Are e-bikes the future or a scourge on Summit County’s recreation paths?
April 25, 2018
Summit County is slowly pedaling toward a decision on e-bikes.
County commissioners declared Tuesday that while they need more information before lifting a temporary ban of e-bikes from the county's paved recreation paths, they will start the process of gaining U.S. Forest Service approval of the eletric-powered vehicles before making a final decision. The commissioners came around to the idea after receiving a report from the county's open space and trails department, which found that more Summit residents favor allowing e-bikes on paved pathways than opposed it.
At the moment, Summit County has a prohibition on any motorized vehicle on recreation paths. The state passed a law last year that determined e-bikes are not motorized vehicles. However, that same law gave local governments, like Summit County, the ability to draft and enforce their own regulations on e-bikes.
Last year's development spurred Summit's commissioners to make real progress toward a uniform standard that aligns with neighboring towns and counties. One such town is Vail, which adopted Colorado's state law as its own and allows e-bikes on its rec paths.
At the commissioner's work session on Tuesday morning, open space and trails director Brian Lorch, accompanied by resource specialist Michael Wurzel, presented the responses to a survey conducted last month among Summit residents to gauge public sentiment about e-bikes. On the question of whether to allow e-bikes on paved rec paths, 50 percent of respondents said they were for it, while 39 percent said they were against. Another 7 percent said they'd allow limited use of the rec paths, while the remaining 4 percent said they were undecided. Lorch said that this indicated there was no firm community consensus quite yet.
As far as recommendations, Lorch said his department drew upon public comment as well as feedback from Summit County and Breck's open space advisory councils to endorse one of two options. The first option was for the county to only allow Class 1 e-bikes — e-bikes that require pedal assist and are limited in speed — on rec paths while keeping the prohibition against Class 2 and 3 e-bikes, which are not pedal assisted and run at faster speeds.
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The other option, based on a recommendation from the open space advisory councils, was to maintain the current prohibition on all e-bikes and gather more information, especially from communities like Vail that have allowed them. That would offer the county more time to gather formal approval from the towns and conduct more studies on e-bike effects on local paths.
Commissioner Dan Gibbs said that he had been skeptical about e-bikes in the past, but has become more open to their use.
"If you asked me few months ago what I thought, I had serious reservations and would've said no," Gibbs said. "But after riding one, and participating in open forums and talking to people, I feel more comfortable of moving forward on a process, one that would get the Forest Service involved."
Gibbs referred to the fact that the U.S. Forest Service, which owns much of the open land in Summit, would need to do an environmental study to permit e-bikes on the paths. Depending on how extensive that review is, it may take a year or more before approval is given.
Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier seemed to be sticking to her guns and leaned toward maintaining the prohibition, citing concerns about increased traffic on rec paths that are already crowded, as well as the prospect that allowing e-bikes would lead to a "slippery slope" of other quasi-motorized vehicles on paths. However, she concluded she was still open to allowing Class 1 e-bikes after more information is gathered.
"(The advisory council option) gives us more wait and see time," Stiegelmeier said. "I don't feel we have enough info to approve class 2. Most likely we will be considering class 1 only."
Commissioner Thomas Davidson said he was in favor of moving the process forward, but still wanted to make a final decision when the board had more information available.
"We need to start a process with Forest Service," Davidson said. "We should not have to wait another year before making a decision, and even a minor environmental review takes a lot of time."
Davidson said that the deliberate and hyper-local approach was necessary, as the county could not make a rash decision without considering long-term consequences that would negatively affect Summit.
"I think we need flexibility beyond just this class system that the state has come up with, because I think in the future there's going to be all sorts of devices communities will have to deal with and make rules for. We can't just keep going to the Forest Service for approval each time."
Several members of the public offered comment after the work session, entirely in support of permitting e-bikes on the rec paths.
Thos McDonald, owner of Alpine Sports in Breckenridge, said he has seen universal approval for e-bikes after customers tried them out.
"You ride these bikes and you smile," McDonald said. "You're shocked at how smooth it is."
McDonald added that the concerns about increased crowding on rec paths were overblown, both because more bikers would transition to e-bikes and because e-bikes allowed people to ride farther.
"The number of people riding on the path will be dispersed," McDonald said. "People will just ride farther. They might ride to Dillon, then they might ride to Frisco, then to Breck. They'll ride in the same numbers, they're just going to ride farther. With these Class 1 e-bikes you're still pedaling, and it still takes work, but ride farther."
McDonald offered for any of the commissioners, or any other members of the public, to go to his store near City Market in Breckenridge to try them out.
Gayle Quigley, a long-time Breckenridge resident, said that e-bikes had changed her life for the better and was disappointed when the town banned their use on the rec paths.
"It lets me bike down to Frisco, without having to get off my bike to walk it up a hill," Quigley said. "It won't stop other biker traffic to go continuously on uphill slopes."
Quigley added that the county should not stand in the way of progress, especially since the transition to e-bikes was part of the fight against climate change.
"People moving toward e-bikes and away from cars, that's the direction we should be going," she said.