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Boulder County Planning Commission considers options for allowing e-bikes on open space trails

Boulder resident Eladia Rivera, left, gets a breakdown of how an e-bike works by Fatte Bikes employee Ariana Brunner during an open house event last year in Boulder.
Boulder resident Eladia Rivera, left, gets a breakdown of how an e-bike works by Fatte Bikes employee Ariana Brunner during an open house event last year in Boulder.

The Boulder County Planning Commission on Wednesday heard three options for changing the definition of “passive recreation” to allow e-bikes on open space trails.

Boulder County Parks and Open Space staff’s recommendation to do so comes during a yearlong pilot study of the impact of e-bikes on trails and trail users. The study included research, as well as surveys of county residents.

Staff’s recommendation after the deep dive into the issue was that the county allow “class 1 and class 2 e-bikes on Boulder County trails on the plains where regular bikes are allowed, including regional trails and trails on open space parks with the exception of three county trails requested to be off limits to e-bikes by the city of Boulder,” according to report provided during Wednesday’s Planning Commission study session.

Class 1 e-bikes use pedal-assisted acceleration, while class 2 e-bikes use a throttle. Other classes or types that are excluded from the recommendation generally have higher top speeds.

In order to keep the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan in line with the e-bike recommendation, the definition of passive recreation, which is how the county determines what kind of activities are allowed on trails, must be changed.

Tina Nielsen, special projects manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, said the conflict between the definition of passive recreation and e-bikes is “the whole reason we’re doing this study.”

Currently, the definition of “passive recreation” includes activities like hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, photography, bird-watching and other nature observation and study. When specifically allowed, it includes bicycling, horseback riding, dog walking, boating and fishing. It excludes motorized vehicles, something the three alternatives presented Wednesday either attempt to sidestep or change.

The first of the options, which, according to Nielsen, most of the Planning Commission members previously favored, is the most narrow, and does not remove the exclusion of motorized vehicles. It does, however, include an exception for e-bikes.

Option two for altering the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan would acknowledge that passive recreation has traditionally excluded motorized vehicles, but “certain low-powered electrical-assist modes may be permitted if” they meet certain criteria.

The last option, and the most broad change of the three, would permit certain motorized vehicles if they “complement or enhance accessibility, sustainability, or the visitor’s enjoyment without diminishing or damaging natural resource values.”

Planning Commission members did not make any decisions Wednesday, and there was not a clear favorite of the three proposed changes.

Commission member Todd Quigley noted, though, that the first option, contradicted itself by permitting e-bikes while at the same time not getting rid of the exclusion of motorized vehicles.

The Planning Commission will make its final decision during its December meeting, after county commissioners decide on whether to approve the use of e-bikes on open space trails.

There was, however, some discussion about other considerations, including speed limits.

Commission member Mark Bloomfield argued that instead of limiting the kind or class of e-bike that can be ridden on trails, controls on speed and hazardous riding should be implemented.

During her presentation, though, Nielsen said that, based on observations made during Boulder County Open Space’s pilot study, staff is not recommending speed limits, adding they didn’t see a need to do so.

During the study, Boulder County Parks and Open Space measured the average speed of e-bikes and conventional bikes and found that e-bikes were actually slower on average. The report presented at Wednesday’s study session stated this may be a consequence of the “demographics of e-bike riders,” who tend to be older.

The number of observed e-bikes in the county’s study of speed was low, however, coming in at 14.

One other possible complicating factor — e-scooters — also was discussed at length during the meeting.

Nielsen said a state law, signed in May, reclassified e-scooters as vehicles instead of toys, lumping them in with e-bikes and allowing them to be ridden on roadways.

She added that any possible allowance of e-bikes on trails could by default allow e-scooters, as well.

Bloomfield said that, while he doesn’t “anticipate it causing that much of a problem,” he worries about other kinds of motorized transport.

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