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Midpen's unambiguous ruling on e-bikes

Uploaded: Jul 10, 2022

It would have been a lot easier for Midpen’s board of directors to take the middle ground that was offered. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) was under considerable pressure from some members of the public to allow e-bikes on its 250 miles of trails. Pilots on paved trails in two of Midpen’s preserves had proven successful, feedback in those preserves and nearby parks seemed quite favorable for e-bikes, and public comment to the board had been in favor. A 130-page report summarizing several years of work evaluating e-bikes indicated little known impact to date from them, and in many ways they appeared to be indistinguishable from the mountain bikes that are already allowed on many preserve trails.

The Board was offered three choices: (a) Approve Class 1 e-bikes on all preserve trails that allow mountain bikes; (b) Continue to ban e-bikes on all trails, with possible exceptions for the two paved/improved pilot areas; or (c) Explore e-bikes on unpaved trails with a new pilot in one or two preserves. That middle ground can look awfully appealing. And yet the Midpen board voted 4-2 in favor of continuing to prohibit e-bikes in its preserves, with the exception of the paved/improved trails where successful pilots were conducted. They did not opt to conduct a new unpaved pilot. They just said “No”.

I was impressed. I think it’s the right decision, but I was not expecting it. How did it happen and what role did you (the public) play?

The general structure of the 5-hour board meeting where this decision was made was first to review the report (2.5 hours), then hear public comment (about 75 comments taking 1 hour), and finally hold a discussion among board members (another hour). I reviewed the report in the previous post, so I won’t go over it again here. I think it is fair to say that the board understood the constraints of the data that was collected and the limitations of the science on e-bike impact to date.

The public comment was interesting. Up until this board meeting, the large majority of public comment had been in favor of e-bikes on unpaved trails, with the main exception being a set of feedback from equestrians (70% opposed). But this meeting’s feedback was more balanced. There was still some assertive pro e-bike campaigning. Indeed, the board was threatened with accusations of NIMBY-ism, age-ism, and discrimination. Here is a sampling.

The largest set of pro e-bike feedback, however, came from seniors who wanted to extend their enjoyment of the preserves. Here is a sampling.

What made this meeting different from previous meetings was the volume of people who spoke out against e-bikes. As with the cyclists, many of them spoke out of self-interest, concerned with the disruption that e-bikes (and more bikes in general) would pose to them on trails. Some of those comments:

But many of the speakers opposed to e-bikes focused on the preserves themselves and the animals that live in them.

After public comment came the discussion among Midpen board members. They expressed appreciation for the public’s feedback and noted that they had also given this issue a lot of thought. Many cited the relevance of Midpen’s mission, which they referred to as “Preserve. Protect. Restore. Enjoy” in that order, with the latter being “environmentally-sensitive public enjoyment”. They were universally clear on this mission and how it distinguishes the preserves from a park. Board member Curt Riffle said he had also looked at the “basic policy” of Midpen and quoted from it: “The timing and level of access for low intensity public recreational use of district open space land will be evaluated in terms of four basic criteria. 1. Protection of natural resources. 2. Preservation of the opportunity for tranquil nature study and observation. 3. Avoidance of significant user conflicts. 4. Availability of board and/or staff time funding and/or means to plan and manage the use.” Riffle remarked “So if I go back to what is driving us, it’s our mission, it’s our basic policy, and to me that really spells it out.”

The board was not convinced by the many commenters who claimed that e-bikes are essentially indistinguishable from mountain bikes. Not only can some animals easily differentiate the two due to the high frequency noise from the batteries, but the people riding them clearly know the difference. The e-bike enthusiasts said that they could go up hills easier, they could go on trails that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, they could go farther, they could bike instead of walk. The board accepted this, concluding that allowing e-bikes would mean more bikes on trails, more bike-miles on trails, and more impact farther into the preserves. Furthermore, they noted that it is early days for e-bikes. E-bikes will get more affordable and more powerful. The technology is evolving quickly, the adoption curve is steep, and the marketing is intensive. Riffle worried: “(If we admit e-bikes at this early stage), we’re at the mercy, if you will, of the bike industry. Because you bet they’re going to be much stronger, go farther, be more affordable. I think that what would happen is e-bikes would be the fastest growth segment of all of our user groups. I frankly think it would get out of control for us.” All but one of the Board members were inclined to go slow because of this. (Board member Pete Siemens felt they shouldn’t worry so much about allowing use that they might later revoke.)

The board members understood that Midpen’s outreach had been heavily skewed towards cyclists despite efforts from staff. Initially Midpen posted the e-bike program information only on the cycling page of their website. As a result feedback was largely from cyclists and organized cycling groups. Partway through the pilot program, Midpen staff made a concerted effort to reach out to the general public, posting it more prominently on their website and putting signs on the notice boards at the preserves. But it is not clear that people read them. The on-location survey feedback was also largely from cyclists in bike-intensive preserves and parks.

In case like me you never saw the notice about the e-bike evaluation, here’s where it was, at least at Windy Hill.

But it wasn’t only the mission, the fast-evolving technology, and the skewed input that weighed on the board’s decision. Board members also cited the stress that climate change is putting on the preserves and the threat it represents to the lands they have been given to protect. Board Chairwoman Zoe Kersteen-Tucker said it directly affects how she and other Board members think about these tradeoffs of access vs preservation. “Our job is to listen to the public. We are there to represent them. That being said, oftentimes the people who come and speak the loudest and are most organized are special interest groups. They are not coming with a broader perspective on the array of challenges that Midpen faces and deals with, especially in the face of changing climate. Speaking for myself and other board members, we think about that a lot.”

Many of us may not be aware that these areas we enjoy are preserves or understand what that means. Many years ago I was walking my dog in one of them and she stopped to dig on the edge of the trail. A ranger pulled up in his truck and pointed out that we were in a preserve and my dog’s digging wasn’t welcome. I was taken aback, initially annoyed, then kind of chastened. I had never really thought about what the word “preserve” meant, or that we might have to play second fiddle to the inhabitants. It reminded me of a time when I was backpacking in Glacier National Park and some trails were closed because it was huckleberry season and the bears wanted to graze there. It was an inconvenience for sure, and it seemed almost quaint to me, but I was glad that Glacier was doing it. I wish we could apply this humility to more of our interactions with the natural world. At minimum we should understand the charter of our local preserves. Kersteen-Tucker lauds the role that rangers play in that regard. “They are our ambassadors. Rangers are not about writing tickets and being mean. They focus on helping to build awareness through dialog.”

The Midpen board’s decision required backbone and principle. And it won’t be the last such decision. Kersteen-Tucker predicts “We will continue to see more pressure on our preserves with increased urbanization and more people wanting to enjoy the outdoors in more ways. This issue isn’t going away.” She encourages the public to participate, and emphasizes that it makes a difference. She reflected back to the role the public played in the Red Barn development discussion a few years ago, saying it changed the course of the project. She added that the public input on e-bikes, particularly from those with a clear understanding of Midpen’s mission, was “very persuasive to me”.

I am reminded of the Lorax introducing himself: "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees as the trees have no tongues.” We can all be a voice for our natural lands and wildlife as climate change threatens their well-being. With intransigent parties crippling Congress, local action on climate change and biodiversity is more important than ever. Each of us can make a difference to preserve and enhance the natural world for all who live here. Stay informed and speak up.

Current Climate Data (May 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

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Posted by Sunnyvale Senior, a resident of another community,
on Jul 10, 2022 at 7:43 am

Sunnyvale Senior is a registered user.

I wonder if MidPen has considered the unanticipated consequences of their decision. Many people will still ride ebikes on the trail and what will result is an increase in trail user conflicts. Hikers will get angry at ebikes and e-bikers will be angry at trail users and rangers. MidPen rangers will be forced to spend more time dealing with conflicts and ebike users and ultimately it will degrade the job experience of rangers. Rangers are not interested or motivated to be law enforcers. For many ebikes it is quite difficult to distinguish them from regular bikes. Folks only obey laws they agree with, and in this case there will be non-compliance.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 10, 2022 at 7:56 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Hiking trails and bike trails should be completely separate trails. Whether electrically powered or pedal powered, bikes travel faster than a human walker on most downhill and flat parts of trails as well as some uphill parts. Many trails have drops to one side and inaccessible brush which means that it is dangerous if not impossible to pass or overtake.

Granted I am not familiar with all 250 miles of trails, but as someone who hikes, I know that bikes and hikers should be kept apart, regardless of mode of power.

Posted by Local Resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 10, 2022 at 9:41 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

Thank goodness. I don't hike on trails that bicyclists use. Too dangerous and disruptive.

Posted by chris aoki, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Jul 10, 2022 at 9:21 pm

chris aoki is a registered user.

Sunnyvale Senior closed with:

‘Folks only obey laws they agree with,
and in this case there will be non-compliance."

The most important laws in this case are laws of physics.
Whether or not you agree with them, the differences that
matter most are differences in speed, and fast-moving bikes
conflict with slow-moving pedestrians, whether or not motors
are involved. This conflict results in accidents and injuries.
Enough said?

Posted by Mike Vandeman, a resident of another community,
on Jul 10, 2022 at 10:49 pm

Mike Vandeman is a registered user.

The major harm that mountain biking does is that it greatly extends the human footprint (distance that one can travel) in wildlife habitat. E-bikes multiply that footprint even more. Neither should be allowed on any unpaved trail. Wildlife, if they are to survive, MUST receive top priority!

What were you thinking??? Mountain biking and trail-building destroy wildlife habitat! Mountain biking is environmentally, socially, and medically destructive! There is no good reason to allow bicycles on any unpaved trail!

Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: Web Link . It's dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don't have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else -- ON FOOT! Why isn't that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking....

A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it's not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see Web Link ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

Mountain bikers also love to build new trails - legally or illegally. Of course, trail-building destroys wildlife habitat - not just in the trail bed, but in a wide swath to both sides of the trail! E.g. grizzlies can hear a human from one mile away, and smell us from 5 miles away....

Posted by lan, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 9:36 am

lan is a registered user.

Relief. ebikes are a different type of bike altogether. Was recently at Rancho San Antonio and an ebike was 'speeding' through the park, albeit on a paved road. It was rather jarring. Had a deer run in front of the path of the ebike, or a snake, a collision could have easily happened.

ebikes on city streets, sure thing! Hiking and mountain bike trails, nope.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 10:21 am

Alan is a registered user.

I have been startled by e-bikes on regular paved trails by the bay (not in the open space areas). They generally move faster than bikes, making them more startling when they come upon you. If you are going to go out and enjoy nature on trails, at least do it under your own power. I am slightly tempted to get an ebike for travel around city streets - there are times it's a better option than cars. But hiking trails? No.

Maybe they can put places where they can securely lock an ebike at some select trail heads as a compromise - so people can enjoy a ride to the trail head, have a nice hike, and relax as they take their e-bike back. It takes less space than parking a car.

Posted by jhskrh, a resident of Community Center,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 12:01 pm

jhskrh is a registered user.

cyclists who travel at high speeds are more dangerous than those who use an e-bike as power assist to get up a hill. Our e-bikes are very small and we are less of a threat than someone on a scooter. Some e-bikes weigh 80 pounds and are a step below a motorbike. Those clearly have no place on pedestrian trails.

Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 12:05 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

I'm an avid biker and hiker...and I own an e-bike which has been a blessing as I age. I also a donate to Midpen. I strongly support the position taken by the board. e-bikes are heavier. In addition to speed, their greater weight will impact trails more. I'll ride my e-bike on paved roads and trails to get to a good hiking trail, but I won't impose my fast, heavy e-bike on nature or others on on narrow, unpaved trials. That's dangerous for people and bad for wildlife, given the weight and speed of these vehicles. Wise decision. Thanks Mid-Pen for listening to to the public and remembering that your first mission is preservation.

As for the comment the ‘Folks only obey laws they agree with,
and in this case there will be non-compliance." Most mature citizens do observe rules and the law, understanding that they don't know everything, and there may be good reasons for the rule that they don't know about. This was a healthy, democratic process with lots of input from the public might be fun for me to ride my e-bike on those trails, I now understand that would impact nature and other people in ways that I didn't previously know about. I will follow the new rules.

Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 12:09 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Please make sure there are secure places to lock bike and e-bikes at trail heads. Thank you! Then we can bike there, rather then driving.

Posted by Carlos, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 12:19 pm

Carlos is a registered user.

E-bikes is a broad brush. There are e-bikes that are pretty much motorcycles, and there are e-bikes that assist in the enjoyment over hills and covering longer distances. The latter should be allowed where regular bikes travel.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 5:08 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I'm glad to see so many people reading this post, and hope that you found this glimpse into the public process as interesting as I did.

Re @SunnyvaleSenior, if we live in a society where people just obey the rules that they like, then we have some problems bigger than this. Is that called anarchy?

But there's certainly truth that unpopular rules require more enforcement. I remember when Stanford cut back access to the Dish 20 years ago, a wildly unpopular decision. They policed the wazoo out of it, and still do. Midpen board members all acknowledged that enforcement is a problem regardless of what they decide. I think that many felt that "No e-bikes" was actually the easiest to enforce.

@Bystander, from what I heard, if bikes were to require their own trails, there would be many fewer (if any) trails that allow bikes. I think that is why they allow sharing and instead rely on etiquette and speed limits to help reduce conflicts. It sounds like more could be done on that front.

@Carlos, to be clear, the discussion was about allowing Class 1 e-bikes, and only those e-bikes, on unpaved trails. The Class 1 bikes require pedaling and are limited to 20 mph. There was no discussion about allowing Class 3 (max speed 28) or Class 2 (no pedalling needed) on unpaved trails, though some commenters requested it.

Again, thanks all for your thoughts on e-bikes and the role and effectiveness of public engagement more generally.

Posted by Virginia Smedberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jul 11, 2022 at 10:17 pm

Virginia Smedberg is a registered user.

I fully agree with those proposing safe lockup for ebikes (or any bikes for that matter) at trailheads - that would mean a decrease in car traffic, which would be a good thing. People will just have to carry their "other" shoes in a backpack...
I'm glad Midpen decided as they did, and I appreciate their thorough study, and their following their purpose. The differentiation between "park" and "preserve" is VERY important to recognize.

Posted by Joe V, a resident of Birdland,
on Jul 13, 2022 at 10:58 am

Joe V is a registered user.

E-Bikes only belong on roads and paved trails. Hopefully when they share a pave trail with bicycles and pedestrians they will be courteous when passing. I have seen inexperienced E-Bike riders, on paved trails, traveling too fast when passing others who are walking or biking.

Posted by Rossta, a resident of Waverly Park,
on Jul 13, 2022 at 12:24 pm

Rossta is a registered user.

I'm both a hiker and on and off road biker.
I think there are some legitimate reasons for allowing some e-bikes on some trails. Mostly this seems to be allowing older or disabled persons to join a group of more fit friends and be able to keep up. The pace and distance would still be set by the unassisted riders.

However, I don't see any way to reasonably carve out such an allowance. Perhaps such riders would need to obtain a special license or registration for their bike to certify they are eligible and the bike is in compliance and then display a visible tag while riding with their group? That probably isn't very workable nor would it satisfy many of the advocates. I applaud Midpen for taking a cautious approach.

I found the comment bringing up El Corte de Madera apropos. This area was a heavily logged area (hence the name) that then became a motorcycle park. That took a huge toll on the environment with erosion and sediment from that clogging the creeks and preventing salmon spawning in miles of the watershed. Midpen accepted their role over 25 years ago to protect and restore this area as part of acquiring it and they have done an admirable job. It's a great mountain biking area and I am sorry that this means that it isn't as good for hiking. It would be a real shame to backtrack to allowing powered bikes in this area which might then lead to no bikes being allowed due to return of erosion and sedimentation.

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