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Boise residents want electric bikes on public trails

A man biking in the Boise Foothills. A group of Boise residents is fighting to allow electric motorized mountain bikes on trails around the state. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

A man biking in the Boise Foothills. A group of Boise residents is fighting to allow electric motorized mountain bikes on trails around the state. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

Richard Noble, 70, wants to continue to enjoy the outdoors the way he always has –  biking along the Boise Greenbelt and in the foothills.

But biking isn’t as easy for Noble as it once was. Before setting out from his home at Harris Ranch for the Boise Farmers Market, he has to ask himself if he’ll have the energy to make it downtown and back.

It’s a common problem, and it’s been addressed through an electric bicycle that uses a motor to reduce the torque required to pedal. These pedal-assist bikes allow the elderly or those with a medical condition to ride a mountain bike without exerting as much energy.

But the laws governing where these bikes can operate in Idaho are hazy, and legislative efforts to clarify them failed to move forward this year. Noble doesn’t know if he is allowed to ride his electric bike along the Greenbelt, in bike lanes or along the trails in the foothills.

When Noble bought his pedal-assist bike from Karen Dreher at George’s Cycles, he asked her where he would be allowed to ride. She didn’t have an answer. Idaho law differentiates between standard bikes and motorized bikes that have a throttle and go much faster than a traditional bicycle, but the state has never differentiated between motorized bikes built for speed and pedal-assist bikes.

The two researched rules in other states such as California and Nevada and then turned to Noble’s elected representative, Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, for help defining pedal-assist bikes in law.

King created legislation this year defining pedal-assist bikes as being different from motorcycles, but didn’t introduce it. She had heard from people who were worried the pedal-assist bikes would damage trails. Boise officials had concerns about the impact on the Greenbelt and public trail system.

King wants to write a more detailed bill to address the concerns she heard. But she added that she believes the pedal-assist bikes are no different from other mountain bikes.

“Mostly people were acting off of misinformation,” King said of the 22 emails she received on the subject. “People riding these bikes won’t be any more careless than some of the people already biking on the Greenbelt.”

Dreher said that she expects more people to start using the bikes.

As a bike employee I can tell you these bikes are the future and you will be seeing a lot more of them,” she said. These Baby Boomers still want to get out and enjoy what they have done all their lives and they want to know they will be alright doing it.”

 King is now working with a bicycle coalition from Boulder, Colo. called People for Bikes that has helped to get laws for pedal assist bikes passed in other states.

 “We need to get these bikes defined in law because there are people out there buying these bike,” King said. “Pedego (an electric bike store with a location in Boise) is selling 50 of these a year and other shops probably are too. People have to know the rules.”

Rep. Phylis King

Rep. Phylis King

Dreher said People for Bikes isn’t a proponent for allowing pedal assist bikes anywhere that standard mountain bikes can go, but is an organization that wants standardized laws for pedal-assist bikes around the country so that bike shops can give customers more direction about where they can legally operate.

“They can’t continue to leave this in limbo because it isn’t fair to us bike shops and it isn’t fair to the riders,” Dreher said. “Is it an infraction where I will get a fine? Will I lose my bike? Someone owes us these answers.”

Although the city of Boise opposed King’s efforts, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said that King’s work shed light on issues that his department will work to address for the city’s trails and lanes over the summer.

But King still plans to create state law detailing where the bikes are allowed. Noble and Dreher also plan to keep working on the issue and will look for other Idaho bike shops and riders to join their efforts.

“It would be great if people would come and ride a bike and see it isn’t loud or tearing up any trail,” Dreher said.

Noble still hasn’t purchased a pedal-assist bike. They cost between $2,500 and $10,000 and he wants to know he will be allowed to use it before making the investment.

“What I love about Boise is the community out there when you bike. Everyone pulls to the side for you and says hi and I don’t want to piss anyone off by riding this,” he said. “I want to make sure that these are approved and accepted where I am using it.”

King plans to do more research before her next attempt at a bill, but said the information she has found so far indicates that pedal assist bikes don’t have a larger impact on the environment then standard mountain bikes.

A woman on a mountain bike approaches a pedestrian. Opponents to King's effort to define where electric bikes can operate worry the motorized bicyles will damage trail systems and pose a risk to pedestrians on slower cyclists. Photo by Benton Alexander Smith.

A woman on a mountain bike approaches a pedestrian. Opponents to King’s efforts regarding electric bikes worry the motorized bicycles will damage trail systems and pose a risk to pedestrians and slower cyclists. Photo by Benton Alexander Smith.

“I think we can still do this because when I talked to my fellow legislators they thought it was a good idea,” King said, “I think the city of Boise was just being paranoid and overreacted. We just have to get everyone together and get the right wording down.”

Doing so would help bike shops around the state to better serve their customers, Dreher said.

“I think it’s sad when people can’t continue to enjoy what they always enjoyed doing,” she said. “As a bike shop employee, I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying one of these bikes by not being able to tell them where they can ride because of a stupid lack of legislation.”

Classifying pedal assist bikes

While King has looked at how Nevada classifies pedal assist bikes for help in determining where to allow them in Idaho, there isn’t consensus on how these bikes should be used and their impact on the environment.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association studied motorized bikes on trails for land management agencies with the help of the Bicycle Products Supplier Association and People for Bikes in 2015. Their data showed pedal-assist bikes don’t cause more soil erosion than traditional mountain bikes and should be classified differently from other motorized bikes. But the organization said further research is needed before it will consider changing its recommendation on pedal-assist bikes.

The organization has traditionally advised land management organizations to only allow pedal-assist bikes where  dirt bikes and motorcycles are allowed over fear that the added weight of the bikes and possible higher speeds will damage trails.

Mike Reisenleiter, manager of Pedego in Boise, said traditional cyclists shouldn’t worry about the speeds pedal assist bikes can reach. As part of government regulation in the United States, no pedal assist bike can reach more than 20 mph without the battery assistance switching off , he said.

“That’s a good speed for a bike, but it’s not faster than what is already out there,” Reisenleiter said. “Coming into work on my road bike I know I was going 20 mph and I’m no witness to fitness.”

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.

4 comments

  1. Biking has proven to be a major source of fun and fitness for the past few decades. We use it for daily transport when we do errands, go to school, and to travel from one place to another. We use our bikes as a vehicle and medium to experience thrilling adventures, and meet new people along the way.

  2. Resistance to change may prolong the battles for electric bicycle access but there are lessons from history that can accurately predict the outcome.

    For example, golf carts. When they first were created, the golf community was in an uproar – “electric golf carts will ruin golf”. Try to play a golf course today without one.

    Another good example is snowboards. The ski industry and skiers alike was all up in arms about snowboards when they were launched. Today, they are significant part of the mountain resort community.

    Another example is UBER. While the taxi industry is fighting them, the idea that you can summon a ride on your smart phone is taking over the taxi industry in most places.

    There are those who will resist but in the end, logic will prevail. To those who choose to fight the inevitable, prepare yourself for the increased interest that electric bikes are bringing to the cycling community.

  3. The technology and mythology around electric-assist bikes continue to evolve. I’ve been riding a longtail 2011 Trek Transport+ for several years around town and rarely on the Greenbelt. It has a 350W motor that is completely silent, and only engages to match my effort when I’m pedaling. It’s a practical alternative to a vehicle for many trips; the motor helps occasionally in getting through intersections w/o impeding other traffic, carrying heavier loads on hills, and in commuting to work in the summer w/o needing a shower once I arrive.

    From what I understand the law contemplated here would apply to existing roadways; local jurisdictions would still be able to regulate use on local pathways. The electric assist bikes being considered don’t have an independent throttle, can’t exceed 20mph, and the motor disengages when braking or when you stop pedaling.

    I will add, however, that no one even realizes my bike has a motor. They only comment on the longtail cargo frame. When I point out it’s electric they are always surprised. The bike and I blend into other bike traffic on the Greenbelt or around town (I’ve often been passed by other cyclists). As long as riders understand and respect the rules of the road we all get along, whether or not there’s a silent electric assist involved.

    Cities can still decide whether they want to encourage more commuters to ditch their cars and reduce pollution and traffic congestion—and the need for more downtown parking spaces—or do the opposite.

  4. This is great. The electric bikes will encourage more people to get off the roads and still get some exercise. Perhaps we simply need to define “motorized vehicle” in the state of Idaho as excluding pedal assist bicycles with motors less than 750 watts and assist cut-off at 20 mph.

    There are still limits on the Greenbelt and non-assist mountain bikes can still fly down the trails at over 20 mph. The only difference is they might go slightly faster than a crawl up hill.