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Popular California Trails Remain Off Limits to E-Bikes

The possibility of opening 160 miles of trails to electric bicycle riders was shut down at a meeting of transit authorities in the San Francisco Bay Area, a major disappointment to bicycle advocates.

Bay Area Ferry
(TNS) — The possibility of opening 160 miles of Peninsula trails to electric bicycle riders was shut down at a meeting of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's board of directors on Wednesday night, a major disappointment to bicycle advocates across the Bay Area.

At the end of a five-hour board meeting, during which dozens of Bay Area residents voiced their opinions on the subject, the seven-member board voted 4-2 (with one abstention) to uphold its ban on e-bikes on the majority of its trails. However, they will be allowed on 6.5 miles of paved and improved trails in Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve in Cupertino and Ravenswood Preserve in East Palo Alto.

"It feels like an opportunity lost for a lot of people," said Sean McKenna, president of Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers, a nonprofit advocacy group, who lives in Los Altos and frequently mountain bikes the district's preserves. "I don't think this really serves the community."

Allowances for e-bikes have emerged as an issue in the past decade as the technology has improved and the vehicles have become more common among urban commuters and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Initially, e-bike riders drew the ire of mountain-biking traditionalists who chided them as trail cheaters capable of coasting easily on battery power rather than grinding out miles under their own grit.

But as e-bikes have spread into the mainstream, they have become lauded for expanding and diversifying bicycling, particularly among the physically impaired.

"E-bikes are the great equalizer for people who might not have the fitness level to ride these trails," said Shiloh Ballard, executive director of Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, which advocates for bike access on the Peninsula.

As attitudes have evolved, prohibitions on e-bikes at public parklands have relaxed. In 2017, a California law took effect that allows e-bikes on trails unless land managers specifically prohibit them.

In the Bay Area, motorized and motor-assisted bikes are allowed at California State Parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and on paved trails at many Bay Area county parks, as well as properties managed by the East Bay Regional Park District and Marin County Parks and Marin County Open Space District.

Midpen's decision, however, signals that e-bike acceptance continues to be an uphill battle.

The 50-year-old open-space district manages more than 60,000 acres across 26 properties located primarily in the forested hills of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — places popular with hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians that have served as critical outlets for Bay Area outdoor lovers during the pandemic.

Of its 250 total miles of trails, 160 are open to mountain bikers, including fire roads along the South Bay's rolling hills with spectacular panoramic views and more technical dirt tracks down the wooded steeps off Skyline Boulevard east of Half Moon Bay.

Observing that e-bike use has exploded in the region, the district undertook a thorough two-year policy review that looked at the potential impacts of allowing e-bikes on its nature preserves. In an exhaustive report, the authors assessed noise impacts to nearby bat populations, potentially excessive uphill speeds, fire risk, soil impacts, and the potential for conflicts among e-bikers and other visitors.

In a district survey of 556 people conducted on trails in two of its preserves, 68% of respondents supported allowing class 1 e-bikes (those with pedal assist) in some capacity, and 42% supported allowing class 2 e-bikes (those with throttles) in some capacity.

However, district directors weren't persuaded to throw open the door to e-bikes.

The four directors who voted to keep the ban largely in place noted that Midpen's mission is to balance healthy natural ecosystems with agricultural and recreational uses and view its preserves as distinct from parklands in that way. Midpen already permits visitors with disabilities to ride e-bikes in places where mountain bikes are allowed.

"What I want to emphasize is our job is to properly care for nature preserves, and it's a very different approach required by agencies that are managing parks," said Midpen Director Curt Riffle. "I've concluded that I just cannot support allowing motorized or motor-assisted bicycles into our preserves."

Director Karen Holman echoed that rationale, describing possible unknown negative impacts to wildlife wrought by e-bike riders who might venture down Midpen trails farther and faster than mountain bikers.

"I think it's really going down a path that's not consistent with Midpen's vision and mission," Holman said. "It's a very different characteristic we'd be adding into our preserves."

Overall, directors expressed trepidation about a lack of scientific research on e-bike impacts in natural areas.

"One consideration ... is that based on our past history, once a use is allowed in an area, it becomes more difficult to restrict that use if we find that negative impacts are indeed occurring," said Midpen General Manager Ana María Ruiz.

The decision to uphold the ban dealt a blow to advocates who spoke at the meeting.

Drawing on Marin County as a point of reference, Tom Boss, off-road and events director for Marin County Bicycle Coalition, noted that e-bikes are allowed at Point Reyes National Seashore and Marin Headlands and that "there really hasn't been measurable impacts by their adoption."

Boss urged the board to relax its stance.

"Your constituents on the Peninsula — a tech-heavy area, by the way — are riding these bikes, and we need to figure out a way to accommodate that," Boss told the board. "If you don't provide those opportunities in your own community, then it brings those impacts to our community. ... You have a responsibility to provide some of those opportunities in your own backyard for the constituents who are using those bikes."

© 2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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