On the beaches of Orange County, the proliferation of e-bikes is causing battles on the boardwalk


When Fred Levine steps from the terrace of his beachfront home onto the crowded boardwalk, a three-mile or so path that stretches parallel to the sand along Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula, he has to remember to look both ways.

“It’s like stepping onto the 405 Freeway,” he said.

Three decades ago, Levine moved into what some call the city’s “war zone,” a nickname given not because of crime, but because of its reputation for summertime rowdy along the boardwalk, which is now home to a plethora of electric bikes. The 8 mph speed limit on the strip means nothing to some of these people, he said.

He’s seen people mowed down, dogs hit and too many near misses to count, he said. City leaders have spent years studying how to control the proliferation of e-bikes along the route, but have stopped banning them.

“What we’re seeing on the boardwalk is chaos,” Maureen Cotton, president of the Central Newport Beach Community Assn., told the City Council at a meeting last year in which she urged officials to address e-bikes.

A sign at the San Clemente Pedestrian Beach Trail prohibits the use of e-bikes in San Clemente.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

While electric bikes have been around for years, their popularity grew during the pandemic, as gyms closed and people sought alternative forms of exercise and recreation.

Their popularity has left Orange County cities baffled as they try to balance the state’s climate goals of getting people out of gas-powered cars with concerns about rider and pedestrian safety. The maximum speed most e-bikes can reach is 20 mph. However, some models can reach 28 mph or higher.

Other California beach towns are grappling with the proliferation of e-bikes and safety concerns. In San Diego, officials responded by banning the use of e-bikes along beach boardwalks. In Los Angeles County, some cities, including Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach, have chosen to restrict them on their beach paths.

In Orange County, e-bike injuries have been on a steady rise since 2020.

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During the first 10 months of last year, staffers at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo documented 198 e-bike injuries. Doctors saw 113 injuries in 2021 and just 34 in 2020, according to hospital records.

Between January and October last year, of the 198 people injured on an e-bike, 78 did not wear a helmet and 99 suffered some form of head injury, data shows.

“My feeling about the whole e-bike situation is that we got a device a little too fast and the culture isn’t quite set up for it,” said Tetsuya Takeuchi, the trauma medical director at Providence Mission Hospital. “It’s a convenient vehicle, it’s environmentally friendly – there are many benefits. But we have to think about the safety of the rider and the safety of the people around them.”

E-bikes have a diverse group of supporters, including parents looking for an easy way to get their kids to school and the Orange County tourism industry, which advertises them as an ideal way to see the coastline.

Electric bikes range in price from about $1,000 for basic models to over $5,000, depending on make, design, and power rating.

E-bikes fall under state law into one of three categories. Type 1 is a pedal-assisted, low-speed bicycle. Type 2 has a pedal and a throttle. Type 3 bikes can go faster — up to 28 mph — with pedal assist, and riders must be at least 16 years old and wear a helmet.

The state allocated $10 million to the California Air Resources Board to help create a rebate program to make them more affordable.

The program, which begins this year, will give applicants who meet certain income requirements a voucher of up to $750 for a regular e-bike and up to $1,500 for a cargo or adaptive e-bike.

In Orange County’s affluent coastal communities, where bicycles are already mainstream, officials are concerned that the increase in injuries they’ve seen in recent years could be a benchmark for the rest of the state.

At CHOC, a children’s hospital in Orange County, doctors last year treated 47 trauma patients who suffered e-bike-related injuries, the most common conditions being concussions, bone fractures, skull fractures and facial fractures, said Makenzie Ferguson, an injury prevention coordinator at the hospital.

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In May, less than half of those treated were wearing a helmet at the time of their injury, she said.

“It’s a little more recent, but there are still a lot of kids who don’t wear helmets,” Ferguson said. “One of the things we always try to teach our families about is mirroring good practices. If an adult doesn’t wear a helmet when they ride an e-bike, most likely their kids won’t either.”

San Clemente city officials banned electric bicycles from their coastal boardwalk early last year after months of complaints from residents who said they had witnessed accidents, speeding and other reckless behavior by people riding e-bikes.

Signs along the dirt trail that runs along the coastal railroad tracks in town warn of a $100 fine for using an electric or pedal-assist bicycle on the beach or trail.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a few motorcyclists flouted the rule. Others, like 62-year-old Max Jones, whose electric bike was parked next to him as he relaxed on the sand by the pier, say they use their e-bikes on city streets to get to the ocean, but not use them on the trail.

“When I first saw the sign I thought it was ridiculous,” he said, adding that while he hates the e-bike regulations, he blames the people who behaved badly and “it ruin it for everyone.”

A few miles south at Trestles Beach, on the outskirts of San Clemente, e-bikes are unregulated and often used by surfers dragging their boards down the Cristianitos Road path to the sand.

“It’s useful to hop on your bike and hurtle down the trail,” said Scott Farnsworth, 57, of San Clemente as he unloaded his surfboard from his van in the parking lot above Trestles. “I’m really aware of the safety issues people have, but I wish there was a better solution than banning them.”

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Even after the ban along the beach path, San Clemente officials are still looking for ways to improve e-bike safety citywide, Mayor Chris Duncan said. Ideas include adding more bike lanes and possibly running a training program.

“I’m just extremely scared that we’re going to have a major accident involving a kid on an e-bike,” he said. “These are powerful devices and with the good benefits come dangers that we need to recognize.”

Concerns about e-bikes have also crept into communities in southern Orange County, where people of all ages use the bikes to navigate the hilly terrain.

Lake Forest set e-bike speed limits of 10 mph on the street or 5 mph on sidewalks. In Aliso Viejo, e-bikers can only go 5 mph on the sidewalk. The bicycles cannot be used in commercial centers or city parking lots.

In Irvine, teens who whiz past pedestrians on mall sidewalks, wearing helmets and ignoring traffic laws have caused consternation among neighbors.

In October, Irvine City Council asked staff to look into possible regulations the city could issue for e-bikes. Police have conducted bike safety classes, high visibility enforcement operations and discussions in schools to emphasize helmet wearing and obeying traffic laws, but they are still exploring what else can be done to regulate the bikes, Sgt. Karie Davies said.

“Parents are often unaware of the class of e-bike they have purchased for their children and the requirements to be on those bikes,” she said. “We’re trying to keep up, but there are more e-bikes than cops.”

An electric bike on the way to Trestles Beach near San Clemente.

An electric biker rides along the San Onofre State Beach Trail at Trestles near San Clemente.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

In Newport Beach, the city has been trying to crack down on speeding bikes with boardwalk ambassadors who aren’t police, but patrol the boardwalks and piers to educate cyclists. It is an effort that, according to residents, does not solve the problem.

“They say to slow down, but what is that going to do? They slow down when they pass them or they give them the finger and move on,” Levine said. “If they really want to fix something, they should issue tickets and enforce the speed limit.”