Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks wants to allow electric bikes on certain city open space trails, a recommendation that is expected to generate a heated debate in the weeks ahead.
The city’s most recent recommendation would allow e-bikes in the eastern half of Boulder’s open space system, on the same open space trails that non-motorized bikes are already allowed. This includes all trails east of U.S. 36, Broadway and Highway 93.
In 2019, Boulder County adopted new rules that allowed e-bikes on many of its trails and multi-use paths. The City of Boulder still prohibits e-bikes on all of its open space trails.
The result of this unaligned policy is a complicated map in which e-bikes are allowed and prohibited on the same trail. The intention behind the city’s proposed rule change is to unify the patchwork of regulations.
“It creates confusion and challenges for the public to understand much less comply with,” Marni Ratzel, a principal planner with Open Space and Mountain Parks and the project manager for the city’s e-bike evaluation, said in an interview.
City officials also want to allow e-bikes on the Boulder Canyon Trail, which is managed by the county but passes through city open space. The city’s recommendation does not allow e-bikes on Chapman Drive, a gravel path maintained by the city connecting the western flank of the Boulder Canyon Trail to Flagstaff Road.
Open Space and Mountain Parks will present its recommendations to the Open Space Board of Trustees on Dec. 14. The meeting includes a public hearing for residents to weigh in. The five-member board will provide a recommendation to the Boulder City Council as soon as January. Any rule changes will require approval from the Boulder City Council, which is expected to take up the issue in early 2023.
‘It doesn’t open the door for any device’
Most residents support allowing some level of access for e-bikes on open space, according to the results of a 2022 city survey that received more than 2,300 responses.
But any change to how the city manages its open space is likely to generate debate.
In order to move ahead with the recommendations, city officials will need the Boulder City Council to repeal the city’s prohibition of electric bikes on open space. Open Space and Mountain Parks is also asking councilmembers to pass an ordinance that defines e-biking as a form of “passive recreation.” (The city’s 2005 open space Visitor Master Plan defines passive recreation as “non-motorized activities.”)
The proposed changes would not allow electric skateboards, scooters or motorcycles, according to city officials.
“This is a narrowly defined approach to allow e-bikes,” Ratzel said. “It doesn’t open the door for any device.”
The debate will rekindle a complicated history in Boulder over mountain bike access. In 1987, the Boulder City Council effectively banned mountain bikes on city open space in the western half of the system, an area stretching from Mount Sanitas to South Boulder Peak, on the west side of Broadway. Efforts to claw back access have had limited success.
In 2011, the city drafted a new management plan for the West Trail Study Area — which includes city open space from Linden Ave. to Eldorado Canyon — and allowed cyclists on Chapman Drive. But city officials rejected attempts to allow riders near the Mesa Trail and Anemone Hill, in part due to “irreconcilable visitor conflict,” according to a city staff memo.
When it comes to electric mountain bikes, the cycling community isn’t in lockstep. Some groups are concerned poor management decisions around e-bikes could jeopardize hard-fought non-motorized mountain bike access.
Wendy Sweet, the executive director of the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for recreational mountain bike access and organizes volunteer trail work activities, said the organization is asking the city to conduct a pilot study to better understand the impacts of allowing e-bikes on open space.
Sweet said Boulder County’s studies on e-bikes mostly concerned multi-use paths — not single-track trails. The county still prohibits e-bikes on single-track trails at Hall Ranch, Heil Valley Ranch, Walker Ranch and Batasso.
The city’s recommendation for e-bikes would allow them on more single-track trail networks, including Boulder Valley Ranch and Marshall Mesa. Many of these trail networks were not first built for mountain bikes. Modern standards encourage or require trails to be ridden in one direction, such as those recently built on Maryland Mountain in Black Hawk, in order to reduce conflicts.
“We’re not sure how e-bikes can fit in our current system,” Sweet said in an interview.
The city chose Broadway as the delineation for where e-bikes are allowed in part to keep the new rules easy to understand. Its recommendation would still prohibit riding e-bikes on some of the city’s most popular mountain bike trails, including Chapman Drive, Doudy Draw and the Spring Brook Loop.
A 2018 pilot study by Boulder County indicates e-bikes are slightly faster than non-motorized bikes uphill — 13.8 miles per hour compared to 12.9 miles per hour, on average — and slower on downhills.
Electric mountain bikes, which typically cost at least $3,000, are practically silent.
“We don’t anticipate there to be impacts beyond the activity of allowing biking today,” Ratzel said.