A hot debate over e-bikes on Bay Area trails is coming to a head

A sign seen in Windy Hill Preserve, a preserve under Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's jurisdiction.?

A sign seen in Windy Hill Preserve, a preserve under Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's jurisdiction.?

Zach Zafran/SFGATE

All throughout the Bay Area, city streets, parks and trails alike have seen bicycles take a step back in favor of what seems to be their successor: electric bicycles.?

Ever since their introduction, e-bikes have been wildly controversial, particularly with regards to unpaved trails. For years, land management groups in the Bay Area have been trying to adapt to the evolving scene, taking into account the potential impacts electric bikes can have.

Some regions, like the Marin County Open Space District, have taken a conservative approach and prohibited them on all trails (with exceptions for folks with mobility disabilities). Policies differ at California State Parks, which allows e-bikes in certain parks, while continuing to bar their use in others. Another batch of parks throughout the Bay Area have yet to establish their policies.

"No bikes on trail" sign in Castle Rock State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, Calif.

"No bikes on trail" sign in Castle Rock State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, Calif.

Sundry Photography/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Bay Area officials are debating policy on e-bikes for several Bay Area preserves, and the furor is opening a divide over what is fair use in our open spaces and who gets to decide.

In late June, a decision was made by the board of directors of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which manages more than 65,000 acres throughout the Peninsula, to prohibit use of the bikes on nearly all of their trails. The board voted 4-2 in favor of prohibiting e-bikes on all trails except for two paved trails, a choice that concluded a meeting exceeding 5 hours in length, with presentations on related data and public comments filling the time, and perfectly epitomized the debate surrounding the topic.

At first glance, the choice seemingly went against what the people wanted. Public comment collected by the open space district from December 2020 through January 2022 revealed that of those who provided input, 69% supported e-bikes on all trails and only 12% opposed them, with the remaining bunch either falling undecided or in support of restrictions.

So who's pushing back?

“In general, the comment that we got was generally in support of e-bike access,” said Brian Malone, assistant general manager at Midpeninsula. “But if you look just at hikers, that support was reduced. And then if you look just at equestrians, there was no support for e-bike access.”

In a survey that Midpeninsula sent out to four local equestrian groups, 70% of respondents opposed access for e-bikes, likely a result of conflicts with bicycles as 78% of respondents reported a related incident having occurred previously.?

Midpeninsula’s data collection illustrates that a consortium of hikers and equestrians have united against bikes. However, this is not a simple dichotomy between cyclists and the rest.

A cyclist overlooks equestrians on the trail.

A cyclist overlooks equestrians on the trail.

Media竞技宝官网 Group/Pasadena Star-Ne/Media竞技宝官网 Group via Getty Images

Some equestrians vehemently oppose e-bikes on the trails, attributable in part to negative experiences with bikers. David Delarosa, a 70-year-old horse rider, had to get his knee operated on after a run-in with a cyclist while he was on his horse. Despite being a biker himself, he views e-bikes on the trails as too great of a hazard for those on horseback.

“I would really like to see no motorized bikes on bike trails,” Delarosa said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s bad enough with pedaling. But when you get a motor involved, it’s worse.”

Yet even in a group with such strong distaste for the electric bikes, there’s not a unanimous stance. Other equestrians view e-bikes as an opportunity to share the land and encourage more people to get outside.

“This is a beautiful thing. It's more people to the party, more people to share and love the outdoors and be healthy,” said Kim Orinda, an equestrian who's been riding in the East Bay for 30 years.

She believes that the animosity towards the bikes is a matter of circumstance rather than substance: “People are afraid of change. And especially because of COVID, there were just so many people on the trail in general at the same time e-bikes came out. So it’s just bad timing for e-bikes. It’s good for their sales, but it’s not good for the perception.”

Other equestrians echo the sentiment. “You know, there's a lot of emotion. They say people think with their hearts instead of their brains, or instead of their minds. And I'm in this logical camp where I personally have yet to hear a logical argument against e-bikes,” Jerry Wittenauer said.

Wittenauer, secretary of the Equestrian Trail Riders’ Action Committee based on the Peninsula, said the issue isn't specific to e-bikes in particular. On shared trails, bicyclists riding at high speeds have the potential to scare the horses, or even worse, spur injury to the horse and its rider. “Most equestrians are reacting and a little bit afraid of mountain bikes in general,” he said. “And they've just translated that to this e-bike realm.”

This was a common theme that came up when speaking to equestrians, who viewed the greatest safety threat as not the e-bikes themselves, but rather the lack of barriers that they have, leading to a set of riders unaware of their surroundings.

People riding horses on dirt road in forest.

People riding horses on dirt road in forest.

simonkr/Getty Images

“If you have people that don’t know the rules of the trail, and then you put them on an e-bike that is going to come at the horse that much faster, that’s going to increase the incidence of horses running away and hurting people,” said Lauren Lockliear, a horse trainer who’s been in the Bay Area for 10 years. “Most people are very responsible that I meet on the trail. But some people aren't. And that both comes from ignorance of not knowing and also people just being malicious and not caring.”

For other groups, appeals against e-bikes were not focused on the safety of trailgoers, but rather the state of the preserve itself.

Shani Kleinhaus is an ecologist at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. She described a number of reasons that e-bikes present a greater risk to the environment.

“Hikers and people on regular bikes don’t get as far into those areas where increased activity could strongly impact ecologically sensitive areas and habitats and species,” Kleinhaus said.

She pointed to the potential impact that their noise can have on the ecosystem. “In ecology, you always have to think about where — not only the what, but also the where. So if you’re going to introduce noise that disrupts or prevents roosting colonies of bats, if you do it near a lake or near a stream, then that can have a huge impact on them.”

When looking at environmental impacts that e-bikes might have, Midpeninsula’s Science Advisory Panel (SAP) determined six potential areas of impact. Of those areas, the panel found “a notable difference between e-bikes and regular bikes existed in the Noise category only.”

The enlarged bottom bracket area that houses the motor of the e-bike.?E-bikes are pedal-assisted bikes that have generated controversy, as they potentially threaten to disrupt access to nonmotorized trails for mountain biking.

The enlarged bottom bracket area that houses the motor of the e-bike.?E-bikes are pedal-assisted bikes that have generated controversy, as they potentially threaten to disrupt access to nonmotorized trails for mountain biking.

Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

The topic of noise earned its own segment during the board of directors meeting earlier this summer and a presentation into a noise study conducted on the district’s preserves. The preserves are full of birds and bats capable of hearing at frequencies that humans can’t pick up on. The SAP measured sounds produced by regular bicycles and e-bikes, and their report concluded that “generally, regular bicycles were quieter than e-bikes particularly in higher frequencies.”

However, outside of the noise, it was unclear whether the impact of e-bikes exceeds that of its non-electric counterparts.

“Our board of directors decided to take a conservative route,” Malone said. “Given the lack of clear information on the potential impacts of the bike, our board of directors decided to not allow the bike on most of the natural surface trails at this time.”

For some, when it ultimately came down to it, the board fell back on the heart of their organization: its mission.

“We’re here to represent the public and when the public is so split, it is up to us as it always is, even if the public isn’t split, to do what the best thing is for the mission of the organization,” said board member Karen Holman during the meeting. “Ecologically sensitive is premier among those comments. And preservation is the first goal. And I don’t see e-bikes as being consistent with either one of those on unpaved trails.”

Adding to the controversy, e-bikes’ largest proponents are cyclists themselves, who feel that preservation and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive.

Sean McKenna, president of Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers, is advocating for a balance. “We believe that it’s compatible with habitats and having greener areas to explore and go out in,” he said. McKenna, like other advocates, sees the hesitation to adopt e-bikes as a feeling dictated by circumstance.?

“It’s kind of like the first iPhone that came out. Everyone is like, ‘What the heck is this thing?’” McKenna said. “And then five years later, everyone has one.”

The use of e-bikes has increased drastically over the past few years because of their accessibility. Older park guests, or those with physical disabilities or recovering from injury, have been provided a solution that enables them to continue to enjoy park trails. Advocates make a case for the environmental benefits too, as e-bikes have begun to serve as a replacement for cars in many cases.?

To complicate matters further, even within the constituency of e-bike supporters, there lie disputes. Electric bicycles fall under three classes, based on pedal-assistance, throttle-assistance and maximum speed. While some bike groups are hopeful for all three classes to become accepted on natural surface trails, others don’t extend their support past class 1 bikes.

Nevertheless, backers of e-bikes continue to call for change in hopes of a compromise.

“Let’s start with the positives and look at the benefits and not start with the negatives and the what-ifs,” said Tom Boss, events director of Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “Then we’ll find a path forward for e-bikes.”

With both sides adamant about what they believe in, the controversy is far from a resolution in the Bay Area. Midpeninsula’s decision shed some light on the back-and-forth discussion, and as e-bikes continue to grow in popularity, it’s become clear that light isn't fading away.