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Not so fast e-bike riders: Motors aren’t allowed on bike paths in Oregon State Parks


Riders on the Historic Columbia River State Trail.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Last week we posted a story about how electric bicycles have opened up new riding opportunities in the Columbia River Gorge. But it turns out it’s illegal to ride an e-bike on the Historic Columbia River State Trail — or on any other paved bike path within the Oregon State Parks system.

We’ve since updated that story with a note after learning about the issue from a commenter (Park Chambers, who happens to own Fat Tire Farm and Hood River Bikes) and then confirming the facts in a phone call with an Oregon State Parks spokesperson.

This prohibition of e-bikes on paved trails caught me off-guard. As pedal-assisted bikes gain in popularity, I think the issue merits a closer look.

What the laws say

Right now there’s confusion surrounding the issue because of how state laws are written. I asked bike law expert Charley Gee for a clarification.

“E-bikes are considered motor vehicles and they can’t operate on trails designated for pedestrians and bikes.”
— David Spangler, Oregon State Parks

“Electric-assisted bicycles are not legally bicycles,” Gee said. “But they are given the same status as bicycles under Oregon Revised Statute [ORS] 814.405.” That law states, “An electric assisted bicycle shall be considered a bicycle, rather than a motor vehicle, for purposes of the Oregon Vehicle Code, except when otherwise specifically provided by statute.” The Oregon Vehicle Code is laid out in ORS chapters 801 through 825.

For all other laws, Gee says, “Electric-assisted bicycles are not considered ‘bicycles’ and cannot be considered as such when reading the law.”

In other words, the ORS Vehicle Code deals with highways and roadways and since paved paths meant for non-motorized uses within State Parks are neither, those laws don’t apply.

The State Parks and Recreation Department is governed by chapter 736 of the Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs), which classify electric bikes as ‘motor vehicles’. According to Oregon State Parks East Columbia River Gorge Park Manager David Spangler, “We define ‘motor vehicle’ as anything that has a motor and can transport a person, and we only allow motor vehicles on roads or other areas designated for this use.”

Unlike the Oregon Vehicle Code, which includes a statutory definition of e-bikes (ORS 801.258) and the aforementioned clarifying note about their legal status, the OARs don’t even mention e-bikes. Because of that silence on the topic, Spangler says, “E-bikes are considered motor vehicles and they can’t operate on trails designated for pedestrians and bikes.” (As per OAR 736-010-0025 (3)).

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The no-ride list

E-bikes are not allowed on the Banks-Vernonia State Trail.

Before you plan any e-bike rides in Oregon, you’d be wise to consult the State Parks search tool to see if your route includes any of their trails or paths. Here’s a few parks that are particularly popular for cycling:

Is this a bad thing?

Does Oregon really want to prohibit people from riding e-bikes in State Parks?

Unlike the raging and ongoing debate around e-MTBs on dirt singletrack, there’s no conservation or environmental controversy around paved trails. The argument for e-bikes on paved trails is very strong. They open up cycling to a huge new market of people who would otherwise never get in the saddle. The argument against them is probably the all-too-familiar philosophical objection against motors of any kind in non-motorized areas.

But what’s worse? A tourist on an e-bike rolling along at 18 mph while soaking up fantastic views of the Gorge — or someone training for a race on a high-end road bike swooshing downhill while narrowly avoided other path users? According to Spangler with Oregon State Parks, the latter scenario is the problem his office currently struggles with.

We can fix this

“I have no comment. All I know is e-bikes are wonderful.”
— Stephen Demosthenes, owner of e-bike rental business in Mosier

Like many annoying bike law issues (Idaho stops, mandatory sidepath laws, and so on), the big problem here is that we’re forced to deal with a set of laws that hasn’t kept up with advances in how bicycles are made or used. The status of e-bikes in the OAR needs to be addressed. Currently, Oregon State Parks is unable to issue a clear statement about their use and it’s leading to confusion among users and business owners.

Park Chambers, the Hood River bike shop owner, doesn’t rent e-bikes because he knows they’re illegal on the paths many of his customers would likely ride on — like the popular Twin Tunnels segment of the Historic Columbia River State Trail between Hood River and Mosier. But the legal status hasn’t stopped Mosier-based Route 30 Classics owner Stephen Demosthenes (the business owner we highlighted last week) from renting them. When asked for his opinion about renting e-bikes to customers who are very likely to ride them illegally, he said, “I have no comment. All I know is e-bikes are wonderful.”

With two new shops in Hood River now renting e-bikes, and with the Historic Columbia River State Trail getting more popular every year, this issue will only get worse if nothing is done about it. A sensible approach might be to focus on a maximum bicycle speed limit (20 mph let’s say) instead of whether or not the bicycle has a low-power, pedal-assisted motor.

Putting aside the debate about motors on bicycles, confusion in the public based on lack of legal clarity is not a good thing. We need to amend the OAR so that State Parks can give the public a simple “yes” or “no” answer about e-bikes on their paved paths. The OAR rulemaking process must begin with the agency itself; but on an issue like this it’s unlikely State Parks would take that first step until they are encouraged to do so by the public and/or a lawmaker, advocacy group, or other policymaking body.

So who’s up for it?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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