Tom Robbins is 73. Until his mid-60s, the Thousand Oaks resident was an avid cyclist, riding both mountain and road bikes. But eventually, he says, his knees wore out.
After multiple surgeries to address the pain in his joints, he found himself out of shape and unable to take part in the sport he loved.
Then a friend recommended he try an electronic bicycle, or e-bike, which provides a boost when the user pedals. Robbins said the extra bit of assistance made it possible for him to ride the Conejo Valley’s trails like he used to.
“It’s easier, but it’s still not easy,” he said. “It’s been a lifesaver.”
E-bikes are allowed on trails controlled by the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, a joint powers authority between the City of Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Recreation and Park District. COSCA maintains more than 150 miles of trails passing through 12,400 acres of open space in and around Thousand Oaks.
Matt Kouba, CRPD’s park superintendent, said COSCA is experimentally allowing pedal-assisted bikes on local trails. He said open space officials took the Conejo Valley’s aging population into consideration when weighing whether to allow the power-assisted devices.
“At my age, mid-50s, I don’t think I could ride my mountain bike up Space Mountain, but with an e-bike, I can still get out and enjoy it,” Kouba said.
Robbins’ wife, Elayne Haggan, is president of the Conejo Open Space Foundation, a nonprofit that helps maintain local trails and educate the public about the area’s open spaces. She said she’s grateful e-bikes have helped her husband exercise again.
“It’s gotten him back in shape,” she said. “It’s a great way for people with mobility issues to get outside and get healthy.”
But not all e-bikes are created equal and not all are welcome on COSCA trails.
Class 1 e-bikes are pedal operated, do not have a throttle and have a top speed of 20 mph. Class 2 e-bikes have throttles and Class 3 e-bikes have throttles and can travel up to 28 mph. Riders must be 16 years old and wear a helmet to operate a Class 3 bike.
Only Class 1 e-bikes are allowed on COSCA trails, Kouba said, and riders must follow the speed limit.
“The speed limit is whatever’s safe,” he said. “But technically it’s 15 mph.”
Kouba said he hasn’t heard any reports of enthusiasts riding prohibited types of e-bikes on trails or of any accidents involving e-bikes on local open space. But e-bikes aren’t welcome everywhere.
Craig Sap is superintendent of California State Parks Angeles district and is based out of Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas. He oversees local state lands including Point Mugu State Park, Liberty Canyon Nature Preserve and Boney Mountain State Wilderness.
Last fall, he closed backcountry trails and roads in the Angeles district to e-bikes, although they are still allowed in developed parts of the parks, like camp grounds. His superintendent’s order, which took effect in October, said the restriction was aimed at protecting wildlife and cultural resources as well as the safety and welfare of visitors and the staff.
“The dramatic growth and popularity of electric-assisted or propelled bicycles within the Angeles district is impacting the unique trail and backcountry experiences afforded by the district,” Sap said, “E-bikes are an emergent technology generally inconsistent with the park experience that may have negative impacts on the special resources and regional wildlife found within the district.”
He said the restriction brought state park regulations into alignment with those of other agencies, including the National Park Service.
Federal law classifies e-bikes as motorized vehicles, and they are prohibited on all NPS trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area as well as trails managed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
Sap’s order will remain in effect until the California State Parks Department of Parks and Recreation adopts statewide e-bike regulations.
Linda Coburn and her husband, John Tajiri, run Pedego 101, an e-bike store in Westlake Village.
Coburn disputed Sap’s claim that e-bikes threaten natural resources. She said data shows that e-bikes have no significant impact beyond that of conventional bikes.
Tajiri said he’d like to see the state parks system develop comprehensive e-bike regulations that would overturn current restrictions.
While e-bikes are allowed on COSCA trails, riders must still proceed with caution, because local trails often intersect with state and federal lands.
“ It’s a big patchwork,” he said. “You never know if it’s OK.”