The times they are a changin’. And that change soon may be seen on the Kern River Parkway Trail, commonly known as the Bike Path.
Stretching for more than 30 miles across Bakersfield, the Bike Path has long limited use by motorized vehicles. That may change to allow faster electric bicycles and scooters.
It’s an appropriate extension of the popular Bike Path’s use. But it requires careful consideration of how faster motorized vehicles can be safely integrated into a route heavily trafficked by cyclists and walkers.
Last month, the three-member Bakersfield City Council Legislative and Litigation Committee recommended the full council vote to approve opening the Bike Path for e-bike use that includes faster, Class III e-bikes. The recommendation also includes use by motorized scooters and boards.
City staff is drafting an ordinance to be considered later by the full council in consultation with the public.
A “Wild West” opening of the Bike Path would be asking for trouble. But a carefully crafted ordinance that balances demand with safety could result in a fair, equitable use of the Bike Path, which was built with federal, state and local tax dollars.
E-bikes are regulated by state law in 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; and 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.
Depending how much someone wants to pay, an e-bike can be built to hit speeds exceeding 40 mph. But that is not what is being proposed.
For comparison, consider the Spandex-clad cyclists we often see speeding down the Bike Path. According to industry estimates, Tour de France riders achieve 25 miles per hour over 125 miles. But for the beginning, short-distance riders, the average speed is 12 mph. A competent club rider, who regularly trains, likely is traveling at a speed of 20-24 mph.
Without a compatible speed limit placed on e-bikes, e-scooters and the likes, the Bike Path can quickly become dangerous to all users.
But expanding use by a greater range of motorized vehicles is reasonable. Nearly everyone’s tax dollars went into constructing the Bike Path and it’s the Bakersfield City Council’s job to come up with a safe plan to expand use.
E-bike sales are skyrocketing in the U.S. and worldwide. Industry analysts predict the worldwide e-bike market valued at $25.03 billion in 2020 will nearly double to $48.46 billion by 2028.
There are a lot of reasons for this spike and some are pandemic-related. People yearning for a way to get outdoors bought e-bikes. Increased use of delivery services has been supported by e-bikes. Some aging cyclists, who are encountering health problems, have switched to e-bikes to keep rolling down the road. Many riders also just are looking for safer routes to avoid sharing congested streets with large, speeding vehicles.
Coaxing commuters and recreational travelers out of their gas-guzzling vehicles and onto bicycles — traditional pedal, or e-bikes — also is good for the environment. A number of government programs now provide “green energy” incentives to encourage e-bike use.
Bakersfield is not the only city considering opening up its Bike Path to faster motorized vehicles. Several California beach cities and communities throughout the nation are considering rules changes. Last year, the U.S. National Forest Service changed its rules to allow e-bikes on NFS roads and trails. National Parks superintendents now can allow e-bikes “where appropriate on roads and trails where traditional bicycles are also allowed.”
Allowing expanded use of e-bikes on Bakersfield’s Bike Path must be accompanied by setting appropriate speed limits, posting rules, erecting traffic-control barriers and increasing patrols to block illegal use by motorcycles, SUVs and off-road motor vehicles.