Update: Boulder City Council voted on Thursday, June 1, to repeal the city’s prohibition on riding electric bikes on certain open space trails. This is expected to include: all trails east of Broadway where regular bikes are already allowed, the Boulder Creek Trail, Chapman Drive, which connects Boulder Canyon to Flagstaff Road, and trails near Wonderland Lake.
The Boulder City Council on Thursday, June 1, plans to approve an ordinance to allow electric bikes on certain open space trails, according to interviews with councilmembers. The vote comes as e-bikes gain in popularity for recreation and daily commuting.
If approved, the ordinance would allow e-bikes on 34 miles of city trails where conventional bikes are already allowed. These trails include the Boulder Canyon Trail and those east of Broadway, such as Boulder Valley Ranch, the South Boulder Creek Path and Marshall Mesa.
Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department pitched the proposal late last year to improve connectivity between trails managed by the City of Boulder — which prohibits e-bikes on open space — and those managed by other local governments that permit e-bikes. The inconsistent policies have meant e-bikes are allowed and prohibited on the same trail in some places.
Councilmembers, many of whom own e-bikes, view the change as another way to make cycling more accessible, particularly for children and older adults.
“E-biking has transformed how I personally travel locally, and I’ve seen e-bikes revolutionize transit for many others, too,” Councilmember Rachel Friend told Boulder Reporting Lab. “If we want to help people mode-shift out of cars and onto bikes, we have to make it fairly easy and safe.”
Separately, councilmembers have supported a new city program to provide residents a voucher program to subsidize the cost of buying an e-bike, in part to encourage people to drive less. Some view allowing people to ride on open space trails as a way to make cycling safer.
“By allowing people to ride on some flat open space trails that are wider and can easily accommodate e-bikes means they are not riding on busy roads. And so we reduce those conflicts with cars,” Councilmember Matt Benjamin told Boulder Reporting Lab.
To allow e-bikes on open space, officials have proposed repealing the city’s open space ban on “electric assisted bicycles” and to authorize e-biking as a form of “passive” recreation. Open Space and Mountain Parks would then designate certain trails to allow e-bikes. The plan would only permit class one and class two e-bikes, which typically max out at 20 miles per hour.
Not everyone is happy with the plan. The Open Space Board of Trustees voted 3-2 against the city staff proposal. Some members argued that e-bikes don’t qualify as passive recreation. They pointed to the city’s most recent 2005 open space Visitor Master Plan, which defines passive recreation as “non-motorized activities.” Allowing e-bikes on open space would require voters — not the city council — to amend the city’s charter, they argued.
The reaction from the cycling community has been mixed. The Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for recreational mountain bike access and organizes volunteer trail work activities, has called for the city to launch a pilot program to study the impacts of such a change before making it permanent. Meanwhile, Community Cycles, a Boulder-based advocacy organization, “strongly supports” the plan to allow e-bikes on city open space trails because it helps “complete our bicycle transportation network.”
Some councilmembers want the proposal to go further. They’re interested in allowing e-bikes on more trails than those proposed by open space officials, including Chapman Drive, a dirt road connecting the Boulder Canyon Trail to Flagstaff Road, and those near Wonderland Lake in North Boulder.
Worried the proposal could be expanded, residents who live near Wonderland Lake have been sending councilmembers emails concerned that additional riders would create conflicts with other visitors to the area. For that reason, Councilmembers Tara Winer said the city should allow e-bikes on certain open space trails, but not Wonderland Lake. At least not yet.
“I’m happy to wait,” Winer said. “I think we should come back in a year and ask the community how it’s going. That way people won’t be so stressed out.”
Opening city trails up to cycling has been controversial ever since the Boulder City Council outlawed riding on trails near the Flatirons in 1987.
Councilmember Mark Wallach said he believes e-bikes should be allowed on some city open space trails, but not others, such as the Mesa Trail. Wallach said he would have preferred to see a proposal supported by both Open Space and Mountain Parks and the Open Space Board of Trustees.
“I want my experts to jointly tell me where it is good and where it is not good,” Wallach said. “I would like them to inform me as to whether this is step one of a much greater expansion.”