Over the last few weeks, I’ve been planning some future adventures. I probably won’t try to go across the country on a bike, largely because I’m a mom of 4 kids and have too many life responsibilities to just put it all on pause for an amazing bike tour. So, I’ve been looking at doing some more realistic short treks on the most interesting segments of historical and adventure trails. My asthma and the fact that my fitness isn’t great right now makes using an e-bike the ideal choice for me. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to cover more ground with the same level of calorie burn.
Equality, Equity, & Liberation
Does e-biking make me a cheater? Sure it does. I used to mountain bike a lot a few years ago, and no power assist means I get to spend a lot of time wheezing, coughing, and hitting my inhaler on the side of the trail instead of riding and burning calories like everyone else on the same trails with the same bikes. That not only wasn’t fun, but it sometimes left me dizzy and useless for the rest of the day after a long ride. So I stopped riding a few years ago and started gaining weight after an injury. I just didn’t have a lot of motivation to fix my bike up and get back on the trail. If that’s fair, then we probably have very different definitions of the word.
In other words, e-bikes may be cheating for some, but for me, it’s equitable even if it isn’t equal for me to get the assist. Letting me use an e-bike is kind of like the second box in this popular meme, where kids are trying to look over the wall at a game and the shortest kid needs more boxes to see.
But as this version of the graphic illustrates, the problem isn’t distribution of boxes as much as the design of the fence. If the fence is such that it can let people of all heights see through, then supports are needed. When the supports themselves aren’t available, some people miss out while others get to do things in life.
Sadly, the state of access to trails with e-bikes is such that those of us with breathing problems, muscle development issues, old age, and other disabling factors are left both without boxes and without holes in the fence to see through. We’re completely left out.
Why We Get Left Out
I had to do a lot of digging, and even made some phone calls and traded e-mails to see why this is happening.
In some cases, it’s just that federal bureaucracies are slow moving. There was an executive order in 2020 requiring local managers with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to open up trails to e-bikes as long as they have operable pedals and meet other requirements that basically keep people from taking electric motorcycles onto non-motorized trails, which would tear them up and create danger for other trail users.
But the process of opening up trails at the local level has been going slowly. In many cases, local offices are still studying and checking and thinking two years later, and few if any trails have opened up to e-bikes, even in cases where local managers want to open up some of the trails.
It isn’t always bureaucratic inefficiency that drives this. In some cases, groups of trail users are actively working to keep e-bikes off trails. Their reasons vary, but they range from environmental concerns (real or concocted), to safety concerns, to simply a defense of the status quo with no real reasoning. These noisy people have been in local managers’ ears coming up with an ample supply of excuses to delay the rulemaking process or just throw it out altogether.
One common excuse? There are motorized trails on most public lands, so people with e-bikes can just use those. But if you try to actually take a bike on those trails, you’ll find that they often have segments that are too steep for even 750-watt e-bikes to climb in the lowest gear with a determined rider, areas that have been torn up by trucks and Jeeps until they’re impassible by bike, deep mud (which can be enjoyable in a Jeep, but not on a bike), and the growing problem of newer side-by-side ATVs that fly through at 60+ miles per hour and would definitely come around a bend and kill you if you were on a bike.
It’s basically the same problem cities face, where “spandex men” and MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) think cycling in mixed traffic is safe, but 95-99% of the population doesn’t think it’s worth the risk unless there’s a protected bike lane or an independent path for biking. Whether we get hit by a car on pavement or these new side-by-sides, we’re still just as dead.
Wilderness Designation Continues To Discriminate Against The Disabled While Ignoring The Science
Another real problem is wilderness designation. I understand the very valid reasons that we don’t want motorized vehicles in wilderness areas, as it’s great to have areas where human impacts are minimal and noise isn’t a problem. Letting people rip through wilderness on dirtbikes would ruin the experience both for human visitors and for the life that’s native to the wilderness area. When US wilderness law was established in the 1960s, internal combustion was really the only way people who can’t walk, run, or ride a horse could access those areas.
But things have changed a lot since the 1960s. Mountain bikes became a thing in the 70s and 80s, but the federal government stubbornly decided to keep that non-motorized form of transportation out of designated wilderness. Studies in the decades since showing that bicycles don’t impact the wilderness any more than hikers, and that horses (which are allowed) are worse for the wilderness than mountain bikes, have not persuaded the government to change its policies. Now, the lower classes of e-bikes (definitely Class 1 and Class 2, with limits under 20 MPH) are able to provide the same low impact to wilderness as hikers while allowing people with disabilities to enjoy the wilderness without creating a noise nuisance.
In Part 2, I’m going to look at some real-world examples of this so you can see why adventure trails keep being closed to e-bikes, and then, in Part 3, explore some alternatives land managers and other government officials might consider.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.