Washington State clarifies e-bike rules on trails

New legislation allows land managers to decide policy on case-by-case basis

E-bike News

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.

Find out how Seattle became a must-ride MTB locale.

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.

About the author: Paul Andrews

Dividing his time between Seattle and Santa Cruz, career journalist Paul Andrews has more than a quarter century of mountain biking under his belt, which he wishes had a few less notches.

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  • Erik Brooks says:

    E bikes are way more capable now than they were a few years ago, and will keep advancing. There are already some E motorcycles which are close in performance to fastest gas motorcycles. Fastest one so far does 216MPH! Electric MTBs in a couple more years can be FAST. It’s wise to draw a line now, before things get bad – regarding trail conflicts, I mean.

  • Simbot says:

    I guess we’ll have to start weighing people and ban fat people from MT biking then. Doesn’t matter if the weight is coming from the bike or the rider, it’s the combo of both that gets transmitted to the ground. Better tell Big Brother to buy some scales.

  • Karkus says:

    Seems like reasonable regulations…. a good compromise

    All eBikes have electric MOTORS. They should therefore not be allowed on non-motorized trails. Otherwise, why not allow dirt bikes, 4 wheelers , and Hummers?

    And before you call me a Strava lovin’ luddite (as per Larry’s assertion above). I have tried eBikes (they are great fun !) and I am not a fan of Strava whatsoever.

    I support eBikes for riding on roads and I plan to get one soon. E-bikes should be safer than regular bikes because they can keep up with traffic. Win-win.

    On a dirt trail, however, more speed generally means more danger (and not just for the other trail users). Also, electric motors have way more torque than gas powered motors, so the potential for trail shredding is even bigger.

    And don’t even start with those sob stories about someone’s spouse or dad not being able to mountain bike cause they’re too weak. That’s life. Stick to easier trails. Whatever. I’m too weak to ride in the Olympics, and nobody is advocating that I should be allowed to dope and have motors on my bike just so I can participate.

  • Meatbike says:

    So since my mom can’t hike more than one mile anymore, she should be able to hire a Helicopter and get dropped off into wilderness lands where motors are banned. Aging sucks. Getting sick sucks. No one has a “right” to access wilderness by any means.
    Sure grandpa, ride your ebike on a non-motorized trail. Big deal. Its the young d-bags who have the stealth and is climbing at 28 mph that is going to get us all in trouble…The tech is getting amazing and is changing rapidly. Ban ’em and come up with a plan based on trail networks.

  • Craig Erion says:

    I’m pleased that this thread isn’t full of ebike hate. MTB eBikes have made great PR strides over the last couple of years with the pedal powered trail users. I’m 64 and have no other reason for riding eBikes other than…I’m 64 and love mountain biking.

    My wife and ride at low power settings and we still get a great workout. I continue to do some XC racing on my Felt Edict and hold my own in the 60+ class. Class 1 eBikes do not adversely affect trail conditions. Strava has had an eBike category for some time now which means KOMs and QOMs held by pedal powered bikes are not affected.

    I look forward to the day when Class 1 eBikes are officially allowed on most trail systems.

  • R. Wilson says:

    If there are going to be regulations against e-bikes on trails there should be exceptions to those regulations for people with health issues to allow those people who need the extra assistance.to still be able to enjoy the woods while on a bike. If someone wanted to use an e-motorized wheel chair on a trail I doubt anyone would object to that. I see no real good reason to bad e-bikes on a trail unless they are using something that is capable of providing more speed than necessary. If I were using an e-bike on a mountain trail I’d really only need the motor for the steep hills and I’d be perfectly happy if it only moved at 5 mph while doing so.

    • myke says:

      i certainly would object. this is issue is if these people are unable to ride these trails under normal conditions then they would be a great burden upon others that use the trail. additionally since these bikes are faster they pose greater danger to people that use the trail. my experience with ebikes has not been good here in California. most riders don’t know simple trail educate and pass in areas that are not safe or at unsafe speeds.

      i do get the draw. i may have a heart condition that would take me away from the sport. i will certainly feel the attraction if that happens but i would never want to be a burden to others so i would probably never buy a ebike.

  • Chuck says:

    I have been mountain biking for about 10 years now started out as rehabilitating my knee after shearing off my Tibia Plato, at 55 I have taken the last 6 months to get myself in the best shape I have been in for years and hope to keep peddling for years to come, I have only had the opportunity to ride an Ebike pedal assist once and yes it was a blast, much easier on my knee peddling up hills yes it was heavy at 50 pounds but I didn’t really notice the weight and these were very technical single track with lots of rocks, I did not see any more impact on the terrain not like it has a throttle to twist and the rear tire isn’t throwing roost. From my standpoint I can see someone with limitations benefitting from an Ebike with still being able to get out and enjoy the trails, if there comes a time when my knee just wont allow me to peddle with force I will be getting one, until then I plan to keep pushing my physical limitations as far as I can

  • Al says:

    I am 66 in Seattle. I am riding the trails now on a standard mountain bike. On very steep or sustained climbs you will pass me resting on the side of the trail or walking my bike or just going slower than you. I will try to get out of your way although I will likely slow you down. It is not going to get much better as I get older.

    I suspect we both would be better off if I were riding a class 1 mountain eBike.

  • Jay says:

    What is the fine for being caught riding an ebike in WA on these trails?

  • Bud says:

    It is so ridiculous and over reaching to ban class 1 eBikes on MTB trails. Spare me with the purist Mountain biker BS. There is no point and it makes zero sense. If it was not for the battery you wouldn’t even be able to tell. All it does is give you a little boost while pedaling uphill. They don’t even go over 700 watts. A mountain biker in good shape could put out more power with just their legs than a class 1 ebike.

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