Cycling Inequality: Where Are The E-Bike Adventure Trails? (Part 3)

In Part 1, I introduced the problem of discrimination against the disabled who rely on e-bikes to get trail time. In Part 2, I gave an example of how this problem is perpetuated, despite likely good intentions. Now, I want to offer some solutions we could consider.

The easiest solution

The easiest thing to do would be to allow Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes onto trails, including many that are currently open to hiking because they’re in a wilderness area (my reasons for this and the scientific backing for it are in Parts 1 and 2 of this article). The speed limit of 20 miles per hour would protect the trails, the environment, and other users. E-bikes have to have operating pedals, so this would preclude the presence of faster electric dirtbikes and make it easy for law enforcement to quickly identify people who are breaking the rules. It’s hard to mistake something fast like a Sur Ron, but the lack of pedals would be a dead giveaway.

It would also be a good idea to allow other forms of slow electric mobility on trails. Why? Because not all disabled people have asthma or another condition that’s compatible with an electric bike. Other electric wheeled vehicles, like a two-wheeled scooter with a seat or an electric wheelchair with fatter tires and some ground clearance would allow nearly all disabled people to safely enjoy the wilderness without creating unnecessary noise, tearing up trails, or endangering other users.

When That Doesn’t Work

Depending on the trail, it may be necessary to introduce some restrictions on the above.

If opening up to e-bikes and other electric mobility might cause traffic jams or later cause traffic jams, a land manager might require users to carry some evidence of non-obvious disabilities. An “Access Pass” allowing free entry into parks for people who’ve shown proof of an eligibility disability could cover a disabled person and others in their party. Possession of prescription medications like an inhaler, a doctor’s note, or something else could be presented to park officials in popular areas to get a pass of some kind for the trails that day. This would allow the smaller population of people with disabilities to gain access while keeping the floodgates of strictly recreational e-bike users closed in crowded places.

Restrictions on the use of throttles, lower speed limits than 20 MPH, or other restrictions may be necessary for safety on some trails. Those would be a lot more reasonable than a blanket ban on all wheeled vehicles or on e-bikes.

Another thing that probably needs to be considered is whether a form of electric mobility is compatible with the trail. Unless it’s a very smooth path, electric wheelchairs like you see in Walmart aren’t going to work and shouldn’t be allowed. They’d just strand a disabled person and create an emergency. Electric mobility that has the right clearance and tires, but that’s too wide, like an electric tricycle, would also be problematic on many trails. So, width restrictions would likely be needed to keep disabled people out of trouble.

It may be necessary for a park ranger or other professional to make sure a disabled person who can’t stand on their own has somebody with them to assist them on the trail should they get stuck or fall over. We aren’t talking about ADA-compliant paths out in nature or in the wilderness, so extra help will probably be needed to get over obstacles, replace a punctured tube, or to do other things that people with more minor disabilities could do by themselves .

For busy places, this would all be relatively easy to implement in person, but for far-fung trails that don’t get too many people are in the middle of nowhere, this process would require a different approach. In many cases, just allowing slow electric mobility onto the trails would be good enough, with webpages and maybe signs stating the rules at trailheads.

For places where some sort of pass might be needed to only allow the disabled to use trails on wheels, it might be best to implement a web-based system and a phone number someone could call to check in and get a confirmation number. This would be a way to make sure people using electric mobility understand the rules and safety considerations before setting out on a trail. This would also give more severely disabled people the ability to “check in” so a ranger can go looking for them if they get stuck and don’t check out later.

I can’t possibly cover every possible way to take care of issues that could crop up, but the main point is that it’s possible to allow access to trails to more people if we put a little thought in and don’t just go for blanket bans. We don’t want the rules to become so complicated that they’re hard to follow or enforce, though.

Some Final Thoughts

On the surface, it might appear that all of this talk about disability is just some ploy to let people use e-bikes and use disability as an excuse. But, we have to keep in mind that not all disabilities are obvious from looking at a person. Someone who looks otherwise healthy might not be able to walk on a trail for more than a couple hundred yards before it becomes a real problem for them. There are so many different ways a person might be disabled and how it might affect them, that we shouldn’t make these sorts of assumptions.

Some of the worst discrimination happens when we erase the disabled instead of seeking to accommodate them. Sometimes, we throw our hands up and say that accommodation is too hard when it’s really not. Other times, we try to move the goal posts when being disabled isn’t a goal at all, but something that most people can’t do anything about. Sure, some people might take advantage of overly easy rules on disability, but that’s better than excluding disabled people. We should err on the side of doing right here.

Finally, we need to keep in mind that the science really doesn’t support the idea that lower-speed electric mobility should be excluded from trails, even in wilderness areas, and even if people who aren’t disabled do it. So even if we’re opening more areas up to people who aren’t disabled, in most cases it’s not going to hurt anything. If there’s no harm to the environment and an opportunity to accommodate the disabled, there’s no reason to not go for it.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.




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