E-bikes will remain banned from Mount Tamalpais for the rest of 2020, but that could change next year.
After nearly two hours of lively discussion on Tuesday, the Marin Municipal Water District Board of Directors decided to delay a decision on whether to allow electric bicycles on its 90-mile network of fire roads on the Mount Tam watershed.
District staff proposed to allow “class 1” e-bikes — pedal-assisted e-bikes that can reach a top speed of 20 mph — to use fire roads the same as traditional bikes for up to three years as part of a trial run. The test period would allow the district to gather more data on any impacts e-bikes may have on the environment and others who use the 22,000-acre watershed.
While the district had been gathering public input on the idea for almost two years, many board members said the plan was “putting the cart before the horse” and called for more specifics on how e-bike rules would be enforced and what impacts they might have.
“It seems backward to me,” said Jack Gibson, the board president. “It seems to me that we need to work through all of this. We need to find out what part of this or all of it the board might be able to agree with, get some of the details in place and then open it up to e-bikes, not the other way around.”
The board asked its staff to bring back more information for its watershed committee hearing set for March 18, including data 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.
Staff found the proposal would be exempt from state environmental laws because bicycles are already allowed on fire roads. The district also allows people with disabilities to use e-bikes in the watershed.
“Once you start taking the threads apart of e-bikes, there is a lot of technical and legal issues that we need to work through,” board member Larry Bragman said. “They’re not impossible but they need to be put on the table, they need to be considered, and I think we need to go through it a little bit more methodically before we act.”
The board also questioned the ways it could enforce e-bike regulations and distinguish one class of e-bike from another. Ideas for creating specialized tags or license markers were suggested by board members.
Other than having a thicker frame, e-bikes can be difficult to distinguish from traditional bikes, both in appearance and noise, without a closer inspection. Class 2 e-bikes reach the same speed as class 1 e-bikes but have a throttle on the handlebars. Class 3 e-bikes are pedal-assisted bikes that can reach a higher speed of 28 mph.
In 2016, the state passed a law recognizing class 1 and 2 e-bikes as traditional bicycles but gave local public agencies the ability to add restrictions on their trails and roads.
Staff proposed to increase the district’s ranger staff beginning in 2022 to address enforcement concerns, though the number of rangers has yet to be determined. The district also plans to begin a multiyear process to create a “watershed recreation plan” meant to review all uses of the watershed and consider adding or changing existing rules. Board members questioned why the district would allow e-bikes before putting these other two plans into effect.
A crowd of e-bike supporters and detractors joined the board’s online meeting on Tuesday to make their case.
Philip Pillsbury, a 71-year-old Ross resident, described himself as a “scofflaw” when it comes to riding his e-bike on the watershed. A citizen advisory group created by the district has been discussing the same issues the board has raised for nearly two years and has not found any glaring issues, he said.
“There is no data that these bikes have been dangerous to anyone,” Pillsbury said. “None of that data has been collected, which is why this committee and why staff is recommending that we allow bikes there.”
Amy Ferhart and other speakers said they have had injuries, medical procedures or other impairments that prevent them from being able to ride in the watershed without pedal assistance from e-bikes.
“Most of us are good people that want to access the beautiful trails and nature, so I want you to vote yes,” Ferhart told the board.
Opponents of the idea included environmental groups, hikers and other ratepayers who raised concerns about e-bikes causing further erosion on the watershed, e-bikes threatening the safety of other trail and road users and the lack of enforcement capabilities.
David Long of the California Native Plant Society Marin Chapter said allowing e-bikes would be unenforceable and would create a “Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.”
Watershed Alliance of Marin president Laura Chariton presented a petition opposing e-bikes on the mountain, saying, “When enjoyment, access and recreation of one group affect the enjoyment, access and recreation of another group, that’s a problem, and that’s what we’re fighting.”
People on both sides of the issue used the coronavirus pandemic to argue their case, either stating it was the perfect time to get more people outside or the worst time to be bringing more people to the watershed.
Board member Cynthia Koehler said while there might be frustration on how long it has taken the board to make a decision on e-bikes, Tuesday’s meeting was the first time they have been able to discuss this important proposal.
“We’re not kicking the can down the road,” Koehler said.
The water district’s newest board member, Monty Schmitt, urged expedience in making a decision and setting a clear timeline on when any regulations would be put into effect.
“I can see there is a long history here and the frustration is only going to get worse, but people are already riding on the watershed,” Schmitt said. “We can’t waste time.”