April 8, 2020
Jay Calhoun, Regulations Program Manager
National Park Service
849 C Street NW, MS-2472
Washington, DC 20240
Subject: Comments on Proposed Rule titled “General Provisions; Electric Bicycles”
Dear Mr. Calhoun:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,800 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group, we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural, cultural, and historic resources.
We have many concerns about the proposed regulations to authorize the use of e-bikes across the National Park System. Not the least of our concerns is NPS’s admission in the preamble that more than 380 units of the National Park System are already allowing e-bike use. Yet the rulemaking is now necessary to change existing NPS regulations at 36 CFR §1.4 in order to redefine bicycle and to define electric bicycle so that e-bike use is, in effect, actually legal in parks. Obviously, NPS’s approach to this process (i.e., allowing a use before regulations have been amended to make that use legal) is fundamentally flawed. It is neither legal nor appropriate for the NPS to use the park compendium and the superintendent’s discretionary authority under 36 CFR § 1.5 to override existing NPS regulations in other sections of 36 CFR.
However, at this point we will limit our initial comments to the following two concerns:
We request that NPS immediately defer the rulemaking until after the nationwide COVID-19 crisis subsides.
We are bitterly disappointed and, frankly, astounded that the NPS is proceeding with this electric bicycle (“e-bike”) rulemaking in the midst of the nationwide COVID-19 crisis. Rulemaking on a non-urgent policy issue at this time is both unnecessary and inappropriate. Rather, NPS should focus its attention on addressing critical employee and visitor safety concerns as the contagion spreads. For example, some parks remain open today despite the overwhelming evidence that the virus can and is being transmitted in many ways, including by asymptomatic individuals already infected with the disease.
It is galling that NPS and the Department are proceeding with this rulemaking now despite receiving multiple requests to suspend all proposed actions requiring public comment during the COVID-19 national health emergency. For example, these requests include the following:
March 19, 2020, letter to the Secretary from 90 conservation organizations (including the Coalition) requesting that the Department suspend “all public comment periods in recognition of the National Health Emergency.”
April 3, 2020, letter to the Secretary from Senators Wyden, Merkley, and Udall urging“the U.S. Department of Interior to immediately stop pursuing any policy proposals or actions unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency that require a public comment period until the threats of COVID-19 have subsided.”
April 3, 2020, letter from Senators Rosen and Cortez Masto requesting that Interior suspend upcoming public comment periods, indefinitely extend currently open public comment periods, and suspend any new non-emergency regulations so that the public may have a sufficient opportunity to participate in the notice and comment rulemaking process.”
April 3, 2020, letterfrom the Coalition to David Vela, Acting Director of NPS, specifically requesting that “NPS delay initiating the eBike rulemaking process until at least next fall or as long as necessary until the effects of the pandemic begin to subside.”
No doubt there have been other common sense appeals to the Department or NPS to hold off on all non-emergency rulemaking and management proposals unrelated to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Initiating this rulemaking now speaks volumes about NPS’s and the Department of the Interior’s contemptible pursuit of its special interest policy agenda during a time of national crisis. You all should be ashamed of yourselves!
The NPS should defer the rulemaking until it has prepared a programmatic NEPA review to evaluate potential adverse impacts of the rulemaking.
As described in the NEPA section of the preamble, “A detailed statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) is not required because the rule is covered by a categorical exclusion… Many units of the National Park System already allow the use of e-bikes where traditional bicycles are allowed [under the respective supertintendent’s compendium]…The Policy Memorandum required those units to evaluate the environmental impacts of allowing e-bikes under NEPA…. the impacts potentially caused by the implementation of the Policy Memorandum were limited only to those impacts from e-bikes that differ from the existing impacts of traditional bicycles. As a result, for most units a categorical exclusion (CE) has applied.”
We are particularly disturbed by NPS’s contention that since e-bike use is already occurring in many parks under the guidance of the Policy Memorandum that somehow constitutes a pre-existing use that has already had an adequate NEPA review of its potential impacts. A spot check of some of the park compendiums and CE’s reveals that few, if any, parks have actually taken a hard look at the differences between conventional bicycles and e-bikes. There has been no comprehensive review of the abundant scientific literature related to e-bike use; no systematic analysis of potential user conflicts and safety concerns related to e-bike use in a park setting or on “shared use” (i.e., bicycle/pedestrian) trails; no mitigation measures to minimize those impacts; and no evaluation of design safety guidelines for bicycle trails and shared use paths. By segmenting the service-wide implementation of its e-bike policy into literally hundreds of smaller actions, NPS has, in effect, neatly avoided conducting a necessary and thoughtful NEPA analysis of the potential impacts of introducing e-bike use onto existing park bicycle trails, including shared use trails.
While e-bike use is a relatively new and growing phenomenon in the United States, electric bicycles are already hugely popular and widely used in many other countries. As a result, e-bike use has been much more studied overseas than in North America. Regardless of where the studies were conducted, there are important lessons to be learned from the abundant literature that is available. We will briefly mention some of the scientific literature here to illustrate our concern that parks, in their individual analyses, have not given ample consideration to potential and foreseeable user conflicts and safety concerns related to e-bike use. We will comment more extensively on this in our full comments to be submitted at a later date.
The majority of studies we’ve seen document that the average speed of a rider on an e-bike is faster than that of the same rider on a conventional bike. For example, a 2015 Swedish study found that on mixed bicycle/pedestrian trails, the “sites with the highest proportion of electric-assisted bicycles and racer bicycles [road bicycles] also had the highest average speeds.” A 2019 Brigham Young University study of electric mountain bikes (eMTB) found that “the average speed of travel [over a controlled loop course] on the eMTB was 4.1 mph (6.6 km/h) faster than on the conventional mountain bike.” A 2014 Dutch study found that “[i]n simple traffic situations [such as on bike paths, rather than on bike lanes] elderly cyclists rode an average 3.6 km/h [2.2 mph] faster on the e-bike than on the conventional bicycle.”
Other studies indicate that the severity of accidents on e-bikes is more serious than accidents on conventional bicycles. For example, a 2014 Dutch studyfound that “after controlling for age, gender and amount of bicycle use, electric bicycle users are more likely [than conventional bicycle users] to be involved in a crash that requires treatment at an emergency department due to a crash.” A 2015 Swedish study looked at the relative risks (i.e., the number of “conflicts” or accidents) involving e-bike use compared to conventional bicycle use in both roadside bike lanes as well as on shared use trails. Not surprisingly, the study found “the reason [for more frequent and serious conflicts involving e-bike use] may be the higher speed and lower maneuverability of electric bicycles, which may make any evasive maneuver more challenging. Electric bicycles may require wider bicycle lanes with a higher curve radius to facilitate safe interaction with other vulnerable road users.” Similarly, other studies suggest that accommodating the growing popularity of e-bike use may require significant bike trail infrastructure improvements (such as trail widening) to ensure the safety of mixed-trail users. There is no doubt that the higher speed capability of e-bikes is a key factor in these many safety and infrastructure concerns.
.We could go on citing many more studies with similar findings. Despite such a large volume of literature related to e-bike use, there is no evidence that parks already allowing e-bike use have ever considered any such studies or developed an appropriate mitigation strategy to minimize these kinds of conflicts. Suffice it to say that e-bikes allow riders to travel faster and farther with less effort, and that difference in speed capability can lead to user conflicts and safety problems unless e-bike use is properly managed and NPS limits such use to bike trail infrastructure that is designed for such use.
We are particularly concerned about NPS allowing e-bike use on shared use trails without conducting a proper NEPA analysis of the potential impacts or a systematic evaluation of the adequacy of NPS bicycle trail design to safely accommodate the proposed use. For example, in the various park compendium analyses we’ve seen, there has been no mention of the ASSHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities or the American Trails Shared Use Path Design guidelines, both of which recommend the paved tread on shared use paths should be at least 10 ft wide, with a graded shoulder at least 2 ft wide on either side of the path. On shared use paths with heavy volumes of users, tread width should be increased to a range from 12 ft to 14 ft. In addition, shared use paths should not exceed a grade of 5%. How many NPS bike trails actually meet these safety guidelines?
Our observation has been that many NPS shared use paths, in fact, do NOT meet the widely accepted AASHTO design safety guidelines for bicycle facilities. Yet there is no indication in any of the analyses that NPS has conducted an assessment of its existing bicycle facilities to determine which shared paths, if any, currently meet bike trail width and grade design recommendations and therefore may be able to safely accommodate additional use by e-bikes.
In light of the serious nature of potential conflicts of e-bike use described above (due in large part to the difference in speed capability of e-bikes), it is shocking that NPS apparently thinks the potential for user conflicts and safety concerns related to e-bike use on NPS bike trails is so minimal that any further NEPA analysis is not necessary. We strongly disagree for the many reasons described above!
Given that there had been no authorized e-bike use in parks prior to the issuance of the NPS e-bike policy, before allowing such use with only a cursory analysis, it would have been prudent of the NPS to conduct a thorough literature review and a thoughtful analysis of potential impacts related to e-bike use. Such a review would have considered bike trail design and safety guidance, as well developed a list of mitigation measures for superintendents to consider. Given the outright superficiality of the hundreds of park compendium analyses, a proper NEPA review is yet to be done. Now that NPS is undertaking rulemaking to codify e-bike use across the National Park System, it is essential that NPS prepare an appropriate NEPA review before issuing a final rule, rather than treating e-biking as an existing use that has already been adequately studied.
The nature of the proposed rule, which would provide the general regulatory structure that paves the way for hundreds of units of the National Park System to allow e-bike use on existing mixed use trails, is particularly suited to a “programmatic NEPA review.” As described in Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) guidance, “a programmatic review may be appropriate when…adopting official policy” such as “rulemaking at the national-level…The programmatic analysis for such as decision should include a road map for future agency actions with defined objectives, priorities, rules, or mechanisms to implement objectives.”
In other words, coincident with this rulemaking, NPS should prepare a programmatic NEPA review of the potential impacts of introducing e-bikes onto existing NPS bike trails. The review should include a reasonably thorough assessment of the extensive literature related to e-bike use in circumstances comparable to existing NPS infrastructure. The review should also develop general guidance, such as design safety criteria and mitigation measures, which individual parks can then incorporate into their respective local e-bike decision documents. Lacking such a programmatic NEPA review to tier from, it simply is unrealistic of NPS to think that hundreds of parks would have the staff resources and expertise to conduct adequate analyses on their own.
In closing, the Coalition is open to the idea of NPS allowing some level of e-bike use in parks under appropriate circumstances; and with effective management controls that will minimize potential user conflicts and ensure the safety of park visitors. However, we are adamantly opposed to NPS proceeding with this rulemaking, as proposed, without conducting the proper planning and NEPA analysis necessary to support a defensible decision.
Because of these concerns, we urge NPS to postpone the rulemaking until after the COVID-19 crisis subsides in this country. Instead of allowing e-bike use in “over 380 parks” then retroactively trying to revise the regulations to allow such use, NPS should suspend e-bike use in parks until the rulemaking has been completed. And, last but not least, instead of segmenting the action (of allowing e-bike use across the National Park System) into hundreds of smaller actions at the park level, NPS should follow CEQ guidance and prepare an appropriate programmatic NEPA review as part of the rulemaking process.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
cc: David Vela, Acting Director, National Park Service
Mike Reynolds, Acting Deputy Director for Operations, National Park Service