Essex column: E-bikes are fine on Rio Grande during the detour
August 6, 2017
Mark Gould came by the Post Independent last month with a couple of the electric-assist bicycles he's bought to help his workers get to and from job sites during the Grand Avenue bridge closure.
Gould, the owner of Gould Construction, is in the middle of lobbying the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board to get permission to use the machines on the Rio Grande Trail through the 95-day detour. The Colorado Department of Transportation is on his side, having asked RFTA to approve the idea.
At one level, this seems like a no-brainer. We — individuals, businesses, governments — must do all we can to get vehicles off of Glenwood Springs' streets during the detour, which starts Aug. 14. A week from today.
Gould has made a substantial investment both to help in this effort and because he's not getting his jobs done if his crews are sitting in traffic. RFTA should support that and offer business owners certainty who have invested to do their part. Gould, for example, has spent nearly $80,000 on 39 of these bikes.
This is a surprisingly muddled situation, though.
First, let's look at what the e-bikes are. They come in different classes, but in this instance, we are talking about standard, upright bicycles with a top speed of 20 mph. The electric assist kicks in only when the rider is pedaling. The controls for gears and how much oomph the assist provides are thumb-controlled and intuitive, at least if you're familiar with being on a bike.
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In my short ride from the PI office at 824 Grand Ave. along Pitkin Avenue and a bit on the Rio Grande Trail, I never felt out of control and uphill sure was easy. The bike also was heavy, clunky and uncomfortable, certainly compared with my road bike.
As a part-time bike commuter, my biggest concern with these bikes being on the trail is that inexperienced riders unfamiliar with trail etiquette will ride too closely to each other. I fret that someone riding one of these in a group will not give adequate room to other riders or might lose balance while riding in a cluster and create a domino effect.
The temptation to ride the bike at top speed — 20 mph — isn't that big a deal if trail etiquette is followed. Road bikers often go faster than that as a matter of routine.
It is incumbent on Gould and other e-bike providers — Valley View Hospital and a few other companies are providing these — to sternly orient riders to trail etiquette — including the need to wear helmets to help stave off a medical emergency. That's just a piece of the safety issue.
Bureaucratically, it turns out, the Legislature has cleared the way for the bikes to be on trails. A bill signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper defines the machines as bicycles and clears their use on trails such as the Rio Grande.
The bill does allow governments to bar them, however.
Glenwood Springs has affirmed that it's OK to use the bikes on trails within city limits during the detour and is considering allowing them permanently.
RFTA later this week will consider a resolution to ban them from the Rio Grande. That is a vehicle for a policy discussion, including what RFTA should permit after the detour period.
The RFTA board last month backed away from proactively allowing the bikes on the trail when two upvalley representatives, Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman and Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, expressed concern.
Newman and Whitsitt are less likely to feel the acute pain of congestion in and near Glenwood after the bridge closes, so this has the optics of upvalley ideological purity at the expense of Glenwood residents' and downvalley workers' pain.
I have a hard time thinking that anyone who is pondering the reality of the bridge closure would back away from anything that takes a few vehicles off the detour route.
While Glenwood Springs will reap significant benefits from the new bridge and resulting changes around it, the largest infrastructure project on the Western Slope in a generation is not being done primarily to benefit Glenwood. It's to move workers, visitors and supplies to the economic engine that is Aspen — we just get to do most of the suffering down this way.
So we could use the RFTA board's help, and the detour period is a time for practicality, not theoretical insistence about the way things a couple of board members might think things should forever be.
Carbondale Mayor and RFTA board member Dan Richardson has the right idea with his suggestion that allowing e-bikes temporarily on the lower Rio Grande during the detour would be a good opportunity to study their impact for future consideration.
The detour is an emergency. The longer-term policy question can be settled over the winter.
After riding an e-bike, I doubt they will be a long-term problem on the trail. They're self-limiting: expensive and too uncomfortable to ride very far. Technology will improve, but they strike me as most useful for urban commuters.
Allowing them on the trail during the detour might make the Rio Grande less fun for recreational riders in spots for a few seconds at a time. That's likely going to be the case anyway with more people on the trail. More serious riders — and I love to zip downhill from Carbondale to work myself — will just have to live with that. Employers providing e-bikes really must insist on safety.
These things would work out just fine. RFTA wouldn't be opening the way for hordes of e-bike hooligans to buzz Amish tourists on rental bikes.
The bikes represent one utilitarian piece in helping cut traffic.
Randy Essex is editor and publisher of the Post Independent.