Why Winning Might Be Losing For eMTB’s



The recently released Order #3376 by the Department of the Interior to allow e-bike use on all trails under their jurisdiction that are open to ‘traditional’ bikes came out of the blue for me.

I’ve witnessed the growth of e-bikes since about 2010 and have seen the advances. However, I expected that the first e-bikes to be allowed on dirt trails, including narrow singletrack, would be the Class 1 e-bikes that provide motor-assist up to 20 mph. These bikes are typically only a little faster in terms of average speed over a normal pedal bike over the course of a 2 hour ride. Thus, many have argued that their impact on other trail users isn’t much different from existing pedal MTB’s.

My worry was always the slippery slope concern. I wondered what would happen when other motorized vehicle users demanded access. Once you allowed motorized vehicles on trails that previously were exclusively for human power, where would it end?

Well, the DOI opened the barn door and now all 3 recognized classes of e-bikes will be allowed on trails where pedal bikes are allowed. This means that bikes that have a throttle and don’t require pedaling (Class 2) and bikes that provide motor assist up to 28 mph (Class 3) may be on the trail with hikers, equestrians, and human-powered bikes.

Most concerning under this ruling is that if e-bikes are prevented from using a particular trail, then pedal bikes would be banned from that trail as well. Thus a MTB rider who might average 10 mph (fairly fast for a fit rider) might be kicked off the trail due to concern over an e-bike that could average twice that speed. And it wouldn’t matter that she had ridden that trail for 10 years, but under the new rule this non-motorized bike rider would be kicked off if the land manager didn’t allow ALL e-bikes on that trail. The land manager isn’t allowed to treat the three classes differently EVEN THOUGH THAT IS WHY THE CLASSES WERE CREATED.

No doubt, human-powered bikes will be affected by this change. We will lose access in some areas because land managers will determine that some trails aren’t suitable for much faster Class 2 and 3 bikes, thus no bikes can use the trail.

Ironically, this ‘win’ for e-bikes isn’t the win that many of their advocates think it is. Most of the arguments for Class 1 e-bikes have been about letting slower riders keep up with their friends and family who ride traditional pedal bikes. When faster Class 2 and 3 e-bikes are equated with Class 1 bikes, this argument and the sympathy and understanding many people have will evaporate.

Clearly the argument for Class 2 and 3 bikes is that users want to go faster – significantly faster – than their human-powered brethren. Mountain bikes have been (mostly) accommodated on multi-use trails because the safety record is pretty good and most hikers, runners, and equestrians don’t consider them a hazard. Now, mix in e-bikes that can go significantly faster and I believe you may see more pushback than even in the early years of MTB use.

So I think there is a likelihood that e-bike users on Class 1 bikes will have LESS access BECAUSE of Class 2 & 3 bikes than if the trails were only opened up to Class 1 e-bikes.

It’s always possible that the Administration is playing ‘3 dimensional chess’ and this rule was written to create uproar and have the ‘compromise’ be that they only allow Class 1 e-bikes on singletrack. Some might argue that this was the plan from the start. My guess is that this is unlikely and the DOI’s incompetence and lack of interest in the user experience is more likely.

In the scheme of terrible and incompetent things that the current Administration has done, this is one of the lesser evils but it illustrates their lack of interest in good governance. Only a political appointee with no interest in understanding the difference between 3 classes of e-bikes would rule that henceforth pedal bikes and bikes with electric motors are the same. Either the authors of this new rule don’t ride bikes, don’t talk to people who do, don’t think it matters, or, possibly, all 3.

So, to summarize, I expect that riders of traditional pedal bikes will see trails closed to them that they are used to riding and the e-bike advocates will not get what they wanted either. The classic lose-lose that doesn’t feel like ‘Winning’ for anyone.

What do you think? Will this order change Mountain Biking? Is it ultimately good or bad for e-bikes? Please leave a comment.

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