by Ann Elliott and David Long

E bike bikebize-Bike on Dirt Road – Embed from Getty ImagesAs E-bikes rise in popularity, Marin MMWD is considering allowing Class I E-bikes on the parts of their trail system where bikes are allowed – on fire roads. They have solicited input from the MMWD community with meetings and formed a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) to address the issue. Marin CNPS has been following these meetings and opposes the use of E-bikes on Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) lands beyond where other motor vehicles can travel.  Public comments by Conservation Chair Eva Buxton and Co-President David Long have pointed out potential E-bike threats to MMWD wildlands.

MMWD acknowledges there is clear evidence of construction of illegal trails and illegal bicycle usage of single-track trails throughout the Mt. Tamalpais watershed. These activities can impact wildlife, increase erosion and sedimentation of streams, introduce non-native/invasive species, and threaten special status plant and animal species and sensitive habitats. Wherever human powered mountain bikes go, E-bikes will follow. The threats to wildlands would be exacerbated by E-bikes which are heavier than regular bikes, have low-end torque, and can go faster. In addition, E-bikes allow riders to cover more distance on each trip, getting them to areas difficult for rangers to patrol.

The CAC could not reach consensus on allowing E-bikes on the Mt. Tamalpais watershed lands. A majority of the committee members supported E-bike usage with possible options for a trial period, E-bike registration (for funding enforcement and education), increased enforcement and education, the exclusion of rental E-bikes, and access to a limited number of trails. All members supported increased education and enforcement: signs at trailheads clearly stating trail rules, fliers about appropriate etiquette for passing others and all trail use, and increased ranger presence especially during high use times.

When the pandemic hit, the task of attempting to forge an E-bike proposal was given to MMWD staff, which held a series of separate meetings with stakeholders, including the Marin Chapter of CNPS. At that meeting Chapter representatives expressed opposition to giving E-bikes access to MMWD lands.

On December 15, the MMWD board considered the MMWD staff proposal to allow one class of E-bikes on fire roads.  That proposal would have authorized Class I E-bikes and prohibited Class II and Class III E-bikes. Class I E-bikes are limited to 20 mph and use a pedal-assist drive system; Class II E-bikes are similarly limited to 20 mph but use a throttle control; Class III E-bikes also use a pedal-assist drive system but are faster to a max of 28 mph.

Marin CNPS Co-president David Long presented both written and oral statements of opposition to this proposal at the MMWD board meeting.  Points in opposition to the proposal included:

  • This proposal would be virtually impossible to enforce. There is no way to distinguish between E-bike Classes at a distance. All classes of E-bikes have pedals. Class I and Class III E-bikes have pedal-assisted speed controllers; Class II E-bikes have a throttle control but may also have a pedal-assisted option. The technology that distinguishes the three classes of E-bikes is hidden away in bicycle frames and under cowling. In addition, all E-bikes, regardless of their power are virtually silent.
  • MMWD is not effectively enforcing existing bicycle regulations; E-bikes will make the situation worse. MMWD has limited ranger resources; enforcement of bicycle use is difficult. Only twenty-five citations were made in 2019 for bicycles using off-limits trails. Without adequate enforcement resources and a successful education campaign to reduce current illegal bicycle uses, MMWD should not add E-bikes into the mix since enforcement of E-bike infractions would be even more challenging.
  • Allowing Class I E-bikes on MMWD wildlands would open a Pandora’s Box. E-bike technology is in its infancy and rapidly changing. E-bikes will get faster and more powerful. The power is already here; E-bikes are being made that go over 50 mph. The most powerful E-bikes are being made specifically for off-road use (and in some cases off-trail use). The boundaries between E-bikes and gas-powered dirt bikes and motorcycles are already being blurred. These fast and powerful “motorcycles with pedals” will be attractive for hard core mountain bikers and difficult to tell from other E-bikes. Once this box is opened, it will be difficult to close or regulate in the face of rapidly changing, sophisticated, silent, easily concealed, fast and powerful technology that will seriously threaten MMWD land, the plants that grow there, and the people who still use their own feet for transportation.

E bike Pixabay networkerzThe MMWD Board, at its December 15 meeting, appeared seriously concerned about the possible damage to MMWD land that could result from the current proposal. It referred the E-bike question to the MMWD Watershed Committee for further research and discussion. The Board wanted more information on collisions, accidents, and complaints involving e-bikes. Board members also requested more clarity on legal questions about compliance with state environmental laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Further reading.