NEMBA Guidance to New England Bicycles Dealers Regarding The Issue of Electric Mountain Bikes

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Revisions 1/27/21

Bicycle dealers around the country and in New England are facing a dilemma about whether their shops should sell power-assist mountain bikes (eMTBs) designed to be ridden on singletrack trails.

Some shop owners are weighing the cost/benefit of stocking them on the shop floors while others have decided not to sell them because of the potentially negative consequences of having eMTBs on their local trails. In New England this is an especially difficult calculus because there are so few places that e-MTBs may legally be ridden on public land.

We hope this primer for bicycle dealers in New England will help shop owners decide if it’s beneficial to their business – and to the sport of mountain biking – to sell offroad eMTBs. The primer will focus on the following issues:

  • An overview of mountain bike trail access and how it relates to eMTBs
  • A state-by-state breakdown of where eMTBs can be legally ridden off road in New England
  • An explanation of NEMBA’s position on eMTBs

Mountain Bike Trail Access & eMTBs

We are fortunate to have great access to trails in New England and it is because of this access that the sport of mountain biking is so popular and why mountain bike sales are so strong. However, our access to trails is the result of many years of advocacy to convince land managers and regulatory agencies that mountain biking is a sustainable, safe sport that is appropriate on public lands and shared trail systems. NEMBA was founded 30 years ago when mountain biking was nearly banned entirely from two large parks near Boston: the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills. Since then, mountain bike access has become mainstream –almost taken for granted– but our access is still predicated on the fact that mountain bikes are non-motorized vehicles.

We should not forget that mountain bike access is a result of the continued hard work of dedicated advocates, and in many areas we still have much to do. There are still many land managers and other trail users who do not like sharing trails with mountain bikers, and we must remain vigilant to safeguard our sport.

Motorized vs. Non-Motorized

Access in New England has always been based on the fundamental understanding that mountain biking is a “non-motorized” form of recreation, on par with hiking, XC skiing, trail running, etc. As a non-motorized sport, those in charge of our public lands manage mountain biking using the same guidelines and practices as other non-motorized user groups – though there are still many parks which ban mountain biking. All in all, we are fortunate that there are myriad opportunities for mountain biking in New England but we need to keep in mind that this is because of the bedrock advocacy principle that mountain biking is a non-motorized form of recreation.

In contrast, off-road motorcycling, ATV'ing and even snowmobiling have been increasingly restricted and there are fewer and fewer legal places available to them. The same could likely happen to mountain biking if we become seen as a motorized sport.

If eMTBs begin to become common on public trails and usage problems result – legally or illegally – the primary and most effective way for land managers to keep them off public lands will be to ban all types of bikes. Also, if eMTBs become regulated as a “mountain bike” and are able to be ridden on non-motorized trails, land managers could create restrictive policies that affect the entire sport of mountain biking. This will greatly limit where all bikes can be legally ridden on trails.

Advocacy groups like NEMBA have worked hard to develop good relationships with other organized recreational-trail user groups, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club. However, if eMTBs become common on our shared-use trails, there would likely be a backlash from a wide range of users and recreation stakeholders.

NEMBA works constantly to open up new trails and new areas to ride. Many of these are managed by town conservation commissions, land trusts, or private individuals where even the idea of allowing motorized bicycles would make it nearly impossible to gain permission. If our mountain bike advocacy efforts need to include eMTBs, our successes will be few and far between. Right now, there isn’t much of a population of eMTB riders but if a user base does develop, this new community of eMTB riders will need to set up their own advocacy organization and make their own case for access.

The Dealer Dilemma

Bicycle dealers need to appreciate that trail access is critical to our sport. Quite simply, trails = sales. The reverse is equally true: fewer trails, fewer sales.

This issue puts bicycle dealers in the crosshairs of a dilemma. Should dealers stock eMTBs in their shops and make a few sales or should they stick to selling pavement-oriented e-bikes for the commuting and transportation market? Some dealers have decided to do the latter because they don’t wish to be responsible for losing mountain bike trail access. We respect this position.

However, if bicycle dealers decide to sell eMTBs, they need to be upfront with their customers and educate them about where these eMTBs can be legally ridden in their sales territory. If a dealer’s customer territory doesn’t include legal places to ride eMTBs, then they should seriously consider not offering them on the showroom floor.

Where can eMTBs be ridden legally in New England?

If your shop decides to offers eMTBs, we strongly urge you to educate your customers about where they can ride. To not let your customers know does them a disservice and also creates a big problem for local land managers and mountain bike advocates who will need to deal with the problem your shop has created.

The short answer is that all the major state and federal land management agencies in New England allow e-bikes only on trails which allow motorized recreation. E-bikes may also be ridden on private property and private trail systems with the permission of the landowner.

Many local trail systems are managed by town conservation commissions or land trusts that have not fully developed policies specific to electric, power-assist vehicles. However, all of those we’ve spoken to verify that regardless of the amount of power emitted by the electric motor, they are still by definition motorized and are managed as such.

How e-bikes are managed on paved public paths is unclear, and frequently state and local regulations have not yet caught up to the technology of e-bikes, and there is no definitive list of where e-bikes are allowed to ride on paved pathways. We support efforts to clarify the transportation policies regarding e-bikes as long as such policies are not applied to our natural surface trail systems.

Click here for areas where eMTBS can legally be ridden in New England.