by Sebastian Squire
Graphic by Yiying Zhang
The East Bay is home to some of the most accessible and beautiful open spaces in California: from Shell Ridge to the east of downtown Walnut Creek, to the sprawling Las Trampas in Alamo, and the majestic Mount Diablo in Clayton, Pittsburg, and Danville. While on the surface these places seem like a haven for bikers, the reality is much more complicated. Local regulations bar cyclists from most trails less than eight feet in width. Many cyclists opt to violate these regulations and ride on the narrower, singletrack trails which can have negative impacts on the environment and endanger other open space users. This has caused tensions between the biking, hiking, and equestrian community to run high.
“I’ve been stared at, yelled at, and even spat at by angry hikers,” says Nathan Walker, a Las Lomas Junior and avid cyclist who goes biking in the open space two to three times per week. According to a 2018 survey of 700 open space users, 48 percent of users were bikers, 25 percent were hikers, 5 percent were equestrians, 18 percent were dog walkers, and 4 percent were none of the above categories. The survey also shows that mountain bikers have more ‘discouraging encounters’ with hikers, while all other groups had a majority of negative experiences with bikers. Walker believes that opening more single track trails and removing a mandatory speed limit of 15 miles per hour are steps the city could take to help amend the situation. Walker commented, “If singletrack is illegal, yet is being ridden, there are bound to be conflicts between bikers and hikers/equestrians. By opening a few bike specific singletracks, less riders would feel the need to seek out illegal trails.” When asked about the issues of safety around biking on narrower single track trails, Walker responded, “I’ve never felt that the narrowness of the trails limits my control. Non-mountain bikers might have a hard time understanding why singletrack is all we want to ride, but trust me, it’s no fun going 15 [miles per hour] down a dusty fire road after a grueling climb.”
Officials maintain that cyclists pose a danger to other open space and regional park users, in addition to causing damage to geological features, plants, and animals living in the parks. A spokesperson for the City of Walnut Creek Open Space Division said, “Cyclist[s] can have a negative impact on trails by increasing erosion rates. Cyclist[s] widen single tracks which damages plant life that grows on the edges of trails. Heavy bike use on trails can also discourage wildlife from using the same trails or areas around trails.” The spokesperson spoke of other dangers to trail users, “Bikers who do not yield, follow proper trail etiquette, and ride at a safe speed can put themselves and other users in danger and risk causing an accident or collision.” The scope of the problem is large, with daily reports of cyclists skirting regulation. Frequent violations lead to “the number one complaint from users [which] is that bicyclists are riding on single tracks.”
Re-elected City Council member Kevin Wilk said that the issue of biking on more single track trails “needs to be discussed with environmental groups as well as the Open Space Commission and rangers. Biking can harm the environment, and we need a review before we can support more open trails in the Open Space.” Recently elected City Council member Cindy Darling said, “I know many mountain bikers want access to some single track rides and if we can find the money to maintain them and can find places where there aren’t conflicts with equestrians and hikers, I’d like to give them that access.”
Walnut Creek and surrounding cities host substansial road biking and commuter biking communities in addition to mountain bikers. Both city council candidates have acknowledged the need for more biking related infrastructure such as bike lanes. Wilk says that his vision for the future of biking in Walnut Creek is the implementation of “the Transportation Master Plan [that has existed for] 10 years, and now there is a biking master plan created when I was on the [Transportation] Commission…My vision would be to begin completion of that biking plan and prioritize the projects so we can see improvements immediately.” Darling hopes to “continue to encourage biking as both recreation and as a great Earth friendly commute option” during her future term on the City Council. Darling points to her campaign’s effort to “included numerous bike lanes [using] the West and North Downtown Specific Plans.” Darling also hopes to increase safe storage options for commuters to store their bikes and “would pursue the idea of ‘complete streets’ which means that we find room on streets for all modes of transportation…bikes, pedestrians, [and] cars.” Wilk explains his campaign’s effort to build biking related improvements, such as one “on Lincoln near the library, which will include a dedicated bike lane.” In the future, he hopes to help add similar improvements to “several neighborhoods that can be included within the city, including the Homestead, Rudgear and Larkey areas.”
Walker urged bikers to follow the existing regulations, even if they perceive them to be unfair, saying “Groups such as the [Bicycle Trail Council of the East Bay] stress the importance of following the rules for safety as well as in order to maintain a positive image in the eyes of the land management [officials].”