The Pitkin County commissioners today will likely approve, on first reading, an ordinance allowing the lowest-powered models of electric-assisted bikes on certain trails and implement a 20-mph speed limit where they can be used.

The move, which still needs to go through a final reading and public comment later this month, would rescind the county’s moratorium on e-bikes put in place in August and lift the prohibition specific to the county’s portion of the Rio Grande Trail that has been in place since 2011. Commissioners at a work session Tuesday indicated they support allowing class I e-bikes, which, unlike the class II and III models, require the rider to pedal and have a maximum speed of 20 mph.

But officials said they have several concerns, ranging from tourists unaccustomed to bikes, let alone electric-powered ones, operating in tight trail corridors; how open-space rangers will be able to tell the difference between a rider using the class I operation or class II (many models make it easy to switch between the two); and the need for bike-shop rental outlets to educate customers on how and where e-bikes can be used.

Gary Tennenbaum, the county’s open space and trails director, said he considers this to be a trial period and that the bikes’ allowance on paths will be revisited if compliance, accidents and other issues come to a head.

The Aspen shops that rent e-bikes, identified by Tennenbaum as Aspen Bike Rentals and Aspen Velo, will only rent class I types this summer, he said.

Such devices are “equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour,” Tennenbaum wrote in a memo to the commissioners.

“Our rangers have big concerns [about] the rental bike fleet,” Tennenbaum told county officials Tuesday. “We’re dealing with a different user who doesn’t necessarily ride bikes all that often. [And] they’re riding in pretty narrow corridors and in larger groups.”

The county is working with city officials and rental shops to develop a better safety plan, including requiring bells on all e-bikes, “which will definitely make them safer,” he said. “I think the city was very much on board with developing a safety plan, developing a monitoring plan and really looking to see if problems do develop with the rental bike fleets.”

The open space and trails board on Thursday recommended that commissioners rescind the moratorium to allow the use. The county-wide ban came shortly after the Colorado Legislature passed a bill that recognizes class I and II models as bicycles and not motorized vehicles. Class II vehicles are equipped with a throttle, meaning the rider does not have to pedal to reach 20 mph. Class IIIs have no governor and can reach nearly 30 mph.

While the state law allowed both classes on multi-use trails, it also permitted local jurisdictions to prohibit the new technology that has exploded in popularity. While the county implemented a moratorium, the city of Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which owns portions of the popular Rio Grande Trail, permit them.

If approved, the county would allow e-bikes on the Rio Grande, Owl Creek, Brush Creek, Crystal, Aspen Mass, Basalt Old Snowmass, Emma, Lazy Glen, and East of Aspen trails. They would be still be prohibited on single-track paths and in national forests off of designated roads, as the feds still consider e-bikes to be motorized vehicles.

Tennenbaum said Snowmass Village, where e-bikes are also prohibited, and Aspen were waiting to see how the county would handle the issue. The county responded by hiring Carbondale-based PR Studio to conduct surveys, polling that drew what Tennenbaum said was a surprising amount of responses.

Five public meetings and demonstrations held in Carbondale, New Castle, Aspen and other communities were well attended, and 950 people filed online responses to the survey.

“I knew people were in tune to the e-bike issue, but I didn’t know how in tune they were and ready to give input to the public agencies,” he told the commissioners.

The vast majority of the respondents were 51 years old or older, and most came from the upper valley. The age issue is one factor in allowing the devices, as many believe they will allow older residents to continue using the trail system.

Almost 70 percent of respondents had strong support for class I bikes versus 17 percent who said they were strongly opposed. But that backing dropped off significantly for class II bikes, with 35 percent in strong support and 29 percent strongly opposed.

Commissioners were told that themes for those in favor of the devices included, in addition to allowing older people the ability to continue to use local trails, the alleviation of traffic congestion and their use for commuting. For those opposing, safety and etiquette were the overwhelming concerns. Worries were also expressed about “the dangers of tourists and unskilled cyclists operating in multi-use, congested areas,” the memo says.

“Our rangers are worried about the safety” of the bikes, Tennenbaum said Tuesday. “We had accidents last year, and they weren’t even allowed on the trails.”

Enforcement of speed limits and etiquette were aspects that both sides endorsed.

Modern-day mopeds?

Commissioner Rachel Richards compared e-bikes to mopeds of her childhood and said she believes, like mopeds, people will rarely pedal a class II bike.

“They had a pedal and a throttle, and if you had to choose one or the other, everyone who used it just used the throttle,” she said. “I can see why people oppose the throttle bike because I don’t think they’ll be used as a bike per se and [be] more like a mini scooter.”

Commissioner George Newman agreed with that assessment, calling the situation at best, “a compromise and at worst, it’s a safety disaster.” He compared it to when shaped skis were first sold. The skis gave novices the ability to ski beyond their skill level, he said.

“And I see the potential of this happening specifically with rental bike shops where you have guests and tourists coming in,” Newman said. “[They] are not necessarily bike riders, but now they have the ability to cruise around much easier, not knowing the etiquette or really being comfortable on a bicycle.”

He suggested the county speed limit for bikes should be 15 mph and that the board should seriously consider prohibiting class II bikes, agreeing with Richards that such a type is “basically a moped with a throttle.”

People will need to be educated and eventually fined if compliance becomes an issue, the latter of which could result in shops greeting irate customers upon their return, he said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper said the problem is not about bells on bikes and alerting other trail users.

“It’s just that people really need to know when and where they’re supposed to use them,” she said, adding that people on regular bikes can be just as scary, particularly on Maroon Creek Road coming down from the Bells.

Clapper said she’s also concerned about changing the county law when it’s unclear what officials with RFTA and other jurisdictions plan to do. The county placed its moratorium on e-bikes so valley governments could be consistent on where the bikes are allowed, she said. This would help to avoid someone having to walk their e-bike in certain stretches because it’s a prohibited area or having different speed limits for different areas.

Commissioner Steve Child, who rode his e-bike several hundred miles last year, said the bikes have speedometers on them. Without the electric boost, he was able to hit 17 mph, he said.

“The problem is not whether it’s an electric-assisted bike or not, it’s the speed that’s involved,” he said. “The road bikes can easily go faster than 17 mph on a slight downgrade going down the Rio Grande.”

He agreed that they are a good way to help older people or people with physical restrictions to keep active, but acknowledged their power makes for a steep learning curve.

To help solve that, Commissioner Greg Poschman mused about the feasibility of an “e-bike 101” tutorial video for bike-shop customers. Richards said the county should produce a business card or something similar explaining the etiquette rules, with the shops giving them out with every rental.

“We need to take the initiative to give them the materials to educate with,” she said.

Tennenbaum said that’s in the works. It’s a brave new transit world, and he said county officials “have to start somewhere.”

Second and final reading of the ordinance is set for May 23.

chad@aspendailynews.com