A rider on an electric bike in Santa Cruz
Meghein Uhrich-Brown prepares to take a BCycle e-bike out for a spin along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

As speedy, hefty e-bikes become ubiquitous around Santa Cruz, can regulation be far behind?

After a teenager was killed in a Southern California e-bike accident in June, a bill that would put some guardrails on ridership is moving through the State Assembly. Santa Cruz is putting the focus on education for now, but while local officials say they’re well aware of the dangers e-bikes can present, enforcement of any new rules will be a serious challenge.

The average biking speed among users of the cyclist-favorite Strava app is around 12.7 mph, according to its 2021 year-end report. Many pedaling enthusiasts agree that sustaining even a 10 mph speed requires at least some training. Elevating to 20 mph requires riders to battle eight times as much wind resistance, which on a standard, 18-pound road bicycle is an average speed reserved for relatively elite athletes.

I am no elite athlete, but on one of Santa Cruz’s new 50-pound BCycle electric bikes, I can travel 17 to 20 mph without so much as breaking a sweat. All it requires is some light pedaling and a straight, even path. And these fall under the simplest class of e-bikes. The more advanced classes, which daily travel the county’s sidewalks, bike paths and roads, can go faster and require no pedaling.

This ease of speed — the ability to zip to your destination with zero emissions and minimal exertion — is central to an e-bike’s desirability. It is also part of a growing problem. Among local and state lawmakers, it’s becoming clear that the risk carried by the torque and heft of e-bikes puts them in a distinctly different category from a typical bicycle, and should be regulated as such. Although no one has yet been able to definitively agree on how to tighten e-bike rules, the growth in popularity and forthcoming countywide expansion of the local electric bike-share program makes figuring it out an increasingly urgent issue.

Between the launch of BCycle’s bike-share service on June 20 and July 11, the most recent data available, the bike-share system in the city of Santa Cruz has provided more than 10,500 trips, averaging more than 500 trips per day. BCycle has plans to expand throughout the county by the start of 2024.

When I called District 6 Santa Cruz City Councilmember Renée Golder, before I could get any word out following “e-bikes,” she reacted with a loud and frustrated groan.

“When my kids rented them, I actually had to ground them. The bikes go too fast and they don’t know the rules of the road yet,” Golder, who represents a large swath of the Westside and is the principal at Bay View Elementary School, told me. “A ton of kids are riding around on these. It’s so sketchy. It makes me so sad because there is going to be an inevitable tragedy. But tattling on and yelling at kids can only do so much. I think it sucks.”

two students ride an e-bike
Two teens on an e-bike (right) in Long Beach.
(Phil Diehl / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Last month, Encinitas, a Southern California town roughly the size of Santa Cruz, declared a state of emergency around e-bike safety after a pair of crashes killed one teen and severely injured another. A year ago, Carlsbad did the same after crashes involving e-bikes, as well as bicycles, more than tripled between 2019 and 2022.

Although he did not provide data, Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante said the number of e-bike incidents has not yet evolved into a concern for the department. The city’s top cop said he’s heard conversations “among the electeds” about tighter e-bike regulations; however, he said enforcement will be complicated.

“On West Cliff Drive, we now have e-bikes screaming through the trail at 20 mph. That’s a problem, but how do you regulate e-bikes riding on a path that is intended for [a variety of uses]?” Escalante told me. “This is just the beginning. There will be more to come on this. I can see it coming.”

Golder said she would support banning e-bikes from hike and bike paths such as West Cliff, but she wants to see the city put resources behind education before bringing out the stick of new laws. Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker told me he estimates 80% of the city transportation team’s time is spent on bike and pedestrian projects, “all with the primary goal of improving safety.” Since BCycle came to town, the city has doubled down on its e-bike education efforts, working with the company and local nonprofit Ecology Action to host question-and-answer sessions.

State legislators have their antennae similarly tuned to e-bikes. Both states of emergency occurred in Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath’s district; she responded by proposing Assembly Bill 530, which would make it illegal for any child under 12 to ride any class of e-bike. (It is already illegal in California for anyone under 16 to ride a Class 3 e-bike, which cruises at speeds up to 28 mph.) Horvath’s bill would also require anyone over 12 years old and without a driver’s license to test for an e-bike license. The proposal is still moving through the Assembly’s committees.

The e-bike craze has even grabbed the attention of federal bureaucrats. In October, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said e-bike injuries across the country rose 127% between 2017 and 2021, and said the weight, speed and acceleration of the bikes were partially to blame. In May, the commission voted to begin collecting public comments on existing e-bike safety regulations and whether the rules needed to be updated to address the changing technology. The public comment period closed in late July, and a report and decision is forthcoming, though bicycle advocacy groups seem certain that rules changes are ahead.

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley (left) and transportation planner Claire Gallogly set out on BCycle ride-share e-bikes
Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley (left) and transportation planner Claire Gallogly set out on BCycle ride-share e-bikes after the official June launch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whatever happens at the state and federal levels, local governments reserve the option to go even further. Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley said the city’s decision to sign a five-year contract with BCycle for the all-electric bike-share fleet gives the city a different kind of obligation to ensure all e-bikes are used safely.

“I don’t have a predetermined conclusion on where to go with this, but I think the increase in popularity and opportunities beg us to take some kind of look at this before we need to address it in the wake of some kids killed at an intersection,” Keeley told me. “You don’t need to be overly committed to the nanny state to see that. We want to get ahead of it instead of reacting.”

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