person can be asked if they have a disability that requires use of motorized transport, and an affirmative response is all that is necessary.
However, the county is considering regulating the size and speed of what have been dubbed OPDMDs, or “other power-driven mobility devices.” They are defined separately from wheelchairs, which are already allowed in areas that are open to pedestrian use.
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The proposed county rules would prohibit off-trail use of OPDMDs, as well as use of the devices on groomed nordic trails. Where the devices are allowed only for individuals with mobility disabilities, the machines can’t be wider than 32 inches, must be electrically powered, can’t be designed to go faster than 20 mph and can’t weigh more than 60 pounds (not including the weight of the rider), according to the proposed policy.
The goal of the speed and weight restrictions is safety, according to Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director.
“Our goal is to get this so if someone on one of these OPDMDs were to collide with our other trail users … that the muscle-powered people aren’t going to get seriously injured,” he said.
On the other hand, officials noted, a road biker can travel far faster than 20 mph on a bike trail. A few bicyclists have received warnings about speed, but no one has been cited, according to Armstrong.
The proposed weight limit wouldn’t allow Segways as they are presently designed, but the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority favors a 150-pound weight limit, and it manages the Rio Grande Trail outside of Pitkin County.
Conflicting regulations would be confusing for the public, warned county Commissioner Michael Owsley.
“You don’t want two different regulations on the same trail,” he said.
“I agree we should have a coordinated approach, but I don’t like RFTA’s approach,” said Anne Rickenbaugh, open space board member.
“I think we should start low on the weight,” agreed board member Howie Mallory.
Along with restrictions on the devices themselves, open space officials are also classifying trails as closed, open or restricted when it comes to OPDMD use. Routes that are closed are generally rocky, single-track types of trails where the devices can’t be operated safely. Open routes, on which anyone can use the devices regardless of disability, are mostly dirt roads, such as Smuggler Mountain Road.
The restricted routes, where only individuals with a mobility disability are supposed to use the motorized devices, are mostly paved bike/pedestrian trails such as the Rio Grande, Crystal River, Brush Creek and Owl Creek trails.
Early on, when electric-assist bicycles emerged as an issue on the Rio Grande, open space officials contemplated issuing cards to those with a legitimate need to use them. That idea has been dropped for now, but board member Tim McFlynn wondered how to define a mobility disability.
“For me, one of the threshold questions is what is a mobility disability,” he said. “Is it someone who is elderly? Is it someone with a respiratory difficulty? I’m sure some of us in this room sometimes feel like we have a mobility disability.”
“That is something we’ve been struggling with,” conceded Lindsey Utter, recreation planner for Open Space and Trails.
Rickenbaugh suggested the county policy simply make it clear that use of the devices on restricted trails is on a “need basis only … so everyone understands the spirit that we’re after here.”
Board member Hawk Greenway suggested the county is reacting to fears of Jeeps, ATVs and dirt bikes roaring up and down the trails when, in reality, only electric, battery-powered devices are contemplated.
“I would urge us to move away from a place of fear and a sense that we’re going to be inundated with hordes and, in the spirit of this, place some reasonable restrictions on it and move on,” he said.
The open space board is scheduled to adopt its policy on OPDMD use on July 7; it will then go to county commissioners for approval.