Comments on E-Bike Access

Hello, MROSD Directors. While providing verbal input on trails as well as in my discussions with staff, I’ve avoided discussion of e-bikes as I didn’t want to divert attention from my main topic. At the same time, I know that Midpen is gathering a lot of input to make decisions on e-bikes and I would like to provide some thoughts on this topic. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and I have spoken to many people, including e- and regular cyclists, equestrians and hikers. I’m not an e-biker myself and I’ll continue hiking and riding my non-powered bike as long as I can. At some point that may become difficult and I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to continue riding in my local open spaces, as I prefer to avoid getting in a car and I’m very fortunate to live close to several preserves.

One of the common arguments against e-bikes is that they are motorized vehicles. Obviously, if the test is “does it have a motor?” then we would call e-bikes motorized. On the other hand, typically what we mean when we say “motorized vehicle” is that the vehicle can propel itself and its driver/rider. In that sense (how it is used), e-bikes are not what we think of as motorized. In practice people use (class 1) e-bikes exactly like they use regular bikes; the e-bike just allows them to do more of what they would do otherwise.

This is related to another common question raised about e-biking: Is e-biking a “legitimate” and proper use of open space? People experience open space in many different ways. As a hiker and a mountain biker, I know that my experiences are different in those activities, however my fundamental reasons for engaging in these activities are not so different: Each one has elements of enjoyment of the outdoors, respect for and learning about nature, exploration, exercise, and fun. On a bike I can go farther and see more things. While hiking I see more detail and examine things more closely. I value both experiences for what they are. To me, e-biking seems completely consistent with my own use of the open space. It would just be another slightly different experience than mountain biking.

Another common issue that is raised is that of trail damage. While studies are still being done, those that I’m aware of have not shown any large difference in trail damage from e-bikes. The trend seems to be toward lighter and less powerful e-bikes for mountain biking, which should further reduce any differences. There is a lot of finger-pointing among trail users about trail damage (“bikes do more damage because they go farther than hikers”; “horses do much more damage per mile than anyone”; “hikers do more damage because there are more of them”). In reality I think this issue is mostly a red herring: The primary issues around trail damage are weather, poor trail design, and lack of trail maintenance. If we build sustainable trails and maintain them (even with volunteer labor), we’ll have good trails and be able to manage the damage done by any users. I don’t believe that e-bikes change this in any significant way.

Safety issues have been raised both about e-bikes and their riders. Are e-bikes more dangerous than other bikes? The most dangerous situations come from downhill riders, where e-bike speeds will be similar to regular bikes. E-bikes can climb faster but not nearly as fast as any bike can descend, so it’s unlikely that additional safety issues will arise from uphill e-bikes. As for the riders, during COVID we saw a large increase in trail usage by all users at the same time as there was a large increase in the number of e-bikes. Many new riders came into the trail systems and there were likely some safety issues related to these temporary phenomena. In the long run, it’s likely that e-bikers will gain skills just as mountain bikers have. It seems unlikely that there would be a significant difference in rider skill between types of bikes. There is also a large overlap between e-bike and regular mountain bike riders (many riders have both types of bikes).

E-bikes will open up recreation and exercise opportunities to a lot of people who can’t otherwise use our open space. Keep in mind that for decades, the only trails available to people around the Los Gatos area have been steep fire roads, and this will continue to be the case for many more years as there is no bike-legal trail building in any near-term plan. Even most young people can’t climb these trails on regular bikes. Getting people out on the trails will improve public health even if there is assistance from an electric motor: Climbing 10-20% grades for miles isn’t easy even on an e-bike. An objection might be that today, a user can claim a medical or physical need for the e-bike and a ranger will allow them to ride, but it’s not fair to these riders to be stopped by the ranger, or to have other trail users shame them or even think badly of them for riding the e-bike. Perpetuating this situation will result in a poor user experience and more trail conflict. It’s not a fair and sustainable solution. I care about this particular point because my wife has a chronic knee injury and is considering an e-bike, as she can’t use a regular bike on hilly terrain without aggravating the injury. Even if she could claim an exemption, I’m concerned that she would opt out of using the preserves if she is challenged by rangers or hassled by other trail users.

E-bike restrictions will be very difficult to enforce because the bikes look increasingly similar to mountain bikes and ranger bandwidth is extremely limited. This means that where e-bikes are prohibited, e-bikers who are flaunting rules and possibly falsely claiming medical needs are the ones who will have good user experiences. People who are following rules, or people who need the e-bike for medical reasons (or don’t want to put up with shaming and being stopped by rangers) will not be able to have a good user experience. This is not an appropriate way to manage trail use.

In summary, I think most of the issues will come down to two things:

1. Will e-bikes increase usage of the preserves? Almost certainly, yes, however in principle that is a good thing, not a bad thing. We want to draw more people into the open space so they will learn about it and value it. Land managers need to plan for this and it may mean that we need more trail capacity. We shouldn’t restrict a class of users because they are the last ones to the table. Related to this, e-bikes will allow more people to reach the trail system without cars. This is a very good thing.

2. Many of the trail usage issues people bring up with e-bikes are really just variations of normal trail usage issues. Good multi-use trail system design for bikes, hikers and equestrians will address these issues. A good question to ask would be “if we were designing a trail system from scratch, would we design it differently for bike/hike/horse than for e-bike/bike/hike/horse? The answer is almost certainly “no.” This means that the key to managing e-bike usage is really just good multi-user trail system design and management.

These written comments were provided to the Midpen Board of Directors on October 27, 2021.