Americans with Disabilities Act Revisions Open Bike Paths and Rails-to-Trails to Cyclists with Disabilities
This is a guest post from John Mosley, a long-time avid cyclist who found himself unable to ride a conventional bike after suffering a brain tumor. He bought a step-though electric bike and is now back in the saddle and loving it.
Head to your nearest bike path or rail-to-trail, and the chances are excellent that you’ll see a prominent sign stating unambiguously NO MOTOR VEHICLES. That would seem to leave us riders of electric bikes out in the cold (or at least off the path), but a new regulation that expands the Americans with Disabilities Act declares such prohibitions null and void, at least until new procedures are adopted.
It seems that few trail administrators have, and until they do such prohibitions are invalid. And once new guidelines are in place, those ebike riders with a physical or mental disability are almost certain to be allowed to ride the trails — and perhaps those of us without disabilities as well.
The purpose of the new regulation (ADA Title II, Sec. 35.137) is to prohibit “discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities.” The entities of interest to us are all agencies that administer any public bike path or trail; the law seems to allow no exceptions.
In the past, agencies have been able to decree that motorized vehicles may not be ridden on such paths, but such prohibitions discriminate unreasonably against people with a disability.
The new regulation requires agencies to review their policies to permit the reasonable use of power-driven “mobility devices.” If a specific device is excluded, it must be on the basis of legitimate reasons of safety or harm to the environment. Agencies must specify which vehicles *are* allowed and must post these specifications publicly. Until such guidelines are posted, the agency is not in compliance with the law.
This is great news for those of us with an ebike and a handicap — which includes a lot of us. The law has in mind both returning young veterans who were wounded and are now unable to ride a conventional bike and older folk whose body is wearing out and who can no longer manage a bike like they used to.
Public cycling paths and trails should be open to use by such individuals and their powered vehicles, the law says, unless there is a clear (and stated) reason to exclude them. Ironically, powered wheelchairs were always permitted on bike paths; now the same courtesy must be extended to other powered vehicles.
Agencies now have to face the problem of determining specifically *which* powered vehicles can be allowed on which bike paths, and why others are to be excluded. They can take into account the type, size, weight, and dimensions of the vehicle, the volume of traffic on the path, safety concerns, and environmental and historical/cultural concerns. Whatever they decide, they must post the guidelines.
Ebikes are a shoo-in because they’re virtually silent, non-polluting, low speed, and take the same footprint as a non-electric bike, where a Segway might well be prohibited because of its width and gas-powered vehicles are not likely to be allowed for several reasons.
A huge question that hangs over all discussions is how to determine that an ebike is a handicapped vehicle; the ADA regulation is to help *disabled* cyclists specifically, as opposed to anyone who happens to own an ebike who would like to ride the trails.
Wheelchairs are handicapped vehicles by virtue of being wheelchairs, powered or not. There is no process to certify that a wheelchair is a handicapped vehicle — it just is. Wheelchairs don’t display a decal with the blue handicapped logo.
Likewise, there is no process to certify that an ebike is a handicapped vehicle and no agency is empowered to issue special handicapped decals or plates, so there is no way for a trail officer to know by inspection that an ebike is being used as by a person with a disability or not.
The ADA regulation makes it clear that an officer can *ask* a rider if the ebike is for disabled use but cannot inquire as to the nature of the disability or demand proof of a disability, so this leaves the question of enforcement wide open.
Without a way to certify an ebike as a handicapped vehicle with a decal or plate, it seems that the only option trail authorities have is to allow all ebikes (and other vehicles) that meet their standards to ride the trails, whether for handicapped use or not. This would be great news for all of us.
I suspect that just as people can have handicapped license plates and windshield tags issued by the state, eventually we might see the equivalent decal or small license plate issued by local police departments, perhaps upon receiving a note written by a doctor or upon receipt of a completed form.
And we might see a standardization in exactly what constitutes an accepted ebike so that a ebike licensed in one jurisdiction is honored elsewhere. If so, we can hope that the guidelines are written carefully and thoughtfully.
When trail authorities eventually issue guidelines as to which ebikes are allowable there may be a mixture of good news and bad news. Pittsburgh now allows ebikes on their trails, but only if the motor is 250 watts or less — to limit the speed to 15 mph. Bad regulation! This seems to be a clear case of discrimination — many of us have motors with a higher wattage to climb hills, not to speed along on the flat.
If Pittsburgh wants to limit speeds to 15 mph on their bike paths they should post and enforce a speed limit rather than ban ebikes with the theoretical ability to go faster on the flat. Hopefully agencies will get useful input from the ebike community before issuing guidelines that are then hard to modify.
The new regulations were posted in 2010 and went into effect on March 15, 2012. Complaints should be referred to the Department of Justice (there is a form for registering complaints at their web site), and all administrators of bike paths and rails-to-trails should realize that messing with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Justice is not a matter to be taken lightly.
I am an ebike rider with a physical disability (it’s specifically because of the disability that I bought an ebike). I cycle past the “no motorized vehicles” signs without slowing, but I carry in my pack a printed summary of the ADA Title II Sec. 35.137.
– John Mosley
To learn more:
A detailed discussion of the regulation, how it came to be, and guidelines for its implementation.
An article on how North Jersey is implementing the regulation and the problems it is causing.
Another article on how Pittsburgh is implementing the regulation.
End of Guest Post
Have you noticed signs like these in your town or city? Have the local authorities tried to enforce a ban on electric bikes on these types of pathways? Please leave your comments in the section below.
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[…] news from an unlikely source, an online e-bike magazine that I read regularly. Americans with Disabilities Act Revisions Open Bike Paths and Rails-to-Trails to Cyclists with Disab… Con I just say that this really came out of left field for me (for non-USAian readers, this means […]
Ebikes not capable of exceeding 20 mph are not motorized vehicles under federal regulations. Local laws may vary. My wife and I ride our Hilltopper equiped bikes on all bike paths in our area!
Paul g Wiegman says
I read with great interest your article. You make many valid points, especially that many trail groups and trail administrators haven’t taken the thrust of the ADA regulations made appropriate adjustments.
However, as the principal author of the regulations which were used as a model to establish the rules for trail in Pittsburgh, PA I take exception to your overly simplistic statement “Bad regulation!”.
You then go further and say “Hopefully agencies will get useful input from the ebike community before issuing guidelines that are then hard to modify.” suggesting that the ebike community in Pittsburgh was not considered.
I’m part of the ebike community. I own a Trek crank-forward with a 250 watt Bionx Drive. I use the bike on city streets and occasionally on Pittsburgh trails. During my research authoring the regulations no in place I talked with dealers and ebike users. I reviewed hundreds of websites concerning ebikes and many other types of electric vehicles that could potentially be used on the various trails in Pittsburgh and the region.
A draft set of regulations was prepared and I met with local and regional trail builders and maintainers to discuss the ADA requirements, the types of potential vehicles that might be used by visitors with disabilities, and the points of the draft regulations. After reviews and revisions the regulations were presented to the Regional Trail Corporation (RTC), owner of the Youghiogheny River Trail North which is a segment of the Great Allegheny Passage. The RTC presented those regulations to their Board of directors. They passed the new regs in 2011. The same regs were passed by the Somerset County Park & Recreation Board, the groups that oversees the Great Allegheny Passage in Somerset Co., PA, from Confluence, PA to the Mason-Dixon Line.
It was after passage by these two groups that the City of Pittsburgh, along with the Friends of the Riverfront, reviewed the RTC regs, passed them along to the City of Pittsburgh Law Department, and later published a modified version.
It’s important to note that those regs are not just the 250 watt limit. The full set includes limits on width, not wider than 36″, weight, not heavier than 100 lbs, no internal combustion engines, including diesel, natural gas, and propane, and the vehicle must be operable by pedals alone. That last point, pedal-able, was left out of the Pittsburgh regulations.
The point of the combined set of regulations, not just the 250 watt limit, was to maintain a cycling culture on the trails.
There are dozens of electric vehicles which could be used under the ADA guidelines. They include everything from electric roller skates and skate boards, to four-seater Rhodes cars, to electric golf-carts and even small cars. Therefore it was imperative to craft regulations that allowed people with disabilities access to these trails without creating serious safety hazards for the existing cycling users.
On another point, the trails involved already have a 15 MPH speed limit. It’s impossible to enforce. Like many recreational lakes that allow gas and/or electric motors of 10 HP or less, I believe that limiting the wattage is the best way to limit speed. As for hill climbing, those regs were designed for segments of the Great Allegheny Passage. Being built on abandoned railroad grades there is no significant part of the Passage that exceeds 2% grade. For most of the trail it’s essentially flat. Where there are ramps up to bridges they have been built to ADA specifications.
It’s hardly a “a clear case of discrimination”.
As I said, the original regulations were approved by the RTC Board in March of 2011. A copy is available @ https://www.regionaltrailcorp.com/RTC_Mobility%20Device_Policy.pdf
If you have questions I’d be glad to answer them.
Paul g Wiegman
John Mosley says
This is a common misconception. Low-speed electric bicycles are defined as “bicycles” (as opposed to mopeds) under HR 727 amended Sec. 1512.2 if the motor is less than 750 watts, if it has functional pedals, and the max speed is less than 20 mph — BUT this is for licensing purposes only. The same law clearly states that individual jurisdictions have full authority to regulate their use and to prohibit them on bike paths and trails.
Paul g Wiegman says
Sorry. I addressed my response to you and now see that the article is by a guest author.
My response should be addressed to John Mosley.
John Ellis, MD says
I applaud the effort to allow e-bikes on public paths. I also see no fairness in limiting them to 250 watts, given how many have larger motors and are already in wide use. Forcing owners to go back to 250 Watts at this late hour is grossly discriminatory, in my opinion. Simply limit speed, just as is presently done on all roads in the country. Getting people to go green, get out and enjoy nature and get some desperately needed exercise will go a long way to combat the hugely expensive maladies as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and even many cancers. It seems there are no end to fussy locals urging more regulations. I certainly hope this also applies to home owner associations, some of the worst offenders of all when it comes to never ending rules.
John Mosley says
This is in response to Paul Wiegman’s thoughtful response to my guest editorial.
First, I’m impressed with the effort Paul went through to consult the cycling community to come up with fair guidelines. I compliment him on this and am appreciative of it. Paul took his job seriously and followed through. I had supposed from the results that some individual thought up the regulations alone in a room somewhere, but this is clearly wrong and I apologize.
But I think we may have to agree to disagree. I still do think it is a bad regulation, despite the effort put into drafting it, and Paul has given me an additional reason for thinking so. Here is why I do:
I live in an area where there are many hills — some on bike paths reaching 8 percent, far above the 2 percent found on Paul’s trails — so I purchased an ebike with a 350-watt motor specifically so I could climb them. I was advised that a smaller motor would be unsatisfactory. I don’t own a second ebike with a 250-watt motor to ride Paul’s gentle trails and I don’t plan to buy one, so I am excluded. I may not ride those trails specifically because I *could* use this motor to exceed the 15 mph speed limit!
I appreciate that the 15 mph speed limit is difficult if not impossible to enforce, but if it is so vital that no one exceed it why does the regulation not specify that racing bikes be ballasted with sacks of bricks so that strong young riders can’t exceed 15 mph? Likewise, my car will easily exceed the 75 mph speed limit on freeways — should I be required to remove a few spark plugs to prevent that possibility? Ridiculous of course — but no more so than hobbling the motor of a bicycle that will be used across the country in all types of terrain so it can’t exceed the speed limit on this specific nearly-flat trail.
Note that I have no issue with setting a speed limit in specific locations that are congested; it may be appropriate and correct in some places. And I completely agree with the goal of maintaining a cycling culture on the trails.
The additional point Paul mentioned that tells me that the regulation is a bad one is that it leaves out functional pedals. I think we both agree for the same reasons that this is a terrible mistake. I submit that it is the second mistake — and this omission alone invalidates Paul contention that the regulations are good.
Federal regulations define an ebike as having less than a 750 watt motor, functional pedals, and max speed of 20 mph. I think Paul would have been much wiser to have gone with this definition and left the rest of it out. If I ever chose to flaunt the law and ride my 350 watt ebike on his trails and was then arrested for having a bike that potentially could speed (even if I wasn’t), I would appeal the regulation as discriminatory and petition that these federal regulations be used instead; my bike would be discriminated against because it “might” allow me to exceed the speed limit.
I think the bottom line is that spending countless hours crafting regulations does not in itself guarantee that the results will be good. But, again, I appreciate that Paul put great effort into trying to get it right.
– John Mosley
Peter R says
I also bought an ebike due to disability. In my case I put a Bionx 350PL on the hybrid bike I had been using. I went with the 350 watt version because I was told the 250 watt would not offer adequate support going up some of the steep hills we have in western Philadelphia.
I had been hesitant to ride this bike on our rail-to-trails. This article helps clarify the issue, although I still get push back from other bicyclists even on roads. They often state that having an ebike in assist mode is cheating.
Ebikes are still not legal where I live in New Jersey outside of Philadelphia. Maybe the ADA laws apply to street use of ebikes.
The rules for trails in Pittsburgh leaves alot to be desired.
I got a 300w e-bike for using on the trail because I live 1/2 mile from the trail. With a steep hill and at 200 lbs to get to the trail the company said that a 250w bike would not be powerful enought to climb the hill. Yes, a 250w bike is good for the trail but to get to the trail it is to low powered. As for the speed my 300w has a speed of 18 mph. This is not fast enough to keep up with the racing bikes that fly by at 30 mph.
Paul g Wiegman says
There are a number of points that need to be made for clarification.
First, the notion that the 250 Watt limit that is in place on the Steel Valley, Youghiogheny North, and Somerset County portions of the Great Allegheny Passage are not based solely, or even a majority, based on the top speed of the vehicle.
Bionx units, 250 & 250 watt motors are limited by the software to not exceed 15 MPH unassisted. Once that speed is reached, and exceeded, by pedaling, the motor cuts out of the system.
The charge of the ADA requirements was for trail groups to consider their trails as to terrain, composition, width, access, and other factors for each segment of trail, and determine which non-wheelchair devices would be suitable for persons with disabilities. The other consideration was the existing use and culture of the trail.
An underlying tenant of the regulations devised by the Regional Trail Corporation, the trail owner, was that of how much power was needed to constitute assist. In doing the research it was found that the average person generates approximately 150 – 200 watts of energy riding a bike. Strong riders can achieve around 400 watts for short periods.
From there, the thought was that there are already disabled riders using the trail and gaining assist by another human. These were tandem bikes and some other special bikes. From there the 250 watt limit was chosen as it is a power equivalent to riding a bike with another bike helping.
The width, weight, and operable pedal regulations were incorporated to limit the type of vehicles to bicycles, tricycles, and quad cycles. The reason for the limit to these types was generally based on the possibility that vehicles such as Rhodes Cars https://www.rhoadescar.com/ could be considered as suitable vehicles for trail use. The operable pedal clause was also inserted to limit the use of a wide variety including, but not limited to, scooters, kick scooters, pocket rockets, etc https://www.razor.com/products/electric-ride-ons/
Regulations allowing, or limiting, such vehicles are well within the guidelines suggested by the ADA directive.
Finally, the Great Allegheny Passage covers over 140 miles between Pittsburgh, PA and Cumberland, MD. It passes through numerous small towns and bike rental businesses have sprouted up along the trail. The groups responsible for the maintenance and safety along the trail are acutely aware that what is allowed on the trail will be adopted by both private users and the rental community. Given that, the decision was made to open the trail for use by visitors with disabilities under the guidelines provided and the able-bodied users would continue to be governed by the non-motorized rule.