Environment

Boulder May Allow E-Bikes on Some Open-Space Trails

Where should e-bikes be allowed in Boulder?
Where should e-bikes be allowed in Boulder? City of Boulder
As e-bikes explode in popularity across Colorado, the City of Boulder is exploring new regulations that would allow the bikes on many more trails in the city.

"This is a pretty hot topic here," says Marni Ratzel, principal planner for the City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. "We’re hearing from a lot of older adults that would like to continue to recreate on open space lands but are shifting to an electric-assist bike because of mobility issues."

On July 11, Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks Department (OSMP) unveiled three proposals that would amend city code to allow e-bikes on more trails. Currently, e-bikes are allowed on Boulder streets, in bike lanes and on multi-use paths that are managed by city departments other than OSMP. However, all trails that run through OSMP lands prohibit e-bikes.

The city's open-space trail network covers 154 miles, with 54 miles accessible to regular bikes. The trails that don't allow bikes at all "are hiking-based trails," according to Ratzel.

The prohibition of e-bikes from OSMP trails becomes even more complicated given the fact that in November 2019, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners voted to allow Class I and II e-bikes, both of which stop providing motor assist at 20 miles per hour, on most county trails.

"We have a couple trails where our jurisdiction crosses back and forth with the county’s jurisdiction," says Ratzel. "It started to present some new management challenges."

So OSMP came up with a trio of ways to let e-bikes on some of its trails. Alternative A would allow e-bikes on the 54 miles where regular bikes are allowed. Alternative B would allow e-bikes on "plains trails" located east of Broadway within the City of Boulder and east of the U.S. 36 corridor to the north and CO 93 to the south of the city limits. Under Alternative B, e-bikes would still not be allowed on the "Foothills trails," but they would be okay along the Boulder Canyon Trail, since it's maintained by the City of Boulder's Transportation and Mobility Department within city limits and by Boulder County in unincorporated county sections. In all, Alternative B would allow e-bikes on 34 miles of open-space trails.

Alternative C would allow e-bikes on OSMP trails that are part of the Boulder County regional trail network, which would cover 25 miles of open-space trails in the city.

All three proposals would apply to Class I and II e-bikes, but still prohibit Class III e-bikes, which have a maximum motor-assist level of 28 miles per hour.

Ratzel and OSMP staffers put forward Alternative B as a "preliminary staff proposal."

"When we did that for our preliminary review, it showed a lot of benefits for both alternatives A and B," Ratzel says. "But one of the things that’s also identified in that evaluation is that we need to get community input and we want to check in with the community about where they are at with supporting e-bike use. We thought that it made sense  — with A and B really being comparatively similar — to make that middle-of-the-road approach."

OSMP is currently asking community members to fill out an online questionnaire about the alternatives.

"For me, it’s super important for the community to understand that while we have identified a preliminary proposal, it’s not a done deal here. We really are taking these months of engaging the community, asking for their feedback," Ratzel says.

But when Ratzel presented the options to the Open Space Board of Trustees on July 13, the arguments began.

Dave Kuntz, one of the trustees, asked Ratzel to make the questionnaire explicitly note that one of the options would be sticking with the status quo, so that participants wouldn't get the impression of a "fait accompli" related to opening more trails to e-bikes. "For me, the alternatives are far too blanket, you know? Fifty-four miles of trail or 35 miles of trail or 25 miles of trail — that discards over fifty years of precedent that this department has been under," Kuntz said.

But other trustees pushed back against Kuntz's request.

"Talking about the fifty years of precedent, I think, is a little misleading given that technology has changed, the needs have changed, and yeah, the laws have changed," said Michelle Estrada, one of the trustees. "And so, to be referencing something from fifty years ago and say, 'Nope, we’re absolutely not going to even consider it, we’re absolutely not going to get community input on it,' I don’t think that’s fair to the broader community. I think exploring this process and getting public input is the fair thing to do for the community."

After collecting community input, OSMP plans to take a preferred e-bike trail-access alternative to the Open Space Board of Trustees in the fall, with a goal of taking any ordinance change to Boulder City Council for a final vote in early 2023.

Although the City of Boulder is pursuing a change in e-bike trail regulations, the municipality has opted against implementing an e-bike rebate program such as the wildly popular one in Denver. That decision came after staff with the Boulder Transportation and Mobility Department said that they'd have to delay the buildout of the Core Arterial Network, which includes protected bike lanes, if the department were to pursue the rebate program, because they just didn't have the bandwidth to handle it.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.