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The e-bike debate in Mt. Crested Butte

Should they be allowed on the rec path?

By Kendra Walker

The popularity of electric bicycles, or e-bikes, has grown tremendously in recent years. And for good reason: The electric battery-powered motor that helps propel you forward allows for quiet, non-polluting fun with half the energy needed from the rider for twice the speed of a regular bike.

However, there is some gray area here in Crested Butte on how to classify e-bikes and where they are allowed: Do they fall in the category of bicycles or mopeds/motorcycles? Should they be allowed on the recreation path from town to the mountain? The Mt. Crested Butte Town Council is revisiting these questions.

Local resident Donnie Cook spoke to the council during its June 18 meeting, referencing a council vote from a couple years ago that changed to allow electric bikes on the non-motorized rec path. He asked them to reconsider the regulations and turn the rec path back to a fully non-motorized corridor, e-bike-free.

“Virginia Hamilton worked her butt off here to make that bike path between the two towns happen,” he said. “[The use of e-bikes] does not reflect the initial thought and vision of that rec path.

“The use and mentality is crossing over that an electric motor is not a motor,” he said. “E-bikes are motorized, by federal law, by the Forest Service, by easements of the Land Trust and the Bureau of Land Management.”

Cook also stressed the safety concerns. “They’re going over the speed limit that is set for the rec path. Twenty-eight miles an hour will scare the hell out of you when coming from behind,” he said.

Cook referenced an example along the Rio Grande Trail, where there was a big push for the allowance of e-bikes on the path from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. According to Cook, once e-bikes were allowed, there was a 31 percent increase in emergency room calls related to crashes between e-bikes and pedestrians.

Most e-bikes are pedal-assisted or muscle-assisted, so the rider must be pedaling for the electric motor to engage, which is the gray area that council has faced in the past. There are three classes of e-bikes: Class 1 are pedal-assist only (no throttle) with a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph; Class 2 are throttle-assisted with a maximum speed of 20 mph; and Class 3 are pedal-assist only (no throttle) and a maximum speed of 28 mph.

Under federal law, the operation of e-bikes on streets, bikeways and multi-purpose trails lies within each state’s control, as referenced from the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Colorado, legal, low-powered e-bikes are allowed on roads and bike lanes but the use of their motors on bike and pedestrian paths is prohibited, unless overridden by a local ordinance.

“The recreation path has always been non-motorized from Elk Avenue now up to Winterset,” said town manager Joe Fitzpatrick. “It’s just the question of when e-bikes first came around; it was a question of are they motorized or are they not motorized?

“A lot of similar rec paths in the state allowed the e-bikes and were very similar to ours and so we have allowed them,” he continued. “But if in fact they truly are considered a motorized vehicle then they really shouldn’t be on there, so it’s something we’ll have to dig into.”

Fitzpatrick also explained that there are differences in the easements throughout the rec path so council will have to go back and review those and make sure it’s understood what they say. And if council decides to rule out e-bikes, then they could put signage up amending the regulations.

“And [chief of police] Nate or whoever the newest officer is can probably hide in the bushes somewhere,” joked council member Steve Morris.

Mayor Janet Farmer chimed in, saying, “We’ve had a lot of discussions and even concerns about [regular] bikes on the rec path because they weren’t being courteous to pedestrians, and so I have serious concerns about any bike that’s traveling that much faster. I would personally like to see it stopped.”

Cook later emphasized, “As a bicyclist, I have nothing against e-bikes. They’re a wonderful tool and a tremendous value. Their popularity is growing tremendously, just like electric cars and electric motorcycles, for that matter, so the designation question comes in pretty strongly.”

The bottom line for Cook is that we’re providing a “safe haven for kids and families and bicyclists that are trying to travel in between here. I would love to see it rethought.”

Town staff plans to review e-bikes designations and regulations and bring recommendations back to council at a later date.

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