British Columbia

Regulation for electric bikes may forever change B.C. mountain trails

After a year and a half of consultation and research, the province's e-mountain bike policy is awaiting final approval as trail groups wait to see how the controversial new bikes will be regulated on the hills.

'We think that this policy could inform how land managers decide to move forward'

Professional mountain biker Wade Simmons says he rides his electric mountain bike to get more laps in on his favourite trails when he is short on time. (Rocky Mountain Bicycles)

Mountain bike organizations in British Columbia are anticipating the reveal of a provincial policy that will determine if and how electric bicycles will be permitted to use trails on Crown land.

The province says it has heard from stakeholders on both sides of the issue about the concerns and merits of allowing the relatively new technology on natural, non-paved trail networks and has integrated feedback into the current draft of the policy.

"It ranges from abject fear that this is going to destroy access for certain user groups, to those who are very, very keen on this," said Daniel Scott, trails specialist with Recreation Sites and Trails B.C., a branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

Wait and see

The province considered the recent precedent in Washington, where legislation was enacted that essentially leaves access decisions to land managers, as well as what local trail organizations are asking for.

Those groups, such as the Terrace Off Road Cycling Association (TORCA North) and North Shore Mountain Bike Association (NSMBA), among others, are eagerly awaiting the province's policy as they anticipate it could inform how land managers move forward.

Most B.C. trail groups do not encourage e-bike access or provide insurance for e-bike riders at official events or races, but stop short of official policies against allowing the new technology on trails.

Concerns over safety, trail damage and conflict with other trail users have some calling for electric mountain bikes to be banned from B.C's trails while others say they have a legitimate place in the "natural evolution" of the sport. (Rocky Mountain Bicycles)

"We're really waiting to see what the province does," said Cooper Quinn, vice president of the NSMBA which deals directly with local land managers such as Metro Vancouver and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which own some of the lands used by mountain bikers on Seymour Mountain.

"We think that this policy could inform how land managers decide to move forward." 

Safety concerns

Electric bikes have increased in popularity and a number of mountain bike companies have jumped on the bandwagon.

The new machines appeal to a range of users; from those who are looking to squeeze in extra laps on the mountain to people with disabilities who may otherwise not be able to access trails due to difficult uphill approaches.

Scott spoke with adaptive sports athletes about inclusiveness as part of his consultation work.

He said he also considered potential tourism opportunities, and the needs of all trail users while keeping in mind concerns about sustainability and safety.

"The hard science is lacking ... but what we do know is that e-bikes are generally faster and that's part of what makes them attractive," he said, adding that the increase in impact on the trails is a given but not necessarily a reason to outright ban the bikes.

Because of the lack of available data or evidence, the ministry has decided to develop a policy to regulate e-bikes, which it said is more flexible and easier to amend in the future than legislation.

He said the speed allows riders to complete more laps of a trail in a shorter amount of time, and could mean increased wear on trails.

Those opposed to allowing e-mountain bikes on trails worry that the relative speed of the bikes compared to other users, such as hikers, could result in conflict on narrow, single-track trails.

Because e-bikes allow riders to travel farther, faster and with less effort, some organizations are raising red flags about ease of access to the backcountry for those who are unprepared for wilderness conditions.

Whistler's Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) has taken a public stance against e-bikes on the trails it manages, pointing to the increase in wear and tear on the trails.

"The issue is, really, who's supplying the money to do the maintenance? And at the end of the day there isn't really any provincial money," said WORCA president Craig Mackenzie.