By Norman La Force, East Bay Public Lands Committee Chair, Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter
Reprinted and adapted courtesy of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter.
One of the greatest joys of living in the East Bay is hiking the trails in the many parks of the East Bay Regional Park District. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vital and important the park system is for people’s physical and mental health. In addition to hikers, mobility-challenged users in wheelchairs, joggers, dog-walkers, equestrians, mountain bikers, and electric-bike riders also enjoy the trails. As stakeholders of this public park system, we have to think about how we can ensure access for all park users while protecting public safety, wildlife, and sensitive habitats.
The Park District has both narrow trails, generally under eight feet in width, and wider trails, which are usually old ranch roads or fire roads. In the early 1980s, the Park District opened up the wider trails to mountain bikes. This gave mountain bikers access to 80 percent of all trails. In addition, in the early 2000s, the Park District created a pump trail system within the Crockett Hills Regional Park specifically for mountain bikers (while nominally being posted and available for hiking and equestrian use too). Meanwhile, through the Park District’s Ordinance 38 process, 30 narrow trails have been opened up for mountain bikers.
According to the Park District’s own survey data, 82 to 88 percent of trail users are pedestrians or hikers, 10 to 12 percent are mountain bikers, and 5 percent are equestrians. The survey data also showed that 80 to 90 percent of trail users favored trails dedicated to pedestrian and equestrian users.
Currently, the East Bay Regional Park District is engaged in a process for evaluating how to manage user access on their narrow trails. This process takes place in the context of the mountain biking community’s call for opening up more narrow trails to mountain bikes, and the Park District’s recent announcement that all new narrow trails will be designed and constructed for all users. The Park District has also proposed allowing mountain bikes on existing narrow trails that are primarily used by the large population of pedestrians as well as by equestrians. That proposal would result in a significant change to the trail experience of the District’s 25 million annual park users.
The “narrow multi-use trails for all” concept raises significant issues. Ample evidence from past experience, both from within the Park District and from other park agencies, illustrates that narrow trails designed primarily for bicycles result in hikers and equestrians avoiding those trails. Likewise, a group of people walking or riding on a narrow trail is often a frustrating experience for a mountain biker who has built up speed going downhill.
The diagram below shows just how tight the situation can become on a narrow trail.
Beginning in 2017, the Sierra Club asked the Park District to create a facilitated workshop of various user groups to see if a consensus could be reached on these issues. Finally, in 2020 the Park Board created the Trail User Working Group (TUWG).
To examine this issue, we ask that the Trail User Working Group provide or address:
- Baseline data on the District’s trail user populations by different interests, trail access by trail miles, trail accident data, trail complaint data, enforcement responses, mapped locations of unopened park properties, and baseline analysis of wildlife and habitat in and adjacent to a proposed route for any narrow trail no matter what users will ultimately be allowed;
- District capacity in place to manage expansion of certain trail uses, including controlling and restoring informal/rogue trails, trail repairs, trail accidents, and enforcement demands within the existing park management demands on operations staff;
- Observable impacts of combining all users on narrow trails in the “multi-use narrow trails for all” proposal. What impacts are there on a trail user’s desire for a contemplative experience (communing with nature rather than worrying about whether a mountain bike is barreling down the trail), birdwatching, observations of other wildlife and plant life;
- E-bike growth: Develop scenarios for managing impacts from the growing presence of e-bikes on park trails where they are not permitted (e-bikes are allowed only on select park trails);
- Trail policy alternatives that will result in constructive solutions that protect the parks’ biodiversity and preserve enjoyable and positive experiences for all trail users.
The “narrow trails for all” proposal that is being floated for all narrow-width trails constructed in the future has yet to be fully evaluated in a public forum. The 31 members of the TUWG can help craft solutions.
You can read the Sierra Club white paper on trail issues here.
You can also let the East Bay Regional Park District Board and staff know of your concerns (and copy the CNPS East Bay Conservation Committee). You can send a letter to the Park District’s mailing address below, or use their online contact form.
East Bay Regional Park District
2950 Peralta Oaks Court
P.O. Box 5381
Oakland, CA 94605-0381
Note from Jim Hanson, CNPS East Bay Conservation Committee Chair:
I’m the CNPS East Bay Chapter representative on the East Bay Regional Park District’s Trail User Working Group, an ad-hoc group of 31 stakeholders who are currently sharing their perspectives on existing and proposed narrow-trail policies. CNPS shares many common interests with hikers and environmental and equestrian organizations looking for a safe and enjoyable trail experience for all. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this subject, I encourage you to contact the CNPS East Bay Chapter Conservation Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— March 2021