Newport council debates enforcement vs. banning electric bikes on boardwalk

Hundreds of people visit the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk in Newport Beach on the Fourth of July in 2014.
(File Photo)

Newport Beach is considering banning electric bicycles from the oceanfront boardwalk in the interest of public safety.

Power-assisted bikes are popular, especially for people who don’t have the pedal power they once did. They’re also heavier, harder to stop and faster than traditional bikes — often too fast for the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk’s 8 mph speed limit — and are sometimes ridden recklessly by people on the crowded, multipurpose concrete path at the sand’s edge.

“Poor user behavior,” said Brad Sommers, a civil engineer for the city.

The City Council didn’t make a decision when it met this week on the topic of whether to ban all electric bikes on the boardwalk. It will pick up the discussion at a later date.

The fastest class of e-bikes is already prohibited from the narrow path, along with surreys, motorized scooters and skateboards. But like surreys, electric bikes are readily available for rent at Newport’s many tourist-serving seaside bike shops.

Councilwoman Diane Dixon, whose district includes the Balboa Peninsula, said she is frustrated by people consistently ignoring regulations on the boardwalk, which she said has a capacity issue.

“I’ve been on the council six years and this is probably the sixth year we’ve been having a study session on this topic,” she said.

Ruthie Matson, a fourth-grader at Newport Elementary School, rides her bike to school along the boardwalk. She said she once asked a speeding e-biker to slow down and he told her to shut up.

“There has not been a day where I haven’t seen an electric bike going way too fast on the boardwalk,” said Ruthie, 10. “I have almost been hit several times, which makes me really nervous when I ride my bike, because I don’t want to get hurt. I also worry about little kids crossing the boardwalk and getting run over by an electric bike.”

Mike Kattan, who lives along the boardwalk at Sixth Street, was on his way to dinner when he was struck by a hit-and-run electric cyclist. He broke his hand and suffered permanent damage.

“I’m not an engineer… but it’s simple weight and momentum,” Kattan said. “If a little kid jumps out [in front of] a regular bike, there’s a 10-inch skid mark. These things can’t stop in 10 inches.”

Jan Cobb, who lives on the boardwalk between 30th and 31st streets, said he owns, and loves, his electric bike.

Speed is the real problem, he said.

“The skateboards are going too fast, the e-bikes are going too fast, the people on their 10-speeds are really going too fast,” Cobb said. “Everyone is going too fast. The only way to solve this problem is to have more officers out there patrolling the boardwalk.”

“You’re not going to get rid of e-bikes, just like skateboards. They’re just out there continuously” and there aren’t enough police officers to control them, he said.

Don DiCostanzo, founder of Fountain Valley-based electric bike manufacturer Pedego, said electric bikes initially appealed to older people. But abuses by younger riders are putting senior citizens at risk of losing their privilege to enjoy assistive bicycling technology.

He said banning the bikes on the boardwalk could be worse for safety because it would push the riders onto the street with cars.

“We’d like to work with the city for finding workable solutions for improving safety, but let’s not punish the law-abiding citizens,” DiCostanzo said.

Councilman Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, who has extensive knowledge of electric conveyances — his namesake pleasure boats — said throttling instead of pedaling, and torque, are the key differences with traditional bikes.

“It’s like a light switch,” he said. “It’s not like your car that has to struggle before it gives you the power. Electric bikes develop 100% torque now. It’s not in a minute or a second or two.”

Duffield owns an electric bike and says they’re fun for leisurely cruises to enjoy the scenery.

“However, it’s very apparent to me that those days are over,” he said.

The bikes are getting more affordable and will get more common. If police can’t handle the problem with enforcement of existing rules, the city has to do something stronger, Duffield said.

Councilman Kevin Muldoon said he would support boardwalk speed bumps, but not a ban on electric bikes.

Mayor Will O’Neill also leaned away from a prohibition, which could exclude people with disabilities from the boardwalk. He agreed that the problem needs enforcement.

“Just because something gets to 60 mph faster doesn’t mean you ban it,” he said, comparing a Tesla with a Honda. “It means that you make sure they’re not going over 60 mph.”

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