A recently installed automated bike counter recorded nearly 42,000 trips to and from the Maroon Bells Scenic Area this summer season — so much traffic that Pitkin County is currently studying the feasibility of adding a bike lane on Maroon Creek Road to improve safety.

“We just had a tremendous increase in bike use on Maroon Creek Road to the Bells over the last five years,” said Brian Pettet, director of Pitkin County Public Works. 

This increase is mostly due to the rising popularity of e-bikes making the otherwise strenuous ride to the Bells more accessible to people who probably would not be making the trip without  pedal assistance.

From June through October, 41,870 bikes and e-bikes were counted going up and down the road to the Bells, according to compiled bike traffic data from a counter located above the entrance station, provided by Pitkin County to Aspen Journalism. Data includes all bikes going either direction, meaning that one bike will be counted twice on a round trip to the top of Maroon Creek Road and back, so the total number equates to 20,935 round trips.

On average, 291 bikes and e-bikes were counted going to and from the Maroon Bells Scenic Area every day from June through October, equivalent to 145 round trips. Pettet, who wasn’t surprised by the numbers, estimated that e-bikes represent the majority of all the bikes riding to the Bells. 

Through a joint initiative between Pitkin County and the White River National Forest, the counter was first installed in 2021 but didn’t work properly that season. It was then reinstalled in May above the Maroon Creek Road entrance station, where Forest Service personnel collect vehicle fees a few miles below Maroon Lake. It consists of a tube on the road that counts both cars and bicycles entering the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. The device is able to differentiate between the two means of transportation by the amount of pressure placed on the tube, but it cannot tell the difference between bikes and e-bikes. 

Before the new tube counter was installed, Forest Service employees would manually count vehicles and bikes with a handheld counter. Those numbers, though not as accurate as this year’s automatic count, still show an increase in bikes at the Bells in the past five years.

Forest Service staff, which recorded trips only up the road, counted 12,682 bikes entering the scenic area in 2018 and 10,717 bikes in 2019, according to data shared by the Forest Service. Bike trips to the Bells more than doubled in 2020, when visitors flocked to the valley during the pandemic, reaching 28,580. This is higher than the 20,935 round trips recorded by this year’s automatic counter. Data for 2021 isn’t available due to counter malfunction.

July the busiest month, but September saw peak day

In July, Maroon Creek Road saw a total of 11,393 bikes traveling in either direction, which represented the highest monthly count of the season. On average, 368 bikes were riding in both directions daily (equivalent to 184 round trips), up to a total of 536 bikes entering and exiting the scenic area, or 268 round trips, on July 16. 

“Certainly in July, there are more festivities in Aspen where there are frankly more people in town, on vacation, so that also impacted the amount of people going up there,” Pettet said. 

August numbers dipped to 8,615 bike rides, or a daily average of 278 bikes entering and leaving the area. This 24% decrease from July may be due to several rainy days that prevented people from taking their bikes. 

Due to the popularity of the Maroon Bells as a destination to see fall foliage, September recorded the second-highest number of total bikes, with 9,229 riding both ways, or a daily average of 154 round trips. The peak bike-traffic day for the season occurred Sept. 24, a Saturday when the high temperature in Aspen reached 70 degrees, with 632 bikes entering and leaving, or 316 round trips.

October had the lowest bike count of the year. About 5,000 bikes were counted that month, which represents 230 bikes traveling in both directions per day.

Data still pending from program tracking rental e-bikes

In addition to the new tube counter, Pitkin County commissioners approved in April a voluntary program that started this past summer and that asked commercial e-bike rental shops to install radio-frequency-identification-chipped stickers on their fleets to track e-bike traffic. 

Each time one of these e-bikes passed through the Maroon Bells entrance station, the chip was scanned and the rental shop was charged $5. Seventeen rental facilities participated in the program, which Pettet estimated represents roughly 90% of all local e-bike rentals. Data from the e-bike tracking program was not yet available, as the county waits for a report from a third party that is assessing the information. But once available, it will be useful in establishing firm numbers regarding how much of total bike traffic comes from e-bikes. 

These new tracking devices allow for a better understanding and management of the bike traffic going up and down from the Bells on Maroon Creek Road. Recent increased bike traffic prompted concerns about road safety as bicycles share the mountain road with shuttle buses and cars. 

One issue that staffers continue to work on is how the tube counter still has trouble counting multiple bikes riding closely together. 

In addition to the chip reader at the welcome station, Pettet said another reader will be installed on the downvalley lane next year to determine how long the average e-bike is staying up at the Bells.

Pettet said bicycle safety is the top priority. Pitkin County is looking at the possibility of placing a climbing lane on Maroon Creek Road to create more space for bicyclists sharing the road with buses and cars. Pettet said the county is currently working on an engineering and feasibility study that will be presented later to the board of county commissioners. 

Educating e-bike users is still a challenge

“The necessity of ensuring safety starts at the commercial rental agencies,” Pettet said.

Fleet owners are now asked to have their customers watch the video “How to E-Bike in Aspen” and read the flyer “Biking the Bells” before renting an e-bike. Both explain the rules of the road and how to safely e-bike in Aspen and to the Bells, such as riding in a single file or wearing a helmet.

Although the bicyclists going up Maroon Bells in 2022 have generally been better behaved than last year’s crowd, according to Pettet, the lack of preparedness remains commonplace.

“We can have really nice sunny weather at 9 o’clock in the morning and then it can be pounding rain or even sleeting snow by noon, and several customers were unprepared at the Maroon Bells on their bicycles,” Pettet said. “There are a lot of garbage bags from the Forest Service folks just trying to keep people dry at Maroon Bells.”

The rental stores can be held responsible for their customers’ behavior since each rental location can now be identified through the chip. If poor etiquette or dangerous behavior is shown, the fleet owner can be requested to improve their communications about the importance of safety to their customers, according to an April 26 memo

At this point, the tracking system is only used for information and management purposes and not for punitive measures yet, Pettet said, adding, “Certainly, that could be done in the future if necessary, but it’s not being done right now.”

Our reporting is supported by a grant from Pitkin County’s Health Community Fund.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...