The rise in popularity of electric-powered bicycles is resulting in reduced car usage and decreased carbon emissions. It’s also encouraging individuals who prefer staying indoors to engage in exercise and enjoy nature.
However, this enthusiasm for e-bikes conflicts with another valued environmental principle: the desire for peace and tranquility.
To address a new state policy allowing e-bikes everywhere regular bicycles are permitted, local authorities are rushing to prohibit their use on unpaved paths within open space reserves.
Earlier this year, Palo Alto, California, voted 5–2 to ban e-bikes on the popular Baylands Trail. The trial is known for its scenic views of the South Bay, abundant birdlife, and convenient commute to technology campuses like Google.
This decision triggered strong opposition from many residents of Palo Alto, a city known for its commitment to innovation and sustainability. Currently, the city boasts amenities such as a $23.1 million bike overpass, bike-friendly streets, and e-bike programs.
Expressing disappointment, Deborah Wexler, an environmentalist who is unable to ride traditional bicycles due to knee and hip ailments, shared her desire to ride her e-bike to a bench overlooking the bay. She lamented, “I’ll be back in my car.”
On the other hand, some individuals welcome the ban. Supporters of the decision report that they have felt threatened while utilizing the Baylands Nature Preserve trail, the largest remaining undisturbed marshland within the San Francisco Bay area. They argue that there are plenty of paved routes available for e-bike riders.
According to Palo Alto Councilmember Ed Lauing, fast-moving e-bikes defeat the purpose for being out in nature, which is to get mental respite.
The Growth of E-Bikes
Throughout the country, communities are increasingly embracing e-bikes as a means to reduce car dependency and bridge gaps in public transportation for distances that are too far to walk but not conveniently accessible by bus or train.
During the pandemic, there was a significant rise in the popularity of e-bikes, making them the fastest-growing segment in the US bike market. With the increasing number of riders, the bike industry is pushing for expanded off-pavement access. To support e-cycling advocacy and infrastructure, outdoor equipment and apparel retailer REI has granted $110,000 to PeopleForBikes.
However, since e-bikes are heavier and faster than regular bikes, they are at greater risk of being involved in accidents.
The regulations for e-bikes are determined at the state level rather than by the federal government. In general, only certain areas of the California State Park system allow e-bikes, and the specific rules vary by site.
For example, at Half Moon Bay State Park, e-bikes are only permitted on the Coastal Trail. On the other hand, at Mount Diablo, Wilder Ranch, and Henry W. Coe state parks, e-bikes can go wherever traditional bikes are allowed.
The Trump administration directive in 2019 allowed e-bikes on all trails in the National Park Service’s 423 national parks where traditional bikes are allowed. However, this decision is currently being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a coalition of conservation groups who aim to prevent e-bike access.
Although some conservationists hate e-bikes, they’re wrong. Here’s why.
Why E-Bikes Should Be Allowed in Protected Areas
Some conservationists criticize e-bikes due to their high speeds. However, it’s important to remember that regular bicycles can also reach speeds of over 30 km/hr, depending on the rider. Singling out e-bikes will not stop distracting noises from occurring in parks and along trails.
A more effective solution would be to implement a speed limit on bike paths that would apply to all vehicles. Regardless of whether people are going on a tricycle, pedal-assist ebike, wheelchair, or even a pogo stick, all users should adhere to a single speed limit.
Moreover, e-bike bans are very challenging to enforce. E-bikes are difficult to distinguish from regular bicycles. As battery and motor technology advances, it will become even harder to differentiate between the two.
Rather than waste money trying to enforce e-bike bans, local governments should explore renting out e-bikes at public parks to generate additional revenue.
It’s unfair to deprive people of the freedom to enjoy our protected areas because of the emotions of a few conservationists. Palo Alto needs to reverse its ban and allow e-bikes on the Baylands Trail.
Image Source: Tim Welch, https://twitter.com/TimFWelch/status/1692281403709481202