Electric bicycles — the kind that work only when the rider is pedaling — are now permitted on the recreational trails operated by the Johnson County parks system.
Reversing a position taken late last year against e-bikes, the county’s Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners voted last month to permit electric bikes on trails for a six-month trial period that runs through the end of the year.
A primary goal is to promote fitness by getting more people on bicycles and exercising, even those who are limited by age, physical infirmity or excess weight. They are particularly useful in helping riders scale the Kansas City area’s many hills.
“It’s always fun to ride your bike with Grandma, but sometimes Grandma tops out at two or three miles, and if we can get her a little bit longer, that’s good, right?” Paul Schultz, general manager of Trek Bicycle Shawnee, said while giving the park board a briefing on e-bikes last month.
Schultz spoke of one customer who lost 100 pounds since he began using an e-bike and will soon transition to a traditional bicycle. Without the assistance, he said, that man couldn’t have begun riding in the first place. Schultz said e-bikes also allow people to cycle to work or shopping without getting “sweaty and gross.”
The county’s decision legalizes e-bikes on the Coffee Creek, Mill Creek and Kill Creek streamway trails, as well as paved loops in county parks, said Bill Maasen, the county’s superintendent of parks and golf courses.
Other vehicles — like motorized scooters, Segways and electric bikes that go without pedaling by the rider — are still prohibited.
But the county’s decision doesn’t mean the bikes are allowed on all city-operated trails.
Leawood allows e-bikes on its trails, for example, but Overland Park and Shawnee do not. That’s why parks officials from both sides of the state line have been discussing the issue in hopes of developing uniform regulations that local governments can adopt.
“We fully realize that when you are on a bike, you cross several jurisdictions,” said Gary Ristow, parks and recreation director for Lenexa. “And as a group, we feel that e-bikes are here to stay… and we’d like to accommodate them where we can.”
Consistent rules are becoming more important, said Leawood Parks Superintendent Brian Anderson, because “rail trails, such as the Katy Trail and Rock Island Trail, permit e-bikes and connecting to KC is becoming a reality.”
The permitted e-bikes (Class 1 and Class 3) can go up to 20 or 28 miles an hour, depending on the type, which causes some people to worry about the danger.
Johnson County Park board member Steve Klika, who cast one of the two votes against the e-bike experiment, told colleagues that cities are investing heavily in infrastructure for street cycling and trails should be promoted as safe zones.
“For some of us who have hearing impediments, we don’t hear bikes come up in back of us, so it’s already a tough issue,” Klika said. “When I’m walking my grandkids, and all of a sudden, a bike flies back, I fear for their safety.”
E-bike advocates say trail etiquette is the key — for any type of bike. The county intends to step up education efforts on trail courtesy, Maasen said, and paint yellow stripes on trails to keep most travelers on the right for safer passing.
During the six-month trial, Maasen said, park officials want feedback on the experiment, good or bad.
“If people are offended or feel that they got buzzed by, those are things that we want to know.”