By Shawn Raymundo
Amid complaints and concerns from residents over the growing use of electric bicycles on the Beach Trail, the council will consider lowering the speed limit for riders, as well a handful of other potential rules for riding on the coastal path.
During a special meeting that the Beaches, Parks and Recreation (BPR) Commission held on Tuesday, Jan. 12, members finalized a short list of recommended rule changes meant to tamp down on what many classify as reckless behavior from e-bike riders in San Clemente.
The list, approved in a 5-1 vote, proposes that the speed limit for e-bikes be reduced from 10 mph to 5 mph. It also recommends that Mariposa Bridge be added to the list of locations where riding is prohibited and also calls for new signage telling cyclists to yield to pedestrians.
“If we add Mariposa to the list of bridges that you can’t ride on, you have to walk on, and then we drop the speed limit down, I do think that people who want bikes gone will be satiated enough and the bike riders will be grateful they haven’t been banned and will be respectful of the speed, knowing that a ban could happen,” said an optimistic BPR Commission Chair Steve Streger. “That may be how our community works together.”
Another recommendation asks the council to add e-bikes as a specific reference in the municipal code related to the uses of cycling, skateboarding and other activities on the Beach Trail and Pier.
City code currently imposes a 10-mph speed limit on e-bike users. E-bikes can be ridden on the beaches and the Beach Trail throughout much of the year, but from June 15 through Labor Day, e-bike use is prohibited.
Users are also prohibited from riding an e-bike year-round along the Montalvo Bridge and the Riviera Bridge, or on the heavily trafficked asphalt section of the trail, at the base of the San Clemente Pier.
And in San Clemente, only Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes, which are rated at 20 mph, are permitted on the trails and generally throughout the city. However, Class 3 e-bikes that can reach 28 mph are prohibited from the city’s trails.
The finalized list of recommendations to the council is the culmination of discussions among commissioners, who were tasked in the fall to work with the Public Safety Committee to update regulations for e-bike uses on the Beach Trail, inland trails and in city parks.
This past October, the city council directed the two committees to collaborate on the draft regulations after receiving numerous complaints “related to dangerous behaviors and recklessness from individuals utilizing e-bikes on city trails.”
The move to update the e-bike regulations comes more than two years after the city council first amended the ordinance, which had, among other things, prohibited the use of e-bikes on the beaches.
In 2018, the commission had proposed an 8-mph speed limit, but the council believed such a rule would be too hard to enforce, deciding instead to maintain the 10-mph limit while giving enforcement discretion to park monitors and officers with the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP), San Clemente Times previously reported.
Noting that he had suggested the lower speed limit two years ago, Commissioner Richard Ayer said he supported a 5- or 6-mph limit, “because it’s quite clear if someone is going over 10 mph versus less than 10 mph.”
“I think if someone wants to get somewhere on a bike, there are a lot of options in this city; there’s the Beach Trail, there are pathways through the city. If they want to ride down to Trestles, they can do so. If they want to ride down to T-Street or Lost Winds, they can do so,” he said. “They don’t have to charge 20 mph on the Beach Trail with two sets of boards on their bikes.”
Regarding the crux of the matter, commissioners and Public Safety Committee members expressed two schools of thought as to what has caused the problem: the popularity and growing use of e-bikes, as well as the attitude of e-bike riders who aren’t respecting others.
Stating that e-bikes have grown in popularity is an understatement in the U.S., which has seen a boom in sales over the years, according to market researchers. Forbes reported last month that about 130 million e-bikes are projected to be sold between 2020 and 2023.
“It seemed like we didn’t tackle the issue of e-bikes two years ago or three years ago because they weren’t an issue,” Ayer said. “I think we’re kind of dancing around this elephant in the corner, which are e-bikes. E-bikes are causing the problem. Not guys on bikes, not kids on bikes.”
That same sentiment was also shared by Joe Janis of the Public Safety Committee when both commissions met for a joint meeting last month. Janis had noted that e-bikes were only going to become more prevalent in San Clemente.
“Within a year or two, every household is going to have an e-bike … so we’re going to continue to see them grow,” he said. “The more bikes we see on the Beach Trails, the greater the hazard we have. We see it now while we walk the beach. If the bike is passing walkers, the people coming the other way have to either slow down or step off the trail to let them by.”
In the same meeting, fellow Public Safety Committee member Nick Berkuta supported the e-bike user argument, stating that “it’s a problem of individual behavior; it’s not the e-bike. It’s the person riding it.”
He later noted that many teens and kids, who would likely be getting e-bikes for Christmas, don’t often know the safety regulations while riding. He suggested an increase in education and outreach to address the issue, such as having deputies with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department partner with school clubs to offer safety programs.
On Tuesday, Bernie Wohlfarth, who sits on the BPR Commission and was the sole no vote on the recommended rules, said he, too, believed the issue was a matter of the users, but he explained that riders who are disrespectful of others make up a minority.
“I don’t think that e-bikes are the problem. I think it’s the disrespect of people that’s the problem,” he said, later adding: “I’ve seen too many respectful people use the trail with bikes to be in good conscience … it’s a minority of folks who are being disrespectful … we cannot legislate respect.”
Speaking with SC Times last week, Pete Van Nuys, executive director for the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, said he would like to see the city ban e-bikes from the Beach Trail if it means bicycles can continue using the path.
Van Nuys said he’s seen e-bike users riding at excessive speeds and “threading the needle through pedestrians” on the Beach Trail, creating safety hazards.
“That’s the kind of stuff that scares pedestrians and generates complaints and has nothing to do with anything but behavior,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people on e-bikes have demonstrated that they can’t use good judgment, and if it calms things down, and means e-bikes have to be banned from the Beach Trail, then so be it.”
Richard Benjamin, owner of Trestles Electric Bike Company, noted that San Clemente has become saturated with e-bikes over the years, which, he stressed, can be a good thing for mobility and traffic. But regarding their use on the Beach Trail, he raised similar points to Van Nuys, while also taking it a step further.
“Well, I’m one of the few guys—and I get in trouble with this with the other e-bike guys—but I think the Beach Trail, there should be no bicycles or e-bikes on them during the daytime,” he said, explaining his rationale. “It’s too narrow, it’s too crowded, and you’re never going to have those two things work together.”
For those on the city committees, an all-out ban was essentially out of the question, particularly after hearing from the city’s public safety heads last month.
San Clemente Police Chief Lt. Edward Manhart, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Rob Capobianco and Code Compliance Manager Adam Atamian explained to the committee and commission members that they haven’t seen an influx of reports related to collisions or injuries resulting from e-bikes.
Manhart said that he wasn’t aware of any accidents involving e-bikes to which deputies have had to respond. But, he noted, “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”
“I haven’t received reports of injury traffic collisions of a bicyclist striking a pedestrian and/or a bicyclist striking another bicycle,” he said.
According to Capobianco, OCFA doesn’t specifically track e-bike accidents, but he said that among the 23 bike accidents in San Clemente reported to the department within the past nine months, “two of them were specifically related to e-bikes.”
“That doesn’t necessarily capture all of them; that just happens to be where they were in the comments (of the reports) themselves,” he said. “So, it’s definitely a cursory review of our bike accidents for San Clemente. We don’t track them specifically.”
Atamian also explained that he hasn’t seen the types of incidents that are being reported by citizens.
“I haven’t really gotten the reports that e-bikes are a detrimental impact to the trail users,” Atamian said. “There might be parts of the years where the trail is used more than others, and the e-bikes can create a nuisance … but as far as actual violations go, I don’t have any information that tells me there’s an overwhelming, significant problem.”
Touching on any potential talks of a ban on e-bikes on the Beach Trail, Manhart said he’d first like to see the data that supports such a rule.
“I would like the commission to have evidence to back that up, just to justify that you’re going to prohibit those on the trails,” he said, later stating: “I want to work with you and the community to address those concerns, but I do have a concern of just a pure banning because people don’t like them. I’m not sure that would be justified, due to the lack of documentation to support it.”
The city council will pick up the discussion on the BPR Commission’s recommendations at an upcoming meeting.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.