Palo Alto's elected leaders and bicyclists have many reasons to love electric bikes, which they see as a healthy alternative to driving and provide a lifeline for aging riders who struggle to keep up with speedier companions.
Robert Neff, an avid bicyclist who serves on the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said he has seen the trend accelerate in recent years, as stores specializing in e-bikes have opened in Palo Alto and Menlo Park and as more people have started to rely on these vehicles to commute to work or for recreation.
"People who used to routinely ride bikes up into the hills and who are now feeling slower ... they're getting e-bikes so they can go with younger people up into the hills," Neff said in an interview.
But as the trend picks up speed, city officials are struggling to keep up with the changing legal landscape surrounding e-bikes. California law, which traditionally treated e-bikes as "motorized vehicles," no longer does so in most cases. As a result, open space trails that have historically banned all motorized vehicles now must make an exception for e-bikes, a shift that has created confusion for the city's open space rangers.
Daren Anderson, assistant director in the city's Community Services Department, acknowledged during a public hearing on e-bikes that until recently, rangers have been telling riders whom they encounter in open space preserves: "Sorry, the e-bikes are not allowed in these areas."
"Now, they are allowed in Arastradero, Esther Clark Park and the Baylands," Anderson said during the Nov. 22 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission. "Next time we see one, of course we are not going to tell them they can't be there. They are welcome to be there at this point."
At the same time, Anderson said, open space rangers feel that as e-bikes become more entrenched and bikers develop regular routes, the activity may disrupt sensitive habitat. Many of the trails that go through areas that contain endangered species are very roadlike, he noted.
And with some environmentalists growing increasingly concerned about the e-bikers intruding into sensitive areas, Palo Alto is preparing to adopt new rules that would prohibit all classes of e-bikes at unpaved roads in the Baylands and in open space areas such the Arastradero Preserve.
The proposed prohibition, which last week earned the commission's endorsement, has sparked a debate between bicyclists and conservationists. Bicyclists like Neff and other members of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission believe that a ban on e-bikes on all unpaved trails is an overreach. Some note that Baylands trails, which attract bike commuters and bird watchers alike, should be treated differently from the hilly, windy paths in Arastradero where a speeding bicyclist may prove to be more disruptive to hikers and animals.
Rather than ban e-bikes on unpaved Baylands trails, the city should focus on education, encouragement and, if needed, enforcement to make sure riders behave in a safe and courteous manner, said Penny Ellson, who chairs the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. She was one of numerous residents who urged the commission at the Nov. 22 meeting to treat the Baylands differently from the other open spaces.
"Palo Alto bay trails connect to trails in neighboring communities that do allow e-bikes," Ellson said. "Many of the unpaved bay trails are wide enough to carry trucks and can easily be considered roads. Because of these facts I think it would be really difficult to recommend a prohibition on e-bikes on Bay trails."
That argument failed to sway people like Rani Fischer, environmental advocacy assistant with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. E-bikes, she argued, increase environmental harm in ways that humans may not be able to perceive. Unpaved trails, she said, should be used to encourage ecologically sensitive public enjoyment and education.
"E-bikes erect a wall of sound along trails in the preserve, which create obstacles to animal connectivity, reproduction and safety," Fischer said. "We live in times when biodiversity is threatened as it has not been in 65 million years."
For Palo Alto, the decision on whether to allow e-bikes in open space preserves comes with a sense of urgency. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1909, legislation by Assembly member Laura Friedman that aims to promote bicycling by, among other areas, loosening state laws around e-bicycles. One of the bill's provisions pertains to Class 3 e-bikes, which can reach maximum speeds of 28 mph (the less powerful Class 1 and Class 2 varieties top off at 20 mph, according to the bill's legislative analysis). Under the new law, these bikes will no longer be banned on trails, bike paths, equestrian trails and hiking trails. Unless, that is, a local jurisdiction opts to ban them.
Anderson suggested doing just that. With the bill set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, he and members of the Parks and Recreation Commission agreed that prohibiting electric bicycles of all classes on unpaved roads would be prudent in the near term. Anderson emphasized though that as technology and laws continue to develop, the city will have to reconsider and potentially change its rules on an ongoing basis.
"This is an evolving policy because it's an evolving sport and recreation activity," Anderson said.
The Parks and Recreation Commission agreed, though members expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm. Commissioner Shani Kleinhaus strongly supported the prohibition and noted that the Baylands is home to some of Palo Alto's most endangered species (the salt marsh harvest mouse and the clapper rail are among them).
"It's probably because most communities around the Bay don't have Baylands like ours," Kleinhaus said, alluding to the higher level of development on the bay side in neighboring jurisdictions. "We have something very special and we need to keep that and not go to lowest common denominator, which is all of our neighbors."
Chair Jeff Greenfield, who served on an ad hoc committee that worked on the new policy, suggested that imposing the ban would give the city time to develop a more thoughtful policy on e-bikes. The committee considered whether to differentiate between different types of e-bikes and ultimately decided not to, citing the difficulty of telling them apart. The policy that the commission recommended would ban Class 3 e-bikes (which presently are not allowed on trails) as well as Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes (which are allowed) on unpaved trails in open space preserves.
Rules would be looser at local parks, where e-bikes would be allowed on both paved and unpaved roads under the new policy. The speed limit for e-bikes would be 15 mph and riders would be required to reduce their speeds to 5 mph when passing others or approaching blind turns.
"If we are to move forward to opening unpaved trails and unpaved space to e-bikes, we have some work to do," Greenfield said. "I think there's viable consideration and I think all the open space areas do not need to be considered the same. But we need improved signage, we need an opportunity for education. We need to give staff time to get things set up."
Others were less enthusiastic about adding e-bike restrictions. Commissioner Amanda Brown said she was disappointed that the city's consideration of an e-bike policy does not really take into consideration regional plans for transportation networks. And Vice Chair Jeff LaMere said that he would like the city to reconsider in the near future its policy for riding e-bicycles in the Baylands, particularly if they're bicycles of the less powerful variety.
"I do think if we allow regular bicycles in the Baylands, to allow a Class 1 pedal-assist (bicycle) is something that's reasonable to provide access to older riders who want to experience what other bicycle riders experience at the Baylands," LaMere said.