Pitkin County gears up for electric bike debate
August 20, 2010
ASPEN – A disabled local veteran and the owner of an Aspen shop that rents electric bicycles appeared before the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees Thursday, hoping to gain traction in the growing debate over whether the bikes should be allowed on local trails.
The county doesn’t currently allow motorized vehicles (except wheelchairs) on its bike trails, but new electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are blurring the definition of what constitutes a motor. Jurisdictions up and down the Roaring Fork Valley are now wrestling with the issue, as the Rio Grande Trail between Aspen and Glenwood Springs is managed by several entities.
“In my experience, much of the resistance to riding an electric bike on the trail comes from people who have never ridden one of these modern electric bikes,” said Chuck Ankeny, who opened Pete’s Electric in Aspen in June. “Until you get on one of these new, modern ones, you really don’t understand.”
Pete’s Electric rents “electric-assist bicycles” – they have pedals, but a small battery built into the frame assists the rider in pedaling. There is no throttle, and Ankeny calls the bikes “completely idiot proof” – when the rider stops pedaling, the bike stops moving.
The bikes allow older riders and others who might have difficulty with Aspen’s altitude and hill climbs to ride a bike back and forth between Snowmass Village and Aspen, or on other popular rides, like up and down Maroon Creek and Castle Creek roads, Ankeny said.
“We really think electric bikes are not going away,” he said.
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Aspen resident Bayless Williams, who owns his own electric bike and identified himself as a disabled veteran, said one of his favorite rides has been down the Rio Grande Trail to Woody Creek and back. He has ceased to make that trip, he said, since the county posted the Rio Grande as closed to e-bikes this summer – an action spurred by the opening of Pete’s Electric.
“I’m hoping I can still be able to do that,” Williams said. “The electric bike has been really good for me.”
In Minnesota, one of the other locales where Ankeny also operates a shop, electric bikes are used by commuters. There, certain segments of the trail system were opened to the bikes with the understanding that problems would be addressed if they arose, he said.
Locally, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the city of Glenwood Springs may all have a say on the issue, as all four entities patrol the Rio Grande Trail. In addition, other paved bike paths exist in most areas of the valley.
RFTA, which oversees a lengthy piece of the Rio Grande in the mid- and lower valley, has yet to establish a policy on use of the e-bikes, but Rob Comey, manager of the Rio Grande Trail for RFTA, has been researching the issue.
State law groups electric-assist bikes in with standard bicycles, meaning they can be ridden on any trail where bikes are allowed, so long as the battery power is not engaged. Specific action is required to permit use of the electric-assist feature, according to Comey.
Ankeny, however, said it’s his understanding that use of federal funds to build parts of the Rio Grande outside of Pitkin County means the bikes must be allowed in those sections.
“Well that’s an interesting wrinkle,” said Hawk Greenway, open space board member.
At present, staffers with the city, county and RFTA are all researching what could and should be allowed, with the goal of proposing a uniform policy.
“This is a subject that’s going to take some sorting out,” said Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director. “There is a fair amount of confusion brewing.”
“There is the potential for butting of heads here, which we don’t want to do,” Comey added.
In Pitkin County, the stretch of the Rio Grande Trail between Puppy Smith Street and Cemetery Lane, on the edge of Aspen, is heavily used by pedestrians, bicyclists, children and people walking dogs. That may be a stretch where the bikes shouldn’t be allowed, Ankeny and Comey suggested.
“Puppy Smith to Stein Park is a theme park,” Comey said. “It’s not the same as downvalley from Woody Creek.”
Use of the electric-assist bicycles from a commuting perspective is a consideration for RFTA, he said.
“RFTA’s a transportation organization, we’re not a recreation-oriented organization,” Comey said. “What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is get people out of their cars.”