The current eMTB landscape
Overview of eMTB Classes
eMTBs represent an emerging technology and are neither classified as a mountain bike nor a motorcycle. As a result, eMTBs confuse long-standing regulatory structures for trail management, which have frequently divided trails as either “motorized” or “non-motorized” regarding who/what can use them.
Electric (battery-powered) bicycle technology has advanced to the point that there are currently three classes of eMTBs. An electric bicycle is defined as a “bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts.”
CLASS 1: A “class 1 electric bicycle,” or “low-speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle,” is a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
CLASS 2: A “class 2 electric bicycle,” or “low-speed throttle-assisted electric bicycle,” is a bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
CLASS 3: A “class 3 electric bicycle,” or “speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle,” is a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour, and equipped with a speedometer.
How eMTBs are Currently Managed
Currently, eMTBs are not defined or dealt with consistently across land management agencies. eMTB access to trails and infrastructure depends on the authority with jurisdiction over the land.
On August 29, 2019, the Department of Interior released an executive order regarding e-bike access on federal public lands. IMBA's initial response to that order is here. As federal land agencies incorporate the order, e-bike and eMTB management is likely to change.
Currently, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regulations categorize eMTBs as a “motorized” use. Therefore, eMTBs are only permitted where motorized vehicles are allowed. The August executive order will impact the BLM as part of the Department of Interior; but not the U.S. Forest Service, which sits within the Department of Agriculture.
Some state and local authorities manage eMTBs similarly to federal agency regulations. However, other agencies have decided to open non-motorized trails to eMTB use.
Several state parks, county open space organizations and municipalities treat electric bicycles identically to non-motorized bicycles, or have designated specific areas that are open to e-bikes.
Many government entities have not yet considered the issue or have no policy regarding eMTB use at this time.
Resources for Land Managers
Land manager survey results: Trail Use and Management of Electric Mountain Bikes
In order to better guide research into the range of potential social and environmental impacts and benefits related to the use of eMTBs on natural surface trails, IMBA targeted federal, state and local land managers to survey their experiences and concerns regarding eMTB use on natural surface and/or singletrack trails (not paths or bikeways).
Class 1 eMTB Trail Impact Study
In 2015, IMBA conducted a scientifically controlled field study designed to measure relative levels of soil displacement and erosion resulting from traditional mountain bicycles, class 1 eMTBs (see definition above) and traditional off-road motorcycles (i.e. dirt bikes). The observations were compiled in controlled environmental conditions, with each type of bike making multiple passes on separated sections of the same trail within a single test site.
Rider survey results: Experiences and Perceptions of Mountain Bikers regarding eMTB’s
In 2015, IMBA conducted a user survey in order to better understand the concerns of mountain bicyclists and other trail users regarding eMTB use on natural surface trails. A short set of questions assessed the range of concerns from mountain bicyclists and other trail users regarding eMTB use on natural surface and non-motorized trails.
Summary of State and Federal Regulations
Within the context of public lands and land use, there is no uniform law that dictates what uses may or may not be allowed on any given property. This document examines the regulatory status of eMTBs on state and federal public lands in the United States and the potential to influence future access designation. In order to understand the complexity of land use regulations in the U.S., it is important to have a preliminary understanding of the allocation of regulatory and legislative powers of individual states (and the local entities therein) and the federal government.
State by State eMTB Policy Inventory (from PeopleForBikes)
This chart presents a state-by-state breakdown of eMTB policies, allowances and links to more information.
U.S. Forest Service Guidance on "Electric Bikes and Trail Management"
As of 2016, the USFS classifies eMTBs as motorized vehicles. They are only allowed on roads and trails open to motor vehicles and/or motorcycles, with possible local exceptions if they are based on existing rules and go through the appropriate public and environmental processes for altering access to trails.
Bureau of Land Management guidance on "Electric Powered Bicycles on Public Lands"
As of 2015, the BLM classifies eMTBs as motorized vehicles. This document specifically states that the BLM manages eMTB access in the same way that the USFS does.
PeopleForBikes offers multiple resources and tools related to both on-road and natural-surface eBike issues.