Pilot program tied to Transportation Master Plan effort to encourage less driving.
Advocates for electric bikes say they're just as safe as regular bicycles, and having access to the paths would allow users to take more advantage of Boulder's cycling infrastructure. Some other users of the multi-use paths say the faster speeds and greater weight of electric bicycles means they cannot safely share the already-congested trails with pedestrians and standard bikes.
The pilot program, which requires the approval of the Boulder City Council, is one of several ideas the Transportation Department wants to test as part of its update to the transportation master plan.
Senior Transportation Planner Marni Ratzel said the department hasn't made a decision on whether to recommend the electric bikes pilot program. However, the department is interested in ideas that would get more people out of their cars and using alternative forms of transportation.
"We're interested in trying to understand those barriers and see if there are ways to get through those barriers," she said.
Electric-assisted bicycles have some advantages in that regard. They require less effort to get up hills, and they can go faster than many casual cyclists could ride.
Ratzel said some people who wouldn't use a standard bike to go grocery shopping or take longer trips might change their mind if they could ride an electric bicycle away from traffic.
If the pilot program moves forward, it would last a year and be limited to the paved multi-use path system. Electric bikes would still not be allowed on sidewalks or open space trails.
Now, electric bicycles are allowed in the bike lanes on streets shared with vehicles.
Portland and Seattle allow electric bicycles on their multi-use paths, while Denver and Fort Collins do not. Davis, Calif., is in the process of changing its policies to allow electric bikes on paths.
The city's Transportation Department is seeking public feedback now on the idea, and the Boulder City Council will take up the question in October.
The city's Transportation Advisory Board will hear an update on the proposal at its meeting Monday night and hold a public hearing in September.
Jane Spencer said she rode a bicycle for many years until a shoulder injury made it nearly impossible for her to go uphill.
"I had to quit riding my bike, and that was really difficult for me emotionally as well as physically," she said. "I lost a source of exercise, and for errands, it put me back in my car. And I didn't have the joy of riding a bicycle."
She got an electric bicycle earlier this year, and she said it has changed her life. Until recently, she didn't even realize she wasn't allowed on the multi-use path, so she rode her bicycle there under pedal power. Her bicycle has a throttle she can engage to go uphill but otherwise operates like a normal bike.
Because she lives in north Boulder near Broadway and Iris Avenue, Spencer said she would use her bicycle far less often if she could only use it on the street because she doesn't feel safe.
"I know three other women my age using them for errands," said Spencer, who is in her early 60s. "One of them is a friend who I thought would never get out of her car. I know we have a lot of really physically fit people who are going to ride into their 80s, but some of us, for injuries or other reasons, this is a very good option."
Boulder resident Charlotte Sorenson said the city rejected the idea of allowing electric bicycles on paths a decade ago, and none of the safety concerns that prevailed at the time have changed.
"The city has the goal of getting everyone out of their cars and into less polluting options, but they forget that there are pedestrians out there and the paths historically have been reserved for human-powered activities," she said.
If the city wants to encourage electric bicycles, she said, it should work on improving the safety of the on-street bike lanes.
Danny Larson, a cyclist and motorcycle rider, said he understands the tension and insecurity that people on two-wheeled vehicles can feel in traffic, but the power differential of the electric bicycle means they're not safe for the paths.
"The whole idea of the paths is you don't have to worry about traffic," he said. "You can let your mind wander more, and I feel there is too much differential in power with the e-bikes."
Jim Turner, president of Optibike, a Boulder producer of electric bicycles, said many cyclists can go faster than 15 mph under their own power. Electric bicycles allow many more people to commute from Lyons or Lafayette by bicycle, but once they hit Boulder, they cannot use the paths.
"Cars can go faster than 25 mph, but we don't restrict them from streets with a 25 mph speed limit," he said. "It's a compliance issue."
Ratzel said the department wants feedback from the public over the next two months on whether the pilot program should move forward and what types of information the department should try to collect during the pilot program in order to do an assessment that responds to community concerns.
In addition to public meetings, the department is working on organizing test ride opportunities. Ratzel said it's important for people to understand the technology, and riding an electric bike for themselves is part of that.