Slow zones, primary commuter trails and limits on sidewalk riding are some of the proposed rules discussed Wednesday that may govern the use of electronic scooters and bikes in Missoula.
The proposals are part of revisions to two city ordinances — one involving city parks and trails, and the other on bicycle uses. They’re meant to update outdated ordinances, as well as create rules governing the newer modes of transportation created by what are called e-bikes and e-scooters.
While the biking ordinance covers the definition of three classes of e-bikes, the meat of the rules surrounding their use is in the city park codes. A public hearing on the bike ordinance is set for June 3, followed by a June 17 hearing on the city park ordinance, which also clarifies the use of “adult” beverages in city parks, trails and open spaces, and lists 28 types of prohibited conduct. Those activities range from blocking a trail to flying drones.
Donna Gaukler, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that the parks ordinance hadn’t been updated since 1991 and didn’t mention urban forestry or the city’s open space. But the biggest change involves the addition of regulations governing the e-bikes and e-scooters and where they will be allowed.
Gaukler, who is an avid cyclist, said the electronic traveling devices are becoming more and more popular as clean, healthy, and inexpensive alternatives to personal vehicles or buses. She noted that the primary commuter trails in Missoula aren’t just for “Lycra-clad racers” but also are used by people commuting to work, some of whom don't want to work up a sweat by using only pedal power. Others may be mobility-impaired, and use electronic traveling devices to more easily navigate Missoula's hills.
Still, not every trail needs to be available for electronic users, Gaukler added. That led to the proposal to create of “primary commuter trails,” on which bicycles, scooters and skateboards with electric motors that can’t exceed 20 mph can use. Those include the Northside Greenway, the Bitterroot Trail, Ron’s River Trail, the Milwaukee Trail, and the Grant Creek Trail. Others can be officially designated in the future.
The proposed parks ordinance updates also prohibit traveling on trails in excess of any posted speed limit, or of “failing to travel in a careful and prudent manner,” taking into account the amount of traffic, trail conditions, and other trail users’ safety. In addition, it requires those on bikes or scooters, electronic or not, to yield to pedestrians and horses, and to give an audible warning by voice or bell to a person being passed.
The ordinance also may include references to “slow zones,” which are heavily used locations. Speeds there may be limited to 8 mph, Gaukler said.
Councilor Gwen Jones called the proposed updates to the park ordinance “pragmatic and common sense.”
Under the bike ordinance, e-bikes and e-scooters would be prohibited from operating on the sidewalks in downtown Missoula's central business district, or anywhere else with traffic control devices or signs stating that they’re not allowed. Ben Weiss, the city’s bike and pedestrian program manager, said the signage is required under the state law that allows bikers to travel on sidewalks.
The ordinance divides the e-bikes into three classes. The first is for bikes with motors that provide aid only when a rider is pedaling, and is limited to 20 mph. Class 2 doesn’t need to be pedaled but doesn’t allow the motor to propel the bike faster than 20 mph. Class 3 is similar to Class 1, but can reach speeds up to 28 mph.
Councilor John DiBari once again wanted to make distinctions on where the various classes could travel, noting that Class 3 — and perhaps Class 2 — should be limited to operating on roads.
“We need to be more discriminating where certain classes of electric bikes are allowed,” DiBari said. “If you want Class 3 e-bikes on the street or operating at lower speeds, we need to be more specific where certain classes should be.”
He noted that based on a formula, people walking at 2 mph cover 3 feet per second. That means a person traveling 28 mph covers 42 feet per second, limiting the response time to react to problems.
“This is the reason I’m working hard to draw more specific boundaries around where and how we permit electronic versions of these things,” DiBari said.
The City Council is considering the ordinance updates in anticipation of increased popularity of e-bikes and e-scooters. They’re also trying to set up a framework for commercial ride-sharing rental companies after two met with city and University of Montana representatives during the past year to discuss providing bike-sharing services for commuters.
While neither the bike-share nor scooter-share project has moved forward, some Missoula residents have purchased their own electronically propelled devices, and the city is trying to craft regulations to cover both those that are personally owned and those that are rented.
Council members and city officials have received numerous emails in response to their proposals for e-travel devices, with most comments opposing allowing them on sidewalks and trails.
“Allowing for electric scooters does not service the community,” Nancy Siegel wrote. “… (We) do not need to accommodate every new business, especially ones that may not be in the best interests of the community. We are building and using a good network of non-motorized connections. We do not need to discourage and diminish non-motorized experiences by adding motorized uses.”
Councilor Heather Harp said she understands the concerns with change, especially in light of the potential new businesses, but eventually the community will benefit by adding additional alternative modes of transportation.
Weiss added that permits for rental businesses last only one year before needing to be renewed, which allows the city to evaluate how they fit in Missoula.
“If something isn’t working, whether it’s the council, the city or the staff, we can say, ‘It’s not working and we would like you to leave,’” Weiss said.