New Research Shows Promising Future for eMTB Access
By: Rachel Fussell, eMTB policy and program manager
A first-of-its-kind Vermont study found that overall, electric mountain bike usage was perceived as more positive than negative.
Mountain biking has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade thanks in large part to improved bike technology, increased trail infrastructure, and growing interest as a high-school sport. With the emergence of electric pedal-assist mountain bikes, the potential for an even larger segment of the population to enjoy the health benefits of recreation through mountain biking is now within reach.
While some land managers and trail networks have begun to set policies concerning Class 1 pedal-assist electric mountain bike (eMTB) usage, the direction of future eMTB policies remains largely undetermined. With this in mind, the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies (CRS) set out to study the issue in collaboration with PeopleForBikes and nonprofit trail organization Fellowship of the Wheel. During the 2022 trail season, CRS conducted a pilot study on the use of Class 1 eMTBs on natural surface singletrack trails outside of Hinesburg, Vermont. The goal of the study was to gather more information and better understand perspectives around the inclusion of eMTBs on mountain bike trails.
Fellowship of the Wheel, who hosted the pilot study on their trail system, builds and maintains 100 miles of multi-use trails in Chittenden County, Vermont. For Adam Morse, the organization’s executive director, the discussion of eMTB use on private and public trails is not a new topic.
“There has been an emerging need to navigate official policies with private and municipal land managers in recent years,” says Morse, adding that land managers and trail organizations have been asking for more data on both environmental and social impacts when introducing eMTBs on their trails. “Our depth of knowledge regarding access was based purely on the thoughts and opinions of a select few, rather than real comprehensive data. This study gives us real data from a broad audience right in our own backyard.”
For the Hinesburg Town Forest, the research also offers a way forward. “The study has equipped us with multiple perspectives regarding accessibility, safety, etiquette, and physical impacts,” says Morse. “The information collected from this study will be shared with other land managers in our region to best prepare them for all considerations when introducing policies around eMTB access.”
As part of the pilot project study, the use of Class 1 pedal-assist eMTBs were allowed on the multi-use Hinesburg Town Forest trails managed by Fellowship of the Wheel (typically, only traditional mountain bikes are allowed). During this time, CRS created and executed several surveys as part of the project, including the collection of three distinct survey tools. This included an online pre-implementation survey (May), a trail intercept survey (July-September), and four post-implementation focus group surveys (October). These surveys, along with eMTB demo days, were scheduled to gather data regarding user perceptions on diversity and inclusion implications, perceived impacts to physical trail conditions, and potential social impacts related to the introduction of Class 1 eMTBs on non-motorized, multi-use mountain biking trails.
The CRS study provided important insights into eMTB usage in Vermont. Overall, perceptions of eMTB usage were more positive than negative and indicated a general willingness and even motivation to enable further integration of eMTBs into the sport.
Emergent themes centered around aspects of trail safety, accessibility, physical trail impacts, rider etiquette, and the number of users. Key findings include:
- TRAIL ETIQUETTE: Respondents to the intercept survey described the trail etiquette of eMTB riders as generally positive, though less positively than traditional mountain bike riders.
- OVERCROWDING: Respondents to the statewide survey also expressed concerns over increased crowding due to eMTB usage. However, focus group discussions noted increased usership generally, outside specifically eMTB use, and noted positive aspects of growth of the sport.
- SAFETY: Some respondents to the statewide survey shared concerns about the safety of eMTBs, but participants of the intercept survey were neutral over whether or not eMTB introduction added safety concerns. Focus group discussions reinforced the neutral perspective, which emphasized that it comes down to the decisions of the individual rider, regardless of the bike they are on.
- TRAIL IMPACTS: Both statewide and intercept survey results highlighted rider concerns on the physical impact eMTBs have on trails. In the focus groups, participants largely disputed the perception of negative trail impacts from eMTBs but noted that justification for their views was only anecdotal or hypothetical. Participants agreed that more data is needed to back up statements about the physical trail impacts of eMTBs.
- ACCESSIBILITY: Intercept survey participants neither agreed nor disagreed that eMTBs make the sport of mountain biking more or less accessible, indicating respondents may perceive “accessible” by both physical and financial means. Focus group participants were largely against limiting eMTB riders to only those with a proven disability or designating them to specific trails only.
Based on the pilot project study, CRS researchers concluded that education and communication can be an effective first-line strategy for increasing understanding of what Class 1 pedal-assist eMTBs are and dispelling misperceptions. Education can be disseminated with help from local mountain bike organizations, bike shops, land managers, and direct interactions at trail systems. Also, increased signage, particularly on more difficult terrain, will be important to educate newer riders in making wise decisions on terrain that may be more readily accessible via eMTBs.
CRS also noted that more data and research is needed in three areas:
- Understanding the percentage of increased ridership expected to be attributed to new eMTB riders vs. new traditional riders, and how this compares to general increases in trail users.
- The impact of eMTB riding on physical trails.
- Understanding who rides eMTBs; this includes demographic information, as well as whether most users rent or own eMTBs and if eMTB riders are new to the sport entirely or transitioned from traditional bikes.
”Land managers nationwide can use this study as a blueprint to help make the best decision on eMTB trail access for their communities,” says Saul Leiken, global category leader with Specialized Bicycle Components. Leiken also supports that the study can help direct future industry action and involvement. “The study rightfully points out what must be investigated next, including trail impacts and ridership demographics, to support increased eMTB trail access. The bicycle industry can and should help study these questions, as we know our bicycles and riders best.”
A full summary report of the Vermont eMTB Pilot Project Study can be found here. Please reach out to PeopleForBikes’ eMTB Policy and Program Manager Rachel Fussell at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or for more information on this study.