County drafts first rules for electric bikes

09/19/2019

While the National Park Service is considering the possibility of allowing all classifications of electric bicycles on federal lands, the Marin County Board of Supervisors is pressing forward with more conservative regulations for its jurisdiction. 

On Tuesday, supervisors held the first reading of an ordinance that would update county code to align with the most recent statewide standards for electric bicycles; if passed, the rules would govern the use of e-bikes on public rights-of-way as well as the areas managed by Marin County Parks. The board will hold a merit hearing on Sept. 24.  

California adopted a new definition for electric bicycles in 2016, broadening the definition of a bicycle to include those with an electric motor of less than 750 watts. It also described three classifications of electric bikes and allowed the first class—which provides pedal assistance up to 20 miles per hour—and the second class—which provides throttle assistance up to the same speed—on paved public roadways where old-school bicycles are permitted. 

The state allows the third class—which provides pedal assistance up to 28 miles per hour—on roadways but not on multi-use bike paths unless otherwise specified by a local ordinance. It also mandated that riders be at least 16 years old and wear a helmet.

Marin’s ordinance would clarify county code to align with this policy for public roadways in the unincorporated part of the county and within county parks, and to allow the first and second classes of electric bikes on paved multi-use pathways. In West Marin, these include a short pathway along Olema-Bolinas Road near the Bolinas School and sections of the Cross Marin Trail. The speediest bikes—the third class—would be prohibited on the pathways and within county owned parks facilities, unless there is a sign that specifically permits them. 

No e-bikes would be allowed in other areas of county parks—such as on trails and fire roads—or on lands managed by the Marin County Open Space District.  

Under the new ordinance, the county would maintain the current 15-mile-per-hour speed limit for electric bikes, with the exception of the Mill Valley-Sausalito multiuse pathway, which will be capped at 10 miles per hour. 

Ari Golan, the superintendent of the parks department’s central district who presented the ordinance on Tuesday, said his staff has been collecting public feedback and developing a proposal since the state law passed. 

“Parks could have prohibited electric bikes, but after considering their value as an alternate to a vehicle, and still considering the operational safety impacts to our paths, we recommended class one and class two,” he told the Light.

Residents who spoke to the supervisors on Tuesday remained skeptical.

Nona Dennis, on behalf of the Marin Conservation League, said, “We have been studying whether e-bikes represent a cure for transportation or a pest for those of us on foot.” She added, “Monitor what you are doing, don’t just go ahead and say, ‘Fine, change the code.’ Monitor and see how it is working.” 

Though supervisors unanimously favored passing the ordinance, several echoed her safety concerns.

“I’m supportive of this moving forward cautiously,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said in his closing comments. “I am concerned about safety and enforcement. One thing that must happen is to get buy-in from our sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies.”

Mr. Golan said park rangers will indeed be part of the effort, providing education on speed limits as well as type of e-bikes (manufacturers are required to label bikes with their class). Signage and collaboration with other local managers are other essential parts of making the rules legible to riders, he said. (Other jurisdictions, such as the Marin Municipal Water District, are still determining their policies.)

The county’s proposal is also pertinent as a point of comparison for the impending rules for adjacent federal parklands.

United States Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in August ordered the park service and other federal land managers to adopt a policy that allows all three types of electric bicycles on all trails and roads that currently permit non-motorized bicycles. 

The order called for temporary local rules within 30 days, giving superintendents some discretion. “Superintendents may limit or restrict or impose conditions on bicycle use, including specific limitations on e-bike use, or may close any park road, parking area, administrative road, trail, or portion thereof to such bicycle use and/or e-bike use,” the memorandum states. 

It goes on, “to the extent possible,” superintendents should not make e-bike rules on federal lands more restrictive than those in adjacent jurisdictions.  

Jennifer Stock, a spokeswoman for the Point Reyes National Seashore, said the public will not be able to weigh in on local regulations before Superintendent Cicely Muldoon makes a decision, which will amend the compendium for the seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The public will be allowed to make comments on the national policy related to electric bikes after the park service announces the proposed changes in the federal register. That policy will supersede local interim rules.

Rick Holland, the president of the Marin Horse Council who has helped campaign to improve relations between user groups on local trails, reported that trail etiquette had improved since his and other groups began the effort six years ago. 

Electric bikes are something different entirely, however, Mr. Holland said. Though he supports Marin’s proposed ordinance, his position remains that electric bikes should be considered motorized vehicles and should not be allowed on any single-track trail. The difference in policies throughout the county present a possible challenge, he added. 

“The issue that land managers are looking at now is that as more cyclists and e-bikes get to the trails, they have to make sure that they are not then riding illegally on any trails,” he said. “It becomes a serious enforcement issue.”