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Posted by Gregory Maassen on September 5, 2022 - Latest revision September 5, 2022  Reading time: minutes remaining

Academic Research – User Conflicts: Most Other Trail Users Cannot Differentiate Between a Traditional Bicycle and an E-bike on Trails

The National Park Service (NPS) has been at the forefront of the e-bike debate in the United States by permitting these modern marvels of micro-mobility on trails in national parks where regular, "analog" bike use is allowed.

The park service has produced a detailed literature overview of nearly 60 e-bike studies. The literature review revealed the following conclusions related to user conflicts.

User Conflicts and E-bikes

"Many people’s perceptions changed over time [positively, eds] once they used or saw an e-bike."

"User Conflict - Perceptions of E-bike Conflicts
  • Other trail users’ perceptions of e-bikes are related to respondents’ familiarity and experience with e-bikes.
  • Exposure to and education on e-bikes and eMTBs could lead to positive trends in perception among other trail users.
  • Most other trail users cannot differentiate between a traditional bicycle and an e-bike on trails.
  • The overall use of e-bikes is still very low compared to use of traditional bicycles on public lands. 
User Conflict - Management and Design Methods
  • Hikers and traditional mountain bikers typically have an asymmetrical relationship where hikers do not like to encounter mountain bikers, but mountain bikers are generally indifferent when they encounter hikers.
  • Understanding the reason or purpose people seek recreational activity is critical to understanding how to manage the trail and control trail conflicts among user groups.

"The Federal Highway Administration and The National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee provide a helpful description of user conflict:

Conflict in outdoor recreation settings (such as trails) can best be defined as "goal interference attributed to another's behavior" (Jacob and Schreyer 1980, 369). As such, trail conflicts can and do occur among different user groups, among different users within the same user group, and as a result of factors not related to users' trail activities at all. In fact, no actual contact among users need occur for conflict to be felt. Conflict has been found to be related to activity style (mode of travel, level of technology, environmental dominance, etc.), focus of trip, expectations, attitudes toward and perceptions of the environment, level of tolerance for others, and different norms held by different users. Conflict is often asymmetrical (i.e., one group resents another, but the reverse is not true).

"Like any new user group, the introduction of e-bikes has the potential to create new (perceived or actual) user conflict on recreational trails. As e-bikes become more popular and trails become more crowded, conflict among trail users may become more frequent. Generally, e-bike users have similar recreational and transportation motivations as other trail users; however, if trail-user conflicts are not resolved, it can spoil trail user relationships, polarize user groups, affect visitors’ ability to enjoy trails, and potentially displace certain trail users."

User Conflict Key Findings

"Perceptions of Conflict Key Findings

Many studies have been conducted on the perception of e-bikes from other trail and road users. The other users felt that e-bikes travel at higher speeds due to the power assist. However, when other trail users tested an e-bike, they found that they would travel at a speed that was comfortable, and not the maximum speed of the bicycle. Many people’s perceptions changed over time once they used or saw an e-bike. Exposure to and education on e-bikes and eMTBs could lead to positive trends in the perception among other trail and roadway users.

In general people found it hard to recognize an e-bike versus a traditional bike, especially when they were on a trail. In a North American survey more than half of the e-bike users stated they feel safer on an e-bike than a traditional bike and can avoid conflicts with other users by taking an alternate and longer route and keep up with vehicular traffic when bicycle facilities (e.g., dedicated lanes) are unavailable."

"E-bike users feared intimidation and harassment for using an e-bike and at times felt apologetic or self-conscious due to being viewed as “cheating” for riding an e-bike. This is especially true on trails used by people who mountain bike. One mountain biker even stated “I have a rule, I don’t yield to e-bikes,” which indicates that there are user conflicts among the mountain biking community as to whether eMTBs should be accepted.

Perceptions of Conflict Areas for Further Research

E-bikes remain an emerging trend that is growing rapidly. Even though parks have started to allow e-bikes onto trail networks, the overall use of e-bikes is still extremely low compared to traditional mountain bikes. Trail conflict among e-bike users and other trail users continues to remain low, as does related research and data collection.

Many surveys regarding trail user conflict are conducted hours or days after potential encounters, making it difficult for respondents to recall the specific details. Additionally, conflict is difficult to measure experimentally, as the experience of user conflict is inherently subjective; each individual has a different opinion of what acceptable trail behavior may look and feel like."



ABOUT THE STUDY


To implement NPS' electric bicycle (e-bike) regulation of December 2020, a comprehensive literature review was conducted to assist superintendents with management decisions related to e-bikes.


Download the NPS study here.

Click here for an overview of the study.

"Management and Design Methods Key Findings

Hikers and mountain bikers typically have an asymmetrical relationship where hikers do not like to encounter mountain bikers, but mountain bikers are generally indifferent when they encounter hikers. Conflicts on trails have been described as “problems of success,” as an indication for the trail’s popularity, but often conflicts among trail users can result in unpleasant encounters that can spoil individual experiences and polarize trail users against other user groups. As the diversity of trail uses grow, so too can the potential for conflict.

Boulder County carried out a study that observed e-bike speeds relative to traditional bicycles and conducted a user intercept survey to identify attitudes toward e-bikers on mountain trails. Non-e-bikers indicated that they did not want e-bikes on trails because they were concerned that the e-bikes would travel too fast. However, the speed data showed that people using traditional bicycles traveled faster along the downhill sections than the people using e-bikes. The results of the study indicated that perceptions did not align with the observed behavior."

"According to the eMTB Handbook, understanding the reason or purpose people seek recreational activity is critical to understanding how to manage the trail. Five experience categories were identified: escape, solitude, challenge, play, and exercise. The handbook suggests that understanding the demand for these different experiences can help shape trail design and control the trail conflicts among user groups.

Specifically trails that are designed for challenge and/or exercise experiences can be tailored towards traditional mountain bicycles or eMTBs to minimize conflicts among user groups. Existing user conflict management and design approaches may be applied to address e-bikes in addition to another trail uses previously contemplated.

Management and Design Methods Areas for Further Research

There is a lack of research to inform data-driven management and design guidelines specifically tailored to e-bikes. Current research on e-bike effects does not establish a clear need for such e- bike tailored guidance."

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Literature Overview

"This theme of the literature review is organized around studies of perceptions and guidelines regarding design and management approaches that can help maintain positive trail-user relationships."

Perceptions of User Conflict

Nielson, T., Palmatier, S. M., & Proffitt, A. (2019). Literature Review: Recreation Conflicts Focused on Emerging E-Bike Technology. https://assets.bouldercounty.org/wp- content/uploads/2020/01/e-bike-literature-review.pdf

"The goal of this literature review is to inform policy discussions and decisions for the quickly growing e-bike market in four of Colorado’s northern Front Range open space programs. Safety, speed, crowding, and user conflict are common concerns related to bicycles generally, and these concerns are heightened for e-bikes. Several studies show that trail users unfamiliar with e-bikes express a preference to not share the trail with them, but the majority did not notice that they were sharing the trail with e-bikes. Similarly, once trail users were exposed to e-bikes, concerns about them decrease for many."

Chaney, R., Hall, P., Crowder, A., Crookston, B., & West, J. (2019). Mountain biker attitudes and perceptions of eMTBs (electric‑mountain bikes). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333490925_Mountain_biker_attitudes_and_perc eptions_of_eMTBs_electric-mountain_bikes

"This qualitative study involved extracting and thematically analyzing discussion thread comments about eMTBs among nine mountain biking Facebook pages. The study found there were misconceptions about what constitutes an eMTB. Misconceptions foster fears and concerns about trail conflict, access, and the morality of individuals using eMTBs.

This study included insights that will be useful in efforts to promote eMTBs for recreation, a tool to increase levels of physical activity, and in discussing potential conflicts about trail use. From among the nine mountain biking Facebook pages selected for this study, 945 comments were gathered resulting in 2,537 uniquely coded units. This study aimed to characterize attitudes of mountain bikers about eMTBs in the public forum.

One of the themes, with 49% of the comments, was regarding trails, some commenters qualified their consideration for restricted eMTB trail access by describing potential on-trail conflicts. Since mountain biking often requires negotiating narrow trails, riding etiquette is important for rider safety. A minority expressed that the trails can be shared safely for all to enjoy."

Watson, A., Williams, D., & Daigle, J. (1991). Sources of conflict between hikers and mountain bike riders in the Rattlesnake NRA. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270049782_Sources_of_conflict_between_hikers_ and_mountain_bike_riders_in_the_Rattlesnake_NRA

"Mountain bike riders and hikers in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area were studied to assess the extent of conflict between the two groups and to search for underlying reasons. This study did not include information specifically about eMTBs.

Visitors staying a minimum of two hours were asked to participate in the study. 211 completed questionnaires were returned. Between 30 and 37 percent of hikers indicated that they did not like meeting bicycles on trails in the Rattlesnake. Only about 20 percent of the hikers could specify bicyclist behavior that interfered with their enjoyment. Educating mountain bike riders about behavior that others consider unacceptable and educating hikers about the similarities between hikers and mountain bike riders may reduce feelings of conflict."

Nielson, T., Palmatier, S., Proffitt, A., Marotti, M. (2019). Boulder County E-bike Pilot Study Results. https://assets.bouldercounty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/e-bike-pilot- study.pdf

"This report highlighted the results of two studies, an intercept survey, and a speed observation study, conducted for an e-bike pilot program allowing Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes on certain county open space trails in Boulder County, Colorado. The intercept survey included 427 responses where 35.4% use bikes (27.7% as the primary activity) and 0.9% used e-bikes. Users of the park are generally in support or neutral about allowing e-bikes on the plains (flat trails) and regional (wider with higher volumes) trails but do not support allowing e-bikes on the foothill (steeper and narrower) trails."

Jefferson County Colorado (2017). Summary of JCOS e-bike Study Findings to Date. https://www.jeffco.us/DocumentCenter/View/9674/e-Bike-Survey-Results-?bidId=; https://prismic-io.s3.amazonaws.com/peopleforbikes/0ae45c14-69f7-458b-ae15- 692be9f28b50_COSA_e-Bike-Presentation.pdf

"Jefferson County (Jeffco) Open Space conducted a pilot program study of e-bikes after the state legislature passed HB 17-1151, which allowed Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes on bike and pedestrian paths where traditional bicycles are allowed to travel. A visitor intercept survey was conducted to measure attitudes, perceptions and acceptance with a focus on visitor engagement. Of 375 park users surveyed, 65% could not detect e-bikes being used in park, 34% would be ok with e-bikes on paved trails, 36% would be ok with e-bikes on any trails. According to a pre- and post-demo survey in Jefferson County Colorado, 65% of people felt the demo changed their perception of e- bikes with 25% approving before the pilot and 46% approving after pilot.

The approval of e-bikes in the park increased from 36% (pre-ride) to 44% (post-ride) and the disapproval of e-bikes increased from 6% (pre) to 8% (post). Post-ride visitors were less inclined to approve of e-bikes on all types of trails (42% down to 37%) and there was an increase of approval for e-bikes on paved surfaced (30% up to 32%). Based on findings from a pilot program Jeffco Open Space adopted a permanent policy to allow e-bikes on Jeffco Open Space managed trails."

Chavez, D. (1993). Recreational Mountain Biking: A management perspective. 11(3), 8.

https://www.americantrails.org/images/documents/psw_1993_chavez001.pdf

"This study analyzed responses from a telephone survey of recreation land managers across the United States regarding management perceptions of mountain biking. While many respondents reported moderate to extensive mountain bike use in their resource areas, most did not have designated mountain bike areas. Over half reported conflicts between bikers and other user groups. Few reported having management plans specifically related to mountain biking. This study did not address e-bikes specifically; however, it revealed a need for greater awareness and planning by land managers for emerging modes of recreation."

Management and Design Methods

PeopleForBikes, Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, & Bureau of Land Management (2017). eMTB Land Manager Handbook. https://www.americantrails.org/images/documents/eMTB_Book.pdf

"This handbook, produced as a collaborative effort among the Bureau of Land Management and two bicycle industry/advocacy groups, provides recommendations on the planning, design, construction, maintenance, and management of sustainable Class 1 eMTB trails. The handbook describes the reasons for people to visit trails and categorizes them into five types of trail experiences: escape, solitude, challenge, plan, exercise. These five experience categories tend to be similar whether people are hiking, trail running, mountain biking, or e-mountain biking, among others.

The handbook suggests that understanding the demand for these different experiences can help shape trail design and manage the trail conflicts among user groups. When it comes to choosing a traditional mountain bike versus an eMTB, challenge and exercise are the two experience types that are effected by the type of bike. The power assist provided by an eMTB can make some technical sections, specifically steep inclines, easier and more accessible and a rider seeking exercise will find most trails require less physically exertion on an eMTB and trails that would otherwise be inaccessible on a traditional bike could be accessible on an eMTB. The handbook identifies single-use, preferred-use, one-way directional trails as methods to reduce user conflict."

Bureau of Land Management & International Mountain Bicycling Association (2018). Guidelines for a Quality Trail Experience: Mountain Bike Trail Guidelines. https://www.imba.com/sites/default/files/2021- 06/GQTE%20Digital%20Book%20Rev%206.11.18%20Low%20Rez.pdf

"The guidelines were created to help improve the design, construction, and management of mountain bike trails all across the country. The reference does not cover e-bikes specifically but describes the relationship between bicycle users and other trail-users, several considerations are established for planning and designing trails intended to provide access for a range of activities and users. IMBA’s pioneers saw that crowded trails and trail user conflict were fast becoming worldwide recreation issues.

The Guidebook recommends that controlling trail access can minimize user conflicts while also accommodating user expectation for both shared use and mountain bike-only access. A trail built specifically to support mountain bike use might look quite different from one designed for shared use. Single use trails can be geared towards specific skill areas as well as single direction to limit trail user conflict."

US Federal Highway Administration and The National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee (2004). Conflicts On Multiple-Use Trails: Synthesis of the Literature and State of the Practice. https://www.pedbikeinfo.org/cms/downloads/Conflicts_MultiuseTrails.pdf

"The National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee identified trail-user conflicts on multiple- use trails as a major concern that needs resolution. The source does not expressly address e-bikes. The Advisory Committee recognized that there is a significant amount of literature and expertise on this topic, but no one source that summarizes the available information.

The challenges faced by multiple-use trail managers can be broadly summarized as maintaining user safety, protecting natural resources, and providing high-quality user experiences. These challenges are interrelated and cannot be effectively addressed in isolation. To address these challenges, managers can employ a wide array of physical and management options such as trail design, information and education, user involvement, and regulations and enforcement. 

The study identified twelve principles for minimizing conflict on multiple-use trails: (1) recognize conflict as goal interference, (2) provide adequate trail opportunities, (3) minimize number of contracts in problem area, (4) involve users as early as possible, (5) understand user needs, (6) identify the actual sources of conflict, (7) work with affected users, (8) promote trail etiquette, (9) encourage positive interaction among different users, (10) favor "light-handed management", (11) plan and act locally, (12) monitor progress."


This is an interactive version of the NPS study. We have copied the text of the study verbatim on this page under Section 105 of the U.S. Copyright Act. The text and conclusions of the study are those of the NPS. 

Krista Sherwood (Conservation & Outdoor Recreation Division) and Wayne Emington (Park Facility Management Division) are the points of contact for this outstanding literature review. The NPS is not affiliated or associated with E-bike Lovers. 

Download the NPS study here.

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