the sun sets above a trail in the North Berkeley Hills, surrounded by green foliage
Owners of e-bikes are now able to enjoy trails in the East Bay hills, such as this one in North Berkeley. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Hundreds of miles of trails in the East Bay Regional Park District, which includes 73 parks totaling 125,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, are now open to e-bikes.

On Tuesday, the park district’s board unanimously approved allowing Class I e-bikes on 850 out of 1,330 miles of the system’s trails. 

Class I e-bikes use pedals to move and can travel up to 20 mph. The board also approved the use of Class II e-bikes on paved trails. Class II e-bikes don’t need pedals to move, though they usually have them. People can control them by pushing a button or twisting a handle, like a motorcycle, and they can also go up to 20 mph. 

Class III e-bikes are similar to Class II bikes but can go up to 28 mph. They are not allowed in East Bay regional parks. 

The decision to allow e-bikes on most of the park district’s trails follows a pilot program that was launched six years ago which allowed e-bikes on three park district trails

Greater access, but possible negative impacts?

Proponents of e-bikes say many people already use them on East Bay trails and that the new law is about catching up with riders. The bikes can provide greater access to people who may not be able to pedal a traditional bike or have difficulty walking.

“I will be able to get to Old Briones Road [by using an e-bike]. I haven’t been able to bike up to that ridge in 20 years. I can get deeper and spread out more over these parts like I never have been able before,” said Colin Coffey, a member of the park district’s board.

Coffey, who represents Ward 7, which includes areas surrounding Pittsburgh, Martinez, and Hercules, estimated that about 30% of the bikes he sees on trails are already e-bikes. In five to six years, he said, most bike riders will use e-bikes, and disallowing them would unnecessarily lock out many law-abiding people. 

Sean Dougan, the district’s trails program manager, told the board that removing restrictions for people who use a wider variety of transportation devices is also part of why East Bay parks management wants to legalize e-bikes. In the next few years, he said, the parks will apply for funds from the state to complete more paved paths, and to receive those funds, the park will need to show it is managing the trails in a less restrictive way.

However, some directors wondered whether the faster speed and the heavier frames of e-bikes could lead to more collisions. 

Jim Hanson of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society wrote in an email to the park district board that faster bikes can catch hikers, trail runners, seniors, people with dogs and equestrians off-guard. For example, many dogs can be easily frightened by speedy bicycles because it makes them feel insecure, sometimes causing them to attack. 

“Allowing electrically motorized mountain bikes on trails will likely compound the conflicts and further disrupt habitat for plants and wildlife,” Hanson said.

Dougan told the board that Class I e-bikes travel about 1.8 miles an hour faster than regular pedal bikes. On average, people can ride between 12-15 mph on a traditional pedal bike.

“The speed [of e-bikes] is faster, but it’s mostly observed when going uphill and it’s providing motor assist uphill,” Dougan said. “But the downhill speed is traditionally based on gravity or the rider’s skill and more so the condition of the trail or condition of what’s going on in the park at the moment.”

Another concern about e-bikes on trails is increased erosion damage through dirt displacement. Environmentalists are worried this could harm native plant species and animals.

Dougan told the park district board that studies have found e-bikes do not have a more significant impact than pedal bikes on park trails. 

In light of some of the concerns, the board will require park district staff to conduct a thorough review of the impact of e-bikes on the trails after one year. 

Ward 4 Director Ellen Corbett, who represents Alameda, East Oakland, and San Leandro, was the most hesitant to proceed with the e-bike authorization. She worried there would not be enough trails where people could walk or hike without seeing a bike.  

Ward 2 Director Dee Rosario, who represents Oakland, Orinda, and Lafayette also expressed safety concerns about the possibility of e-bikes colliding with other trail users. 

East Bay parks police captain Terrence Cotcher said at the meeting Tuesday that he wasn’t worried about e-bike riders creating more situations that needed to be enforced. He said that in the last year, only 33 of 238 citations handed out by his officers to bike riders involved people riding e-bikes. 

The district’s analysis of potential impacts found that riders of e-bikes behaved “similarly to conventional bike users in terms of following rules and regulations.”  

“E-bike travel speed on trails is largely determined by rider skill, trail condition, and trail design; not the type of device being operated,” the analysis stated. “Most groups of e-bike users were not more likely than conventional bike users to be involved in a crash or sustain serious injury that required a visit to the emergency room.”

Regarding trails, East Bay parks managers acknowledged Tuesday they are behind on infrastructure development and are looking to widen some trails to allow more people to use them. 

Mixed reactions from park users

An East Bay resident named Carla, who lives near Tilden Park, told the board during public comment that she loves bikes and e-bikes, but that the parks were intended to serve non-motorized vehicles where people could hike, sing, play guitars, and protect the natural environment. 

“Your job is to protect that open space, and you are not if you allow e-bikes,” Carla said. “It’s hard enough with regular bikes. It’ll be harder with e-bikes.”

Rod Miller, a disabled person, asked the board over Zoom to defer their vote for a year until they had more data on how they would affect trail usage. Miller said that he only likes to walk on trails that do not allow bikes and that even on those, he’s faced cyclists. 

“If you allow e-bikes on the regular trails, inevitably they’ll be on the hiker-only trails and they pose a danger to people like me,” Miller said. 

Bob Zucker, a retired UC Berkeley professor, said he has used the trails for decades and that in recent years has seen more e-bike riders but he hasn’t noticed them behaving any worse than other cyclists. 

“I see no reason not to allow Class I e-bikes on all trails. The vast majority of other local and regional park agencies already do, even the usually highly conservative state parks,” Zucker said. “A special advantage of e-bikes is that they open up the backcountry hinterland to trails that are otherwise almost inaccessible to the public.”

Jose Fermoso reports on traffic and road safety for our sister site The Oaklandside.