JoCo parks board reverses course, will allow e-bikes on trails for 6-month pilot

E-bikes let users turn on a motor to provide additional power when the pedals are in motion. Photo credit Ivan Radic.

People who need a little help getting up those hills will soon be able to ride their electric power assisted bicycles on Johnson County trails. The county park district board reversed its December denial of e-bikes and will now allow them for a six-month test period, beginning in early July.

The park board has contemplated e-bikes on the trails for almost a year – ever since one trail user asked whether he could ride his electric power-assisted unicycle on them, said Bill Maasen, county superintendent of parks and golf courses.

He still can’t. Unicycles are not included in the test. Neither are scooters, hoverboards, Segways or other powered vehicles. But people with Class 1 or Class 3 e-bikes will be able to ride them on all of the paved trails in county parks for six months while the park staff collects data.

An e-bike is a bicycle that has a motor for when a cyclist needs a little extra power. Riders can turn on the motor on Class 1 and 3 bikes only when the pedals are in motion, and then only up to a certain speed. Top speed for motor assistance in Class 1 bikes is 20 miles an hour, and 28 miles an hour for the Class 3’s. (Class 2 e-bikes, which are not allowed on the trails, use a throttle and do not require pedals to be in motion.)

That means the motor will not continue to assist if the cyclist is going faster, say down a hill, said Paul Schultz, general manager of Trek Bicycle Shawnee. But the motors don’t force a higher speed even on flat stretches. He said riders can still choose to go at the roughly 10 miles an hour that is typical of recreational rides on an e-bike.

E-bikes also are not any louder than and don’t look much different from traditional ones, Schultz said. Jefferson County, Colo. studied e-bikes and found that about 65 percent of park visitors did not realize they were sharing the trails with them, he said.

That might also be happening on Johnson County trails. Maasen acknowledged that some people have already been riding their pedal-assisted bikes on the trails, in violation of the county regulations. Having the pilot project will allow the county to study how they interact with other trail users before a decision is made on whether to allow them permanently.

A departure from ‘no motorized vehicles’ rule

Prior to the park board’s decision to green light a trial for e-bikes, no motorized vehicles have been allowed on county park trails.

County park board members have been cautious about straying from the “no motorized vehicles” rule that has always been in place on the trails. Up to now, motor-assisted vehicles have only been allowed with special permission to allow access for visitors with disabilities.

Last December, the board voted 4-3 not to allow them when they were proposed for the Gary L. Haller Trail in Shawnee. Some members worried that letting e-bikes on the trails would open the county to demands that other motorized conveyances be allowed. They also expressed concern about congestion on the trails, where walkers often complain about the speed and silence of fast-moving bicycles.

But the decision was reversed a week ago with a 5-2 vote in favor of the pilot program after members were presented with more facts about the bikes. They have been found not to be any more or less dangerous than regular bicycles, Schultz said. And the Colorado study showed that after their test period, a solid majority of other trail users said they should be allowed on paved, if not all, trails.

Some board members said they became convinced after talking to e-bike riders that the bikes are a health benefit to people who are not regular cyclists and that they allow people to remain active after injury.

One of those riders, Betsy Geheb of Lenexa, spoke at the park board meeting in favor of the bikes. A ski accident and resulting stiff knees made it difficult to power a regular bike, so her doctor recommended an e-bike, said Geheb, 66. “It was life-changing for me,” she said.

Joe Young, another e-bike rider from Prairie Village, said the trails are a good place for people to ride who are afraid of going on the streets. “It gets you out and it’s healthy,” he said.

Concerns about danger to others on trails

However some speakers and commissioners were not as accepting. Carl Owczarzak of Lenexa said the powered bikes would add another danger to trails where elderly pedestrians and people with small children walk. County Commissioner Steve Klika, who is also on the park board, concurred. Klika said he has hearing loss and can’t always hear a bicycle approaching. “We need to keep promoting our trails as more of a safe zone,” Klika said.

Schultz said bicycle advocates have increasingly looked at e-bikes as a way to get more people outside and exercising. The typical buyer is an empty-nester who wants to get out for bike rides but struggles with the hills, he said. Other riders use e-bikes as a step toward fitness.

“If you’re overweight it tends to be harder to ride,” a traditional bike, Schultz said. So some get e-bikes to get started losing weight before transitioning to a non-electric bike.

In fact, e-bikes are surging in popularity across the country. According to NPD Group, a data tracking company, e-bikes are now the fastest growing bicycle type on the market, with cities and counties scrambling to keep up with appropriate rules of the road. Police and security forces like Johnson County Community College also have begun adding them to their fleets, Schultz said.

Schultz said e-bikes come with front and back lights and bells so they’ll be visible to other trail users. But ultimately the success on the trail will depend on rider etiquette, just as it does with traditional bike riders, he said.

To that end, the county will also adjust its signage and mark some trails with a yellow center line as a way to minimize conflicts with walkers.