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E-bikes gaining traction, officials question how to regulate

Washoe County’s Parks and Community Services departments created the Trails Management Program to find some e-bike solutions.
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INCLINE VILLLAGE, Nev. — E-bike popularity has quickly grown in the Lake Tahoe Basin, and many officials are still trying to find the right balance of regulations for safe recreation. 

In South Lake Tahoe, there are no regulations on e-bikes on walking paths, which are not considered to be motorized vehicles by the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. The reasoning is because they do not meet the definition of a motor vehicle. There are three types of classes of e-bikes which regulate speed differently, reaching up to 28 MPH at Class-3. 

“The irony is any regular bicycle can go as fast or faster depending on the rider’s effort,” said SLTPD Sgt. Doug Sentell. “So, while the e-bikes are limited in what the bike will assist with, they too, can go faster. Speed limit signs could help give people a reasonable speed limit boundary.” 



Since e-bikes aren’t classified as motor vehicles by SLTPD, e-bike vs e-bike, or e-bikes vs pedestrian collisions, are not taken as a report when they happen. 

Incline Village resident Pamela Straley learned the same goes for Caltrans and the Placer County Sheriff’s Office when she said she was taken out by a rider on an e-bike while riding her own bicycle in September while riding between Alpine Meadows and Tahoe City on a bike path. She suffered 10 fractures, a broken hip, and multiple wounds and injuries, one of which put her in a neck brace. 



“I would call this a catastrophic injury,” said Straley. “Caltrans wouldn’t respond. Placer County Sheriff’s Office would not respond. No officer came, so we have no incident report.”  

In Washoe County, Commissioner Alexis Hill has first-hand experience with e-bikes, as she is a rider herself. But issues with speed on pedestrian and bicycle paths is something that pushed her to become a commissioner. 

“I have been aggressively tackling safety issues with e-bikes since essentially I was elected because I got to Incline a lot and I was walking on Lakeshore Boulevard with some community folks and there were e-bikes on the trail just whizzing by us,” Hill said. “I was walking with seniors and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to figure out a way to slow these down and separate them from pedestrians.” 

Hill explained that Washoe County’s Parks and Community Services departments created the Trails Management Program to find some solutions. 

Trails Program Coordinator Christina Thayer is working on an audit of Incline Village trails to determine if there is a good co-existence of pedestrians and e-bikes, or if there needs to be an investment on the streets to separate them. This work is possible through a new ordinance that was passed that gives Washoe County the ability to restrict e-bikes on trails. 

“I certainly don’t want to prohibit them, but I want to see how we can all coexist,” Hill said. 

The new ordinance also allows for park rangers to cite those who ride the bikes too fast or unsafely. Hill hopes that the collision that occurred in Placer County with Straley is something that can be avoided in the future through work with local law enforcement. 

“If they’re on the trail and they’re not on the road, law enforcement doesn’t take that on,” Hill said. “So the problem with that is that you don’t have an official government report or even a way to see if there are e-bike accidents in your community and if you should be proactively removing them from certain trails because of safety issues.” 

Hill is working with the Washoe County Sheriff Office to create a policy around creating incident reports for off-road e-bike collisions, and also keep statistics in order to better manage the trails, along with the use of county park rangers to enforce regulations. 

The classification is different from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which determined that motor assisted bicycles through electric, gas, or diesel power are motorized vehicles. They are allowed on National Forest System roads and trails that are designated for motorized use, as well as approximately six miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail in the Spooner Backcountry. The Tahoe Rim Trail is not open to motorized use otherwise. 

“The Forest Service has a long tradition of supporting multiple uses and access to the public land the agency manages,” said LTBMU Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Herron. “E-bikes absolutely allow more people to enjoy their National Forests and grasslands. The technology has the potential to include older/disabled Americans and attract more diverse uses to explore their public lands in a socially and ecologically responsible way.” 

The LTBMU currently manages approximately 25 miles of trails that are open to Class 1 e-bikes. Currently, a Basin Wide Trails Analysis Project is being proposed, which would designate approximately 120 additional miles of trail as motorized, open to Class 1 e-bikes through several actions including existing trail reclassification and new trail construction, according to Herron. 

This proposal would not include designation on any section of TRT for e-bike users. 

When incidents happen with e-bikes, including people riding in non-authorized areas, education is one of the biggest tools to help mitigate problems. 

“In most cases, Forest Service law enforcement officers prefer to educate the public rather than issue tickets or fines,” said Herron. “In some cases a warning may be issued. We understand the challenging management situation this can use in areas of adjoining/shared boundaries. The Forest Service is committed to listening to the people we serve to better understand their needs as well as providing them seamless experiences across boundaries as allowed by law.” 

Although e-bikes have raised some concern for safety, studies do not indicate significant adverse trail impacts caused by e-bikes that are not caused by traditional bikes as long as the e-bikers remain on the trails, according to TRTA Outreach and Marketing Coordinator Kate Gallaugher. Even though e-bikes are not allowed on the TRT, Gallaugher agrees that the growing industry is opening a whole new world for those who couldn’t experience biking before. 

“E-bikes allow for increased accessibility to remote areas of trail,” said Gallaugher. “Someone who is not usually able to walk or ride that distance can reach places on the trail with an e-bike that they would not otherwise be able to access, keeping their connection with nature.” To learn more about the LTBMU Basin Wide Trails Analysis Project, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54566.

Miranda Jacobson is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sun. She can be reached at mjacobson@tahoedailytribune.com.


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