The Boulder Open Space Board of Trustees on Wednesday narrowly rejected a proposal by city officials to allow electric bikes on certain open space trails, a potential setback in the effort to expand trail access to the increasingly popular bike technology.
The volunteer board voted 3-2 against allowing e-bikes on the eastern half of the city’s trail system where bikes are already allowed — as well as the Boulder Canyon Trail, Chapman Drive and a trail along Wonderland Lake.
The Boulder City Council will have final say on the thorny issue in the coming months, at a time when its decisions have drawn an unusual amount of legal challenges from residents, including from those advocating for open space.
The city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department proposed lifting restrictions on e-bikes in part to streamline rules for trails where e-bikes are permitted by the county. In 2019, Boulder County adopted rules allowing battery-powered bikes on many of its trails. But the City of Boulder still bans the bikes on open space. The result is a complicated patchwork of regulations, where in some cases, the same trail allows and prohibits e-bikes.
To be able to allow e-bikes on open space, city officials want council to repeal the city’s open space ban on “electric assisted bicycles” and authorize e-biking as a form of “passive” recreation. (The change would apply only to trails designated by the city manager.)
How to interpret the term “passive” recreation has been the focus of debate. The city charter states open space can be used for “passive recreational use.” Examples it lists are “hiking, photography or nature studies, and, if specifically designated, bicycling, horseback riding, or fishing.” It does not mention e-bikes.
Opponents on the board argued e-bikes don’t qualify as passive recreation. Moreover, they cited the city’s most recent 2005 open space Visitor Master Plan, which defines passive recreation as “non-motorized activities.”
They argued that changing the definition of passive recreation should be done through a ballot measure, rather than by city councilmembers.
“We have a charter and accompanying documents that clearly say e-bikes are not appropriate,” Karen Hollweg, chair of the board of trustees, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “To make e-biking a form of passive recreation, the people of Boulder — the entire electorate — need to vote, because the city charter cannot be changed without a vote of the public.”
Supporters of e-bikes on open space argued the term is vague and should be interpreted in the modern context. The Visitor Master Plan, which is not legally binding, states it will be updated every five years “using an adaptive management approach and the best available information.” It has not been updated since 2005.
E-bikes are largely silent. When compared to non-electric bikes, they are slightly faster uphill, according to a 2018 pilot study by Boulder County. The city’s proposed changes would not allow electric skateboards, scooters or motorcycles.
Jon Carroll, member of the board of trustees, supports the city’s recommendations. He said he uses an e-bike to commute and was disappointed by the vote.
“It’s short-sighted, regressive and anything but visionary,” Carroll told Boulder Reporting Lab.
Those supporting the city’s proposal to allow e-bikes on open space were Carroll and Michelle Estrella. Board members opposing it were Hollweg, Dave Kuntz and Caroline Miller.
After rejecting the city’s proposal, the board approved a recommendation to amend city code to keep the city’s e-bike ban but allow an exception on certain “multijurisdictional” trails to “enable connectivity and contiguity.” It passed 3-2. Voting against it were Carroll, who said the proposal was still too restrictive, and Estrella.
Marni Ratzel, a principal planner with Open Space and Mountain Parks and the project manager for the city’s e-bike evaluation, said the department will provide both its recommendations and those provided by the board to city council.
“Open Space and Mountain Parks staff extend our appreciation to community members who provided input this summer and to Open Space Board of Trustees for their robust conversation last night,” Ratzel said in an email.
The issue of e-biking on single-track trails has generated mixed reactions in the cycling community. Community Cycles, a Boulder-based cycling advocacy organization, supports the city’s proposal, in part because “we must be doing everything we can to get people out of automobiles.” The Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for recreational mountain bike access and organizes volunteer trail work activities, is urging the city to conduct a pilot study to better understand the impacts of e-bikes on open space trails.
The latest debate over allowing bikes on open space is not the first. In 1987, the Boulder City Council effectively banned mountain bikes in the western half of the open space system. The cycling community has had some success clawing back access, including on Chapman Drive, which connects Boulder Canyon to Flagstaff. In 2013, the Open Space Board of Trustees voted against a city proposal to launch a pilot study of e-bikes on certain multi-use paths.
“It’s a really controversial issue right now. The community is split,” Hollweg, whose five-year term on the Open Space Board of Trustees ends in April 2023, said. “These kinds of issues for our open space system are neither unique nor unexpected. Over the decades that we’ve been working on establishing this open space system that everybody loves and uses, we’ve had many, many controversies.”
Update: This story was updated to indicate OSMP will provide the Boulder City Council e-bike recommendations proposed by the department and the board.