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.
I’m 73 and lived and paid taxes in Boulder for 40 years. I moved to neighboring Superior when I retired partly because of things like this. I can afford one bike not many, it’s an e-bike. The City doesn’t care much for us as we get older. I feel much safer riding on trails than on streets to get my exercise.
Well said well spoken! I so agree with being an avid mountain biker for 30 years and now 65 with knee replacements they are going to tell me I can’t pedal with some help up hills into the back country or local trails?!?!
As a recent convert to e-bikes, my wife and I have been using them instead of our cars quite often. Until now, my opinion was mixed. But now, seeing the benefits of e biking on the environment, we are converts. Boulder should lead the way in allowing this type of transportation. Virtually all E bikes have a maximum speed of 20 mph. Many conventional bikes exceed that speed limit. I have observed racing bikes going well over 20 on the Boulder Creek Trail. I hope the city Council overrules OSMP.
It’s amazing that even as the boomers age out of power in Boulder the culture of regressive policy continues to thrive. Going back to the effective outlawing of mountain bikes on trails in the 80’s, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We moved on from Boulder and find ourselves in a community in another state that embraces mountain biking, whether it be battery assisted or not. What a breath of fresh air. I think that the “progressive” (lol) set in Boulder calls it “FreeDumb” or something like that. Man, are we enjoying our FreeDumb, lol.
It’s not so much what kind of bike one rides, but how responsible you ride. I’ve been passed on my ebike by LeMond or Armstrong (Kristen or Lance) or Courtney wannabes riding aggressively. So how respectful one is relative to the environment and others on the trail is important. My experience is many ebike riders are older and tend to ride conservatively, respecting the speed limit on trails and pathways. When I was younger, I too rode my bike faster than I now ride my ebike. Open the trails up to all riders who respect others on the trail be they hikers, horseback riders or other bicyclists. This is what makes riding safer for all, not the kind of bike you are riding.
Advocates of e-bikes sold access to bike paths on the basis of modest e-bikes that were relatively indistinguishable from regular bicycles. But now if you ride city paths what you see mostly are large, heavy electric motorcycles. These vehicles weight close to 100 pounds. If you collide with one it could be deadly. If we must have e-bikes on multi-use paths they should be weight-restricted to under 40 pounds for the safety of us self-propelled users.
I am a bicyclist that is concerned about the increased use, wear and tear on the dirt trails of Boulder County through the use of e-bikes. Using e-bikes will increase the traffic, destroy the beauty and increase the conservation issues, destroying plants, exposing tree roots, disturbing animals seasonal nesting and attempts to escape the increasing pressure of people in their surroundings. I am certain that there are many more impacts on the land that I haven’t mentioned and although I am sympathetic with
people wanting to go on dirt trails I feel that e-bikes should remain on developed trails with cement or asphalt surfaces.
I feel like they should be open on double track on the plains, banned on single track. Anecdotal, I know, but I’ve almost been run off single track by dudes who couldn’t handle their gigantic heavy powerful e bike. Just straight up dangerous when one side of the trail is a steep 40 foot drop.
Select trails on key commuter routes should be open to ebikes. For example, getting on the US 36 bikeway between Foothills and US 36 is a pain, unless you bike the South Boulder Creek trail or expose yourself to the unprotected wilds of Cherryvale Road. I agree that limits on ebikes are reasonable for many trails, but some allowance of ebikes can be smartly implemented.
The city cares for all people on the trails. E-bike are too fast for most who are on the trails.
Agree with David , e-bikes are a blessing for us grey hairs and to see such shortsighted vision from no doubt younger multi gear heads is beyond discrimination and why we all move to L towns and similar that appreciate our input including funding the tax base .
I’m 48, avid cyclist, ex-ultra-endurance rider. In 2020, I had open heart surgery due to a rare genetic condition, and these days the only way I can safely ride (e.g. keep my heart rate in a safe zone) is via e-bike. I’ll see you all out on every Boulder County trail, including Hall Ranch, Heil Valley, and the rest of them. This kind of NIMBYism in Boulder County is not evidence-based (that has been repeatedly proven), and ultimately is embarrassing and absurd. If you see me on the trails, say hi, and I’ll politely tell you my story.
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