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.”
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.
“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.”