Helena to start public process on where to allow "e-bikes"

Posted at 8:02 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-15 12:09:53-04

HELENA — Helena city leaders are taking on the issue of where electric bicycles, or e-bikes, should be allowed in the city – and particularly whether to let them go on trails in open lands.

During an administrative meeting Wednesday, the Helena City Commission directed city staff to move forward with a public process over the next few months to get input and formulate recommendations on how the city should regulate e-bikes. They also clarified that, for now, e-bikes will continue to be prohibited in Helena’s designated “natural parks” – including areas in the South Hills and around Mount Helena.

E-bikes include an electric motor and battery that propel the rider – either directly or by assisting as they pedal. Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands director Kristi Ponozzo said the city does not currently have a specific policy on them, but they have heard from the public that it’s time to develop one.

The upcoming public process will cover possible regulations for e-bikes across the city, including in developed parks and on paved paths like the Centennial trail. Ponozzo said they will bring recommendations to the commission by December.

The biggest topic of discussion Wednesday was the use of e-bikes in open space parks. City staff said the current rules on e-bikes aren’t fully clear. Helena city code says “motor vehicles” aren’t allowed in natural parks, but City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said there was some uncertainty over whether that term applied to e-bikes. Montana state law defines electrically assisted bicycles as bikes – and specifically says they are not motor vehicles.

Commissioners said it was clear to them that the intention of the existing ordinance was to keep all motorized activity out of Helena’s open lands, and they confirmed the city will continue enforcing that rule against e-bikes as the public process moves forward.

“I think the more clarity we can provide the community for this trail season, the better,” said Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin.

E-bikes have become a growing issue in communities around the region. At Great Divide Cyclery in Helena, owner Dan Barry says as many as 20% or 30% of the bikes he sells are now electrically assisted. He said many of the people who are using them were already dedicated riders.

“It’s not a new sport, and it’s not new riders,” he said. “It’s the same riders that have either aged or just want a little bit of assist to the top.”

E-bikes are generally divided into three types. Type 1 bikes only provide power when a rider is pushing the pedals, and they will only provide assistance up to 20 mph. Type 2 bikes have a throttle and can be powered even without pedaling. Type 3 bikes have a higher maximum speed and may be able to switch between “pedal assist” and a throttle.

WEB EXTRA: E-Bike Breakdown

Barry said his shop only sells Type 1 e-bikes, and that he would support allowing those bikes on trails – but not the other two types, which he said are more similar to a motorcycle or dirt bike.

However, the idea of allowing any e-bikes into natural parks doesn’t sit well with everyone. Tony Jewett, a member of the group Helena Hikes, said he didn’t want to see any exceptions to the rules against motorized traffic. He said there are numerous local roads and trails already open to e-bikes.

“I would hate to see this issue devolve into a question of, ‘Yes, e-bikes,’ ‘No e-bikes,’” Jewett said. “I think there are appropriate places for E-bikes, and a lot of communities have found those appropriate places, but they’re just not appropriate to have in our South Hills that are non-motorized right now.”

Jewett said he’s concerned about the safety effects of increased speed on the trails, the possibility that heavier e-bikes could do more damage to the land, and the impacts of greater crowding. He said he was open to a public discussion, but that the commission needed to begin by enforcing the existing ordinance against motorized traffic.

“It’s a motorized vehicle, and my hope is that the commission validates that,” he said.

Barry said the latest Type 1 e-bikes aren’t substantially heavier, faster or louder than other bicycles. He believes that city leaders can find ways to limit the impacts.

“I think if we do it right the first time, have a really thorough conversation and education and trail etiquette, we’ll figure out exactly where these belong – and that they do belong,” he said.

City staff looked at e-bike policies in other communities across the West. Most of them allow Class 1 bikes on paved paths, but restrict or fully prohibit them in open spaces.

The city’s upcoming discussions could also encompass electric scooters. Since they are also two-wheeled vehicles with electric motors, they may fall under the same rules as e-bikes. The national company Bird has said it’s interested in placing rental scooters in Downtown Helena.