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E-bikes on the Kern River Bike Path could become a high voltage debate — or not

The signs at the edges of the Kern River bike path have laid down the law for more than 35 years:

"No motor vehicles or motorized bicycles," they warn.

But in 2021, as electronic bikes, or e-bikes, become more popular and their use more widespread, the city of Bakersfield is considering taking down those signs and giving the green light to electronic bicycles on the paved bike path.

"Times are a'changing," said Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales.

As a member of the council's three-member Legislative and Litigation Committee, Gonzales and fellow councilmembers Chris Parlier and Ken Weir discussed the issue at a committee meeting Monday. They watched a PowerPoint slideshow provided by the city attorney's office, and heard public comment on the question.

In the end, Gonzales and Parlier voted to recommend that the full council open use on the bike path for e-bikes in even more categories than is regulated by state law. The addition of motorized scooters, boards and other vehicles are also included in the recommendation.

"E-bikes weren't around in the '70s. Technology is advancing," Gonzales said. "It's our job in government to respond to the world as it changes and unfolds."

Their votes didn't come without opposition.

The Kern River Parkway Foundation, co-founded in the 1970s by Rich O'Neil and longtime friend Bill Cooper, has long stood in opposition to all motor vehicles and motor-assisted bicycles on the paved trail.

Despite that history of opposition, O'Neil said, the group proposed a compromise Monday which would have limited the class of e-bikes allowed on the path to those that top out at 20 miles per hour.

State law breaks e-bikes into three categories:

• Class I: Equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance once the bike has reached 20 mph.

• Class II: Equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance once the bike has reached 20 mph.

• Class III: Equipped with a speedometer and a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance once the bike has reached 28 mph.

According to O'Neil, the speed limit on the bike trail is 15 mph, although it has never been posted or enforced because a necessary speed study has not been done.

"The Parkway Foundation offered a compromise to allow Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes on the path with some mitigation," O'Neil said.

"We proposed slowing down traffic to 10 mph in the four parks where children play on weekends," he said.

Those parks include Beach Park, Yokuts, Truxtun Park and The Park at River Walk.

E-bikes that advertise speeds of 32 mph, 45 mph and faster are already on the market. And O'Neil worries that should the council accept the committee's recommendation, adults and teens as young as 16 — the minimum age for unlicensed e-bike riders — will not only endanger walkers and cyclists on the path, but will encourage riders to travel off-trail through sensitive habitat for plants and animals, some of them endangered.

Longtime cyclist and cycling advocate and educator Zac Griffin attended the meeting Monday. He noted the city provided three options to the committee:

• Option 1: Amend municipal code to clearly allow all e-bikes and other motorized uses (expressly naming Class I/II/III e-bikes, motorized scooters, boards, etc.).

• Option 2: Amend the Code to clearly prohibit all e-bikes and other motorized uses.

• Option 3: Amend the Code to allow only specific motorized uses, for example only Class I e-bikes and motorized scooters, expressly prohibiting all others.

The committee opted for the most wide open option.

"I supported choice No. 2," Griffin said.

"I want to advocate for safe use, and to have rules that our police force can enforce," he said.

For the next step in the process, city staff will prepare proposed ordinances and return them to the committee for review. Because the current city ordinance is unclear, the language must be clarified, regardless of any policy decisions the full council makes.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.