New rules take effect Wednesday that attempt to clarify where and what kinds of electric bikes are allowed on large chunks of federal public lands.
The decision inches the cycling community closer to clarity on where e-bikes belong and where they don’t. Part of the challenge in making rules for e-bikes has been defining what they are.
Generally, an electric bicycle looks like a non-electric bicycle. Two wheels, two pedals, a frame and some handlebars. E-bikes differ from their non-electric cousins in that they have a battery and a motor to help cyclists go faster or farther.
“They can get no help, a little bit of help or a whole lot of help,” said Stirling McCord, who co-owns Bend Electric Bikes with his wife, Kathy McCord.
The e-bike industry separates the machines into three distinct classes that mostly have to do with speed and how it’s achieved:
- Class 1 e-bikes are pedal-assist only and have no throttle. They can achieve assisted speeds up to 20 mph.
- Class 2 e-bikes can also achieve speeds up to 20 mph, but they can receive both throttle and pedal assistance.
- Class 3 e-bikes are also pedal-assist bikes, but go faster than Class 1. They can achieve assisted speeds up to 28 mph.
Regulations for e-bikes have not kept up with their technological evolution or popularity.
While e-bikes have long been allowed on thousands of miles of federal roads and trails, many e-bikes are now capable of handling a wider variety of terrain — from gravelly roads to technical, single-track mountain bike trails.
E-bike sales have also increased eightfold from 2014 to 2018, according to the NPD Group. The machines can improve access to cycling across ages and abilities.
“A lot of our customers, they’re not just coming into cycling,” said Kathy McCord. “They’ve been life-long cyclists and they’re just discovering that e-bikes allow them to extend their cycling life.”
Blanket rules governing (or not governing) e-bike use have created confusion and occasionally conflict among myriad user groups seeking to enjoy the Oregon outdoors.
Before now, e-bikes were basically considered less-powerful motorcycles in the eyes of the federal government. It was a Bureau of Land Management proposal to treat all e-bikes as non-motorized vehicles that cracked a well-shaken can of controversy among all who share Oregon trails — hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, on down the list.
Now, the BLM has added definitions for three separate classes of e-bikes to its off-road vehicle regulations. The agency will also grant local land managers power to decide what bikes are allowed on what trails.
The new rules demystify what constitutes an e-bike and allow for more nuanced discussion of when, where and how they should be allowed.
“If you approach it as many people are able to enjoy the public lands to the fullest extent as possible, it’s going to require some sharing,” said Bruce Schroeder, who chairs the board for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance. “It’s gonna require the attitude that I don’t lose because somebody else is now there that wasn’t there before.”
Local land managers, Schroeder said, will now be empowered to make informed use decisions on a trail-by-trail basis — and, when it comes to e-bikes, a class-by-class basis.
The National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation — all under the Department of Interior with the BLM — will also adopt the e-bike rules and definitions to their off-road vehicle regulations.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service and national grasslands, said it will explore adopting the rules as well.
Correction: This post has been updated to clarify the definition of a Class 2 electric bicycle. OPB regrets the error.