Orange County Cities Struggle To Handle Electric Bike Regulations
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Orange County Cities Struggle To Handle Electric Bike Regulations

Nov 11, 2023

Cities throughout south Orange County are increasingly adopting new rules limiting how and when residents can use electric bikes following concerns from residents about their high speed and potential for accidents.

While the earliest e-bikes began to show up during the 1990s, they didn't really become popular until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down gyms and other forms of exercise people had relied on previously.

"For nearly 23 years, the USA electric bike market was tiny compared to the Asian and even the European electric bike market," wrote Ed Benjamin, founder of the Electric Light Vehicle Association, a group that lobbies in support of e-bikes, in July 2021. "Now, the limit on the USA market is the performance of the supply chain."

But the biggest problem faced by local leaders is the fact that anyone can get an e-bike, and there aren't many restrictions on what you can do with it.

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E-bikes don't require a license to drive, but accidents have a higher rate of injuries and hospital admissions according to a legislative report from the state, which also noted most of the accidents came when 10-14 year olds were behind the wheel.

Currently, there's no way to track how many accidents there are in Orange County because both regular bicycle and e-bike accidents are grouped together according to OC Sheriff's spokesperson Carrie Braun.

If cities don't adopt their own codes on how they’re managed, riders follow the same rules already laid out for regular bicycles according to Braun, despite the two vehicles moving at very different speeds.

While the issue is one that's been tackled by over half a dozen cities in Orange County, different cities have adapted different sets of rules on how people can use bikes.

Mission Viejo and Newport Beach allow e-bikes that go 28 mph or less to share the roads like regular bicycles, but ban them from going above the bike's speed restrictions.

Under state law, e-bikes fall into one of three categories.

Types 1 and 2 are available to anyone, with type 1 only allowing for pedaling while type two has a pedal and a throttle, but both bikes are limited to going under 20 mph. Type 3 bikes can go up to 28 mph with pedal assistance, and you have to be at least 16 years old to ride one.

Any bike that goes beyond 28 mph is no longer street legal, which is becoming a common occurrence as the bikes are very easy to modify, with dozens of YouTube videos showing how to remove the speed restrictions imposed by the manufacturers at low or no cost.

Newport has specifically struggled to curb accidents on the boardwalk, passing new rules in 2020 with a staff report in Aug. 2022 showing that for every regular bicycle that got stopped for speeding on the boardwalk, two e-bikes were stopped in the first six months of the year.

According to the staff report, cities have a few other options to curb the problem, including restricting the bikes from certain paths and trails or establishing a city licensing program.

But in that report, city staff also pointed out that banning the bikes altogether hasn't worked in most places, stating there was "low compliance in other jurisdictions," and "no community consensus," on an outright ban.

While the restrictions have taken a lot of different forms, residents have largely been onboard with the changes, pointing out they want people to be safe while still having access to e-bikes as an option.

One of the biggest public discussions on the role of e-bikes came in 2020, when Newport Beach talked about potentially banning them from the city boardwalk, which saw over 350 emails to the council, most of which asked to ban the bikes.

"People are getting hurt on a regular basis," said resident Denys Oberman. "We have an unsafe, hazardous situation with the boardwalk."

On the other end, some residents said the problem is with the driver and that they should focus on ticketing speeders.

"Electric bikes are not the problem. It is just people who speed," said resident Mike Glenn, who lives right on the boardwalk. "This is a lot like living next door to a highway, being afraid you can't walk on the highway, and then asking to ban all Lamborghinis because some people are speeding."

Other cities have implemented speed restrictions that go beyond just limited areas.

In Lake Forest, you can't go faster than 10 mph on public streets, or 5 mph if you’re driving on the sidewalk and city trails.

In Aliso Viejo, you can only go 5 mph on the sidewalk, but there's nothing written in the city's rules about speed limits for the bikes on the road, with codes stating it should be a "prudent," speed.

Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, said while speed limits can help, the best method to help cut down on potential accidents is more comprehensive bike training in an interview with Voice of OC.

"Starting early and teaching those competencies around bicycles requires education," McLeod said. "You don't get that experience from a half hour presentation where someone tells you how to wear a helmet."

McLeod also pointed out that on major roads, ebikes can actually promote safety by giving riders the chance to respond faster to cars.

"I think it's important when we talk about speed and safety we keep an eye on the most dangerous things on our roadways, which are cars, trucks and SUVs," McLeod said. "I’ve heard many people say they need faster e-bikes, whether that's going 20 or 28, so they can keep pace with traffic and ride on roads that don't have bike facilities."

Some cities are just getting started with potential restrictions, with Irvine discussing potential limits at the end of October.

Some cities have also taken to banning high speed bikes from public hiking trails. San Clemente banned any e-bikes on the city's beach trail, and while slower ones are allowed on inland trails, the class 3 bikes aren't allowed to be driven on any trails.

Read: San Clemente Bans E-Bikes on Beach, Pier and Coastal Trails

An update to rules for e-bikes doesn't appear to be coming in the near future either, with Voice of OC unable to locate any state bills referencing a change in how the bikes are handled as residents try to figure out what works best for their communities.

San Clemente resident Patrick Brashear, who described himself as an "avid," e-bike rider, said the inland trails and his e-bike are one of the main ways he got exercise during the Covid-19 closures.

"Without the assistance of my e-bike, these trails would be out of my reach," Brashear said at the council's January 2022 meeting. "Please do not take this healthy outlet away."

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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