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Bill would make e-bike access the default in Montana

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Allowing electric-assist bicycles anywhere regular bikes are allowed could be the norm on non-federal lands in Montana under a bill making its way through the state House. 

House Bill 261, introduced by Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby), would revise state code to state that electric-assist bicycles are not motor vehicles, mopeds or off-highway vehicles. The bill would also revise state law to reflect the generally recognized classifications of electric-assist bicycles, generally referred to as e-bikes. Under the bill, e-bikes would be allowed anywhere that regular bicycles are allowed, including streets, highways, roads, bike lanes and bike or multi-use paths. That includes paths with a natural surface, like dirt. State agencies and local jurisdictions would still have the ability to restrict e-bike use on specific multi-use paths or trails.

Riding an e-bike on one of Missoula's pedestrian/multi-use bridges.

The bill would restrict the use of the fastest class of e-bikes, which can travel up to 28 mph, to riders 16 and older. And it would require that those faster e-bikes, called Class 3 e-bikes, have a speedometer displaying the bike's current speed in miles per hour. All e-bikes would be required to have a sticker denoting the bike's class, fastest pedal-assist speed and motor wattage on the bike. 

E-bikes are bicycles that have a battery and electric motor that magnify a rider's pedaling effort, a feature called pedal-assist. Class 1 e-bikes have motors that only function when a rider is pedaling — they do not have throttles and the motor can't propel the bike on its own without a rider pedaling. The pedal assist on Class 1 e-bikes stops at 20 mph; beyond that, the bike is powered solely by the rider without assistance. Class 2 e-bike motors are also limited to 20 mph, but the bikes have a throttle, meaning the motor can propel the bike without the rider pedaling. Class 3 e-bikes are pedal assist — meaning there is no throttle and the rider must be pedaling for the motor to engage — but the motor disengages at 28 mph. 

The bill had its first reading in committee on Monday. The House Transportation Committee is set to vote on the bill Wednesday.

In a phone call Tuesday, Gunderson noted that the bill would bring Montana in line with federal definitions of e-bike classes, which have also been adopted by 45 other states. 

"What we're doing is we're trying to align with accepted federal law that 45 other states have followed," he said. "We're not trying to pass a bill that gives us more access. We're trying to give local government more power to regulate as needed." 

As proposed state legislation, the bill would not affect e-bike access on federal land, such as land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM allows local field offices to allow Class 1 e-bikes on non-motorized trails by going through a public process. In contrast, the Forest Service considers e-bikes to be motorized vehicles, just like a motorcycle. The Forest Service prohibits e-bike use on all non-motorized trails. HB 261 would not affect any of that. 

What the bill would do is make non-federal bicycle and multi-use infrastructure automatically open to e-bikes unless a state agency or local jurisdiction chooses to prohibit access. Currently, Montana law defines e-bikes but doesn't take a stance on where they can and can't go. Some jurisdictions, like Missoula, have addressed e-bike access, but there's no statewide baseline. 

Gunderson said his reasoning behind the bill, and a similar bill in 2021 that passed the House but died on the Senate floor, is that e-bikes offer cycling to people whose age or health conditions would otherwise keep them off bikes. That includes himself, he said, noting that he simply wants to ride his e-bike in places he previously rode a regular bike. 

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"I'm 65 years old and I'm not in the most perfect health, my knees are bad, and I can't get out and enjoy biking like I used to," he said. "My wife and I are both e-bike enthusiasts who enjoy getting out." 

In a House Transportation Committee hearing on Monday, John Juras, the chairman of Bike Walk Montana's legislative committee, and Logan Smith, the group's interim executive director, both spoke in support of the bill. Chris Fox, a Stevensville resident, also spoke in support. He said he doesn't currently own an e-bike "but I suspect that I will be riding them in the future." 

But some conservation and wildlife-advocacy groups worried that the bill would automatically open e-bike access unless an agency or municipality took action to restrict access. They also voiced concern over the enforcement burden that could place on local governments, and possible user conflicts with fast, quiet e-bikes. The groups, which included Wild Montana, Montana Audubon and Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, specified that their concerns were primarily related to natural-surface paths and trails. 

Noah Marion, of wilderness-advocacy group Wild Montana, characterized the bill "as a mandate on local communities." By making open e-bike access the default, he said, the bill would burden local governments by having to decide where to close e-bike access through a public process. Instead, he argued, the state should follow the BLM's "closed unless open" approach, by closing bike and multi-use infrastructure to e-bikes as a default and allowing local governments to decide where to allow e-bikes. He also took issue with the bill's definition of e-bikes as not being motorized vehicles. 

"Defining e-bikes as non-motorized we see a little bit as problematic because the Forest Service defines e-bikes as motorized vehicles," he said. Katjana Stutzer of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers had a similar concern: "It would redefine e-bikes to something they're not ... by definition these have motors. And this introduces confusion to users and land managers." 

Amy Seaman of Montana Audubon opposed the bill and worried about conflicts between e-bikes and wildlife or other trail users, particularly older users. She said that the group could support the bill with some changes. 

In Missoula, Aaron Wilson, the city's transportation planning manager, said in a phone call Tuesday that the bill is "pretty closely in line to the direction we've taken with the city" already. Missoula code already defines the three e-bike categories as HB 261 would, and specifies where different classes of e-bikes are allowed. Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed most places where regular bicycles are, including bike lanes and primary multi-use paths. He said the city appreciates that the bill allows for local control. 

Bob Giordano, the director of Free Cycles and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, said in a phone call Tuesday, "The idea of where do vehicles belong or are allowed is an important conversation. If someone's on the River Path and somebody comes along at 25 mph on an e-bike and hits the walker or the dog or the baby carriage, that's not good. Our streets are already busy enough, our trails should be respites of solitude and respites of nature." 

On the other hand, he said, "If you're going to Lolo, Stevensville, down the Bitterroot Path, wide sight-lines, it feels like you can do that very safely." Heavy e-bikes, which can sometimes weigh more than 50 pounds, make traveling at high speeds inappropriate for some paths. But Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are not as concerning. Giordano, a long-time advocate of bike transportation and infrastructure, praised e-bikes in general as "a different mobility other than cars coming online rather quickly, and I'm glad we're talking about different types of mobility and where they're allowed." 

Evan Harmon, the winter manager at Big Sky Bikes, said he was glad the topic has come up: "I think it’s mostly good that the state Legislature at least is thinking about this stuff. I think it’s a step in the right direction to have people and the law start familiarizing themselves with e-bikes. I don’t think there’s a good reason to not allow them at this point. It’s a great tool, especially for commuting. It’s a great option. The closer we can get to that being more mainstream, the better." 

Alex Gallegos, owner of Missoula Bicycle Works, said on Tuesday that he was supportive of e-bike access but concerned about Class 2 e-bikes — limited at 20 mph but which have throttles — being on multi-use paths. 

"It’s too easy on that to just pin it, to make full use of that throttle, whereas on a Class 1 or a Class 3 it is entirely pedal assist," he said. "I’m fine with Class 1 and Class 3 on bike paths. I’m not terribly comfortable with Class 2 on bike paths. But it’s a hard argument to make because it’s like saying a super-fast Ferrari shouldn’t be allowed on city streets because it can go to fast. You have to expect people to be considerate of other users. Unfortunately there’s not an effective way to enforce the use of those bikes on specific trails." 

Hearing the details of HB 261, he said, "There’s nothing in there that’s like, ‘My gosh, why would you write this, why would you introduce this?'"

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