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 but their peak speed on a given section of trail could easily be 5 mph faster than a pedal bike on the same section of trail. Thus, even though many have argued that their impact on other trail users isn’t much different from existing pedal MTB’s, they ignore the difference on certain sections of trail, especially steep climbs.
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 e-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 3 e-bikes are equated with Class 1 bikes, this argument and the sympathy and understanding many people have for this argument will evaporate.
Clearly the argument for e-bikes is that users want to go faster – significantly faster – than their pedal-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.
I spent 5 days in Seattle staying close to the U of W and the Burke-Gilman bike trail. Lime bikes are everywhere with what looks like an even mix of traditional pedal bikes and ebikes.
- Super-convenient. I never had more than a few minute walk to find a bike. Even when I was at the West Point Lighthouse, I found the one bike that was there (but wonder if I stranded the person who rode it). I had done a fairly long walk to the lighthouse and was really happy to rest my feet on the return trip.
- The bikes take a beating. Handlebars often are not aligned with the wheel and there are a lot of squeaks, rattles, and brake noise. Not surprising since many of the bikes are dumped on their side. I encountered one bike with a bent crank and one with a broken front basket. Out of 10 bikes I rode, 5 had an annoying issue but still could be ridden. 2 could not be ridden. The app has a tool to report issues but I have no idea how fast Lime responds.
- Easy to sign up and use the app!
- It’s expensive! $3-$4 for a 15 minute Ebike ride. Less for a pedal bike. I guess the cost reflects the convenience of finding a bike nearly anywhere and the (likely) high cost of maintenance.
- The Lime ebikes work well. Zippy on the flats and helpful on the hills. They seem to be speed-limited as I couldn’t get going very fast on the downhills. I know class 1 ebikes are limited to 15 mph with assist but assume they can go faster with pedaling. Not sure if this was a regenerative braking effect or whether the speed was intentionally limited.
- Like pedal sharebikes everywhere, they are heavy and slow. Not a problem on a short, flat commute but I had a long hill to climb from the lighthouse and I think I was slower on the bike than walking.
- I’ve always ridden with a helmet. Didn’t have one and was surprised how little I thought about it since I was mostly on some excellent separated bike paths. When I was mixing with traffic (especially bike lanes in the door zone) I was very vigilant watching drivers.
As a tourist I am very happy to see this option. Every day in Seattle, I mixed public transit, walking, and biking, choosing the best mode at the time. And I never missed not having a car. Certainly a boon for travelers like me.
Image courtesy of Honda
The typical discussion on the question of e-bike access to non-motorized trails typically goes something like this:
Proponent: “Why are you against e-bikes? They are quiet and don’t damage the trails”
Anti: “Because they will hurt our access to trails”
Proponent: “They shouldn’t – they are just like regular mountain bikes but with some help for the rider – they don’t hurt the trails”
Anti: “They are motorized – don’t you get it? They will get faster and faster as technology improves”
Proponent: “But they don’t have a throttle”
This typically goes on and on and there is never a resolution just like most discussions on social media. Multiple government agencies have come out with rulings that e-bikes should not be allowed on trails that exclude motorized vehicles. The whole motor vs non-motor seems obvious to me but some agencies haven’t ruled on the issue and some do allow e-bikes on trails. Some specifically allow them for people with a disability. I assume that the rules on e-bikes will be clarified over the next 2-3 years as the industry ramps up their offerings. E-bikes won’t sell unless people have a place to ride them so there is a fair bit of money lining up to change the laws to allow e-bikes on more trails.
I’ve been involved in MTB advocacy in some form or another since 1993 and I do see e-bikes as a threat. The sky is not falling – YET – but manufacturers and some vocal e-bike users want to change the laws so that e-bikes are allowed on trails that don’t currently allow them. It’s very hard to believe that this effort won’t affect those of us who choose not to ride with motor power. In general, the proponents argue that because e-bikes don’t have a throttle and are battery powered that they should be treated as a different class from internal combustion motorcycles. Industry types and some agencies may buy this distinction but I think it will be lost on the general public who, sensibly, will see a bike with a motor and ask, “Why can’t I ride my motorcycle on those trails?”.
My imaginary conversation between a member of the public and an elected official or administrator goes like this:
Public: “I was out on the Crest yesterday and I noticed that there were several people on electric mountain bikes. That’s really cool that you allow motor bikes up there now – thanks!”
Administrator: “Well, actually those are e-bikes – they are pedal-assisted bicycles, not motorized bikes”.
Public: “I don’t understand – they have motors, right?”
Administrator: “Well, they have 500 Watt electric motors but they don’t have a throttle”
Public: “So how do they work if they don’t have a throttle?”
Administrator: “Well you have to pedal and the motor helps out – sort of like the old mopeds”
Public: “So how do you know that the motor is only 500 Watts?”
Administrator: “Well we don’t know unless we inspect them”
Public: “How often do you inspect them?”
Administrator: “Never – we don’t have the budget for that”
Public: “So, riders could modify the drive system to make it faster?”
Administrator: “In theory, yes, but we haven’t seen that happen.”
Public: “So I’ve got a CRF125 and it would be great to ride it on these trails with my daughter on her CRF50 – so it’s OK if I ride up on the Crest?”
Administrator: “No – sorry – it has a gas motor and a throttle so you can’t ride it on non-motorized trails”
Public: “Wait – you just said that bikes with electric motors are OK – I don’t get it”
Administrator: “Yes, but those don’t have a throttle”
Public: “That seems totally arbitrary – they have a motor but you allow them on non-motorized trails??!! I need to talk to someone at the Forest Service – this is ridiculous. If they can ride electric motorbikes up there I should be able to ride my dirt bike there, too.”
Like I say this is my imagination working – the conversation won’t go exactly like this but will likely be similar. Next step is that the people who ride dirt bikes get their lobbyists and industry groups involved and Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Husqvarna, etc. see an opportunity to sell MX bikes and ATV’s in greater numbers. The government gets pressured and are left with a simple choice – allow e-bikes and other motorized vehicles or do a blanket ban on all motorized vehicles. A few people decide to use e-bikes on multi-use trails even where they are not allowed. Hikers and equestrians complain to the administrators. Since the administrators can’t easily tell the difference between (for example) a Specialized Turbo Levo Fattie and a non-motorized MTB, they are left with no choice but banning all MTB’s from those trails.
That’s one way you may lose access. Do you have other scenarios? Let me know.
Image – Shimano
One of the reasons that golf is so popular in business is that people of different abilities can play together. It’s also a good game for socializing because there is a lot of time to chat during the game. I’m not a golfer so what I’m going to write here may be way off, but the whole idea of the handicap is that you can have people of differing abilities play the same round and then compare scores afterwards. So, for business it’s the great equalizer. Could you imagine people going swimming together? ‘Hey Bill – what do you say we race each other over 400 meters and then talk about the Westco project?’. It’s not going to happen. Or – ‘Steve & Jane – want to play some 2 on 2 hoops?’. Well if the last time Steve and Jane picked up a basketball was at age 13 when they played a game of HORSE, there is no way that 2 on 2 game is going to be any fun for either side if they are playing some ex-college basketball players.
For the brief time that I was in Sales I quickly realized what a disadvantage it was not to be a golfer. If money is the engine of capitalism, golf is clearly the lubricant. A few years ago, the phrase, ‘Cycling is the new golf’ became popular around some corners of Silicon Valley – well not my corner of the stagnant semiconductor capital equipment industry – but certainly among the social media/killer app/Sand Hill crowd. I still never got this because the difference in endurance between someone who rides a bike once a month and someone who rides 2-3 times a week can be quite stark. I just can’t see the casual cyclist (dare I say Fred?) hitting the Portola Loop and climbing Old La Honda with a Cat 3 leg shaver. Fred’s going to get dropped on the first Strava climbing segment that is over 1/10 of a mile.
But the other day it dawned on me – the e-bike is the great equalizer – to use a golfing term – the handicap – that allows people of varying ability to participate in the same event. Now all we need is a good way to express that handicap. Is it the number of watts your e-bike puts out? Maybe you add your bike wattage to your actual wattage? Or take this number and divide by your weight so you could have a power to weight handicap?
Image – Genesis
Still the e-bike analogy seems pretty weak. Even a noob golfer must swing the club (actually a bunch more times than a good golfer), still must walk the whole course (or ride in the same cart) but the e-bike rider can’t feel the same satisfaction as the ‘traditional’ rider, can he? If you keep up with the group on your e-bike it’s not because you earned it, right? You just paid to keep up just like you had called Uber for a lift. Just like anyone, I hate getting dropped but it builds toughness – I don’t know if there is anything more humbling that I experience on a regular basis than getting back to the coffee shop 10 minutes after my buddies.
As humbling as getting dropped can be, it makes me want to work harder and it reminds me that there is ALWAYS someone better out there. Plus, isn’t toughness one of the attributes we want to get out of our athletic pursuits? If that novice golfer had a battery-powered exoskeleton that allowed her to swing more consistently and strike the ball harder would that be allowed on the golf course? Why do we think a motorized bike is OK but not a motor-assist for the folks lifting at the gym?
I don’t have a problem with folks using e-bikes out on the road. If it gets them out there that’s fine. If it allows them to commute, ditch the car and reduce pollution that’s even better. But if you’re in a competitive group ride (whether it’s a loop with your buddies or on a Century) be honest that you are on an e-bike – don’t try to disguise it. If you’re happy that’s great – just be willing to talk about your handicap just like the golfers.
Now that I’ve said all that – don’t even get me started on mountain bikes with electric motors. I don’t care what you call them or what rationalizations you come up with – they are motorized bikes and please keep them off trails that are designated for human power only.