Washington State clarifies e-bike rules on trails

In an attempt to move the e-bike debate beyond blanket "banned" versus "allowed" thinking, new Washington State legislation will allow land managers to decide policy on a case-by-case basis.

In differentiating between paved and dirt trail use, the law generally treats e-bikes more like bicycles on pavement, and more like motorcycles on natural surfaces. The distinction is a benefit to e-bikes on pavement, where they won't have to be licensed like other motorized vehicles, but still allows e-bikes to be addressed differently on trails than human powered mountain bikes.

The law establishes three classes of e-bikes based on pedaling and speed capabilities. It also distinguishes use by riding surface. Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed on paved - but not natural surface - trails unless otherwise specified by local land managers.

"This is good legislation from a variety of standpoints," said Yvonne Kraus, executive director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, part of a coalition of recreation groups supporting passage of the bill, SB6434. "It defines e-bikes and clarifies where they are legal."

The bill, expected to be signed into law soon by Governor Jay Inslee, states that "a person may not operate an electric-assisted bicycle on a trail that is designated as non-motorized and that has a natural surface" unless specifically allowed by state or local jurisdictions.

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Previously e-bikers have assumed they could use trails that weren't specifically posted as non-motorized. In fact, no statewide regulation existed, and until now, e-bikes were treated as motorized bikes by most land managers. This legislation now designates e-bikes as bikes, in three different classes.

The lack of standardization often leaves mountain bikers, as well as hikers and equestrians, arguing things out with e-bikers on the trail.

The new law "differentiates between hard and soft surface trails," or commuting and recreational use, Kraus noted. "That's one thing we did different from other states' laws." In California, for example, e-bike road regulations were simply extrapolated onto trail use, which led to "blanket access" and resulted in stakeholder concerns about the impact of e-bikes on non-motorized trail systems.

Most trails are closed unless signed as open. But user conflicts have been reported at all places.

The lack of policy to date has led user groups to pressure land managers for specific posting of trails. While some trails have been posted for non-motorized use, most remain unsigned.

"This legislation opens the door for land managers to say, 'Yes, you can ride your e-bike on trails or you can't,'" Kraus explained. "What we want is consistency for the e-bike owner and the industry."

As for enforcing the new law, she said, "If future enforcement of e-bike use on trails is needed, this legislation opens the door for us to issue specific future legislation for trails."

Another rationale for clarifying use has to do with grant applications, Kraus noted. Classifying e-bikes as non-motorized could potentially affect qualifying for money from grant agencies that have supported much of Evergreen's recent projects.

"This is why introducing e-bikes must be carefully evaluated, and cannot be rushed," Kraus advised.

In working on the legislation, Evergreen coordinated with the Washington Trails Association, Back Country Horsemen of Washington, and Seattle's Cascade Bicycle Club, which spearheaded the effort as a way of clarifying licensing and road use of e-bikes.

A subtext of the new law is that it will help distinguish e-bikes from mountain bikes in the minds of other trail users. It also allows land managers to differentiate e-bikes from mountain bikes in setting policy for permitted uses.

The policy clarification also makes e-bike use rules on streets clearer. Previously, police have sometimes stopped e-bike riders and asked for their driver's license, mimicking the rules for other motorized two-wheeled vehicles. Currently the state requires motorcycles, scooters and mopeds to carry notation on their driver's licenses, as well as pay a separate fee. Now e-bike will not be burdened by that extra bureaucracy.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Olallie State Park's popular trail is open to e-bikes. However, state parks authorities say that trails are closed to e-bikes unless posted otherwise.

To learn more, check out Evergreen's full statement on the legislation at www.evergreenmtb.org.