Allowing electric-assist bikes anywhere regular bikes are allowed could be the norm in non-state 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 regulations so that electrically assisted bicycles are not motor vehicles, mopeds, or ATVs. The bill would also revise state law to reflect the generally accepted classifications of electric-assist bicycles, commonly referred to as e-bikes. Under the bill, e-bikes would be allowed anywhere regular bicycles are allowed, including streets, highways, streets, bike lanes, and bike or multi-purpose trails. This includes paths with a natural surface, such as dirt. State authorities and local jurisdictions would still have the ability to restrict the use of e-bikes on certain multi-use trails or trails.
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The bill would limit use of the fastest class of e-bikes, which can go up to 28 miles per hour, to riders aged 16 and over. And it would require these faster e-bikes, called Class 3 e-bikes, to have a speedometer that shows the bike’s current speed in miles per hour. All e-bikes would have to have a sticker stating the class of the bike, the fastest pedal-assist speed, and the motor power of the bike.
E-bikes are bicycles with a battery and an electric motor that amplify a rider’s pedaling power, a feature called pedal assistance. Class 1 e-bikes have motors that only work when a rider is pedaling – they have no throttle bodies and the motor cannot propel the bike on its own without a rider pedaling. Pedal assistance on Class 1 e-bikes stops at 20 mph; In addition, the bike is powered solely by the rider without assistance. Class 2 e-bike motors are also limited to 20mph, but the bikes have a throttle, meaning the motor can power the bike without the rider pedaling. Class 3 e-bikes are pedal-assist – meaning there’s no throttle and the rider has to pedal for the motor to engage – but the motor cuts out at 28mph.
The bill had its first reading in committee on Monday. The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on Wednesday.
In a phone call Tuesday, Gunderson noted that the bill would bring Montana into line with federal definitions of e-bike classes, which 45 other states have also adopted.
“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 law that would give us more access. We are trying to give local government more powers to regulate as needed.”
As proposed state legislation, the bill would limit e-bike access to federal land, such as B. Land controlled by the US Forest Service or 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. The forest service, on the other hand, considers e-bikes to be motorized vehicles, just like a motorcycle. The forest service prohibits the use of e-bikes on all non-motorized trails. HB 261 would not affect any of this.
The bill would cause non-state bicycle and multi-use infrastructure to be automatically opened to e-bikes unless a state agency or local jurisdiction decides to ban access. Currently, Montana law defines e-bikes but takes no position on where they can and cannot ride. Some jurisdictions, like Missoula, have addressed e-bike access, but there is no statewide basis.
Gunderson said his reasoning behind the bill, and a similar bill in 2021 that passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate, was that e-bikes offer cycling to people whose age or health conditions would otherwise discourage them from cycling. That includes himself, he said, noting that he just wants to ride his e-bike in places where he’s ridden a regular bike before.
“I’m 65 years old and not in the best of health, my knees are bad and I can’t get out and enjoy cycling like I used to,” he said. “My wife and I are both e-bike enthusiasts who love to get out there.”
At a House Transportation Committee hearing Monday, John Juras, the chair of Bike Walk Montana’s Legislative Committee, and Logan Smith, the group’s interim executive director, both supported the bill. Stevensville resident Chris Fox also spoke in support. He said he doesn’t currently own an e-bike, “but I suspect I will ride one in the future.”
However, some conservation and wildlife advocacy groups feared the bill would automatically open access for e-bikes unless a government agency or community takes action to restrict access. They also expressed concern about the enforcement burden that could be placed on local governments and potential user conflicts with fast, quiet e-bikes. The groups, which included Wild Montana, Montana Audubon, and Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said their concerns related primarily to trails and natural-surface trails.
Wild Montana’s Noah Marion called the bill a “mandate for local communities.” By making open e-bike access the default, 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 if not open” approach, making cycling and multi-purpose infrastructure e-bike-free by default and allowing local governments to decide where e-bikes are allowed will. He also criticized the bill’s definition that e-bikes are not motorized vehicles.
“We find the definition of e-bikes as non-motorized a bit 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 similar concerns: “It would redefine e-bikes as something they aren’t… by definition, these motors have them. And that creates confusion for users and land managers.”
Montana Audubon’s Amy Seaman opposed the bill, concerned about conflicts between e-bikes and wildlife or other trail users, particularly older users. She said 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 much in line with the direction we’re taking with the city.” The Missoula Code already defines the three e-bike categories like HB 261 and indicates where different classes of e-bikes are allowed. Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed in most places where regular bikes are located, including bike lanes and primary multi-use trails. He said the city appreciates the bill allowing for local scrutiny.
Bob Giordano, director of Free Cycles and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, said in a call Tuesday, “The idea of where vehicles belong or are allowed is an important conversation. If someone is on the River Path and someone comes by 40 km/h on an e-bike and hits the walker or the dog or the stroller, that’s not good. Our roads are crowded enough already, our paths should be rests of solitude and rests of nature.”
On the other hand, he said, “If you walk down the Bitterroot Path to Lolo, Stevensville, with wide sightlines, it feels like you can do that very safely.” Heavy e-bikes, some of which can weigh more than 50 kilos, make riding at high speeds unsuitable for some trails. But class 1 and class 2 e-bikes are not that much of a concern. Giordano, a longtime proponent of bike transportation and infrastructure, generally praised e-bikes as “a different kind of mobility than cars, which are coming online pretty quickly, and I’m glad we’re talking about different types of mobility and where they are.” allowed again.”
Evan Harmon, winter manager at Big Sky Bikes, said he was glad the issue had come up: “For the most part I think it’s good that at least the state legislature is thinking about these things. I think it’s a step in the right direction as people and the law are starting to get comfortable with e-bikes. I don’t think there’s any good reason not to allow them at this point. It’s a great tool, especially for commuting. It’s a great option. The closer we get to that, the more mainstream the better.”
Alex Gallegos, owner of Missoula Bicycle Works, said Tuesday that he supports access to e-bikes but is concerned that Class 2 e-bikes — limited to 20 mph but with throttles — are traveling on multi-purpose trails be.
“It’s too easy to just pin it to take full advantage of the throttle while on a Class 1 or Class 3 it’s just pedal assist,” he said. “I get along well with class 1 and class 3 on cycle paths. I’m not particularly comfortable with class 2 on bike lanes. But it’s hard to argue because it’s like saying that a super-fast Ferrari shouldn’t be allowed on city streets because it can go too fast. You have to expect people to be considerate of other users. Unfortunately, there is no effective way to enforce the use of these bikes on specific routes.
Upon hearing the details of HB 261, he said, “There’s nothing in it that’s like, ‘Gosh, why would you write that, why would you put that in?'”