Could e-biking solve tourism, environmental concerns?


Zingaro rides an e-bike on the path near his shop, Stealth Tahoe in Truckee, California. Below: A class one commuter-style e-bike. | Photo credit: Gabby Dodd

Gabby Dodd, Managing Editor

Zingaro rides an e-bike on the path near his shop, Stealth Tahoe in Truckee, California. Below: A class one commuter-style e-bike.
| Photo credit: Gabby Dodd

The year is 2099. The first view people see driving over Echo Pass is a heavy layer of smog sitting over the once-pristine Lake Tahoe Area. The pass hasn’t seen snow in more than a decade and the population of South Lake Tahoe has quadrupled in size. The lake’s water is warm. Cigarette butts and other trash floats in the waves. The water is murky, yet people still crowd the beaches. On the north side of the lake, a red glow reveals yet another wildfire. This is how environmental reporter Ezra Romero envisions the worst-case scenario for Lake Tahoe by the end of the century in his podcast, Tahoe Land.
Romero’s scene may not be too far off if Lake Tahoe continues to fall victim to climate change. A report by the University of California, Davis shows that more precipitation in Tahoe is falling as rain instead of snow. This is helping fuel negative environmental changes, along with a growing population which results in more pollution, use of resources, and of course, more people traveling.
Statistics from the Tahoe Fund show that more than 20 million people visit the lake each year and that number is expected to increase as cities that are relatively close to Tahoe like Sacramento, San Francisco, and Reno continue to grow.
“We’ve had issues with our sewer system being overloaded causing spills and that shouldn’t be happening because there’s just too many people in town,” said Joseph Hill. He works at the Incline Village General Improvement District, one of the agencies grappling with balancing tourism and the health of the environment. “We also get an influx of traffic during those peak times which can have an impact on the things people are bringing into the basin like particulates that can come off of people’s cars.”
While tourism can pose a threat to Tahoe’s fragile environment, it is also the very industry that sustains Tahoe’s economy. Data and statistics compiled into the Tahoe Prosperity Center’s Community and Economic Indicators for the Lake Tahoe Basin show that in the 2015-2016 season, annual transient occupancy taxes brought in more than $16 million in revenue to the North Shore alone.
“Squaw would not be putting in all these nice high-speed chairs for me to ride on Tuesdays if it wasn’t for all the money they made on the weekend,” Sierra Nevada College outdoor leadership professor Daryl Teittinen said.
Without that money, Tahoe could lose the institutions working to protect the lake. Drawing the line between healthy tourism and too much tourism remains a debate.
“We have to find that balance between enjoying this place in a responsible way so it remains for future generations to enjoy as well,” Jesse Patterson with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, said.
E-biking, a growing trend in the biking industry, could curb one major environmental concern for the Tahoe area; pollution from cars. And it can potentially create economic value through tourism while also catering to the local community. E-bikes are electric motor-assisted bicycles that offer the rider the ability to expand their effective travel range while decreasing their carbon footprint.
Even though e-bikes get their charge from traditional sources of electricity, such as coal, hydro, wind, solar, etc., data from Cynergy E-bikes’ website shows that an electric bike uses less than 2% of CO2 per mile compared to a car if the energy used to charge comes from a combination of renewable and non-renewable sources, or around 4% if the user relies off mostly coal as an energy source.
“One of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in our region is transportation,” Devin Middlebrook, Sustainability Program Manager at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said. “A lot of our focus is getting people out of their cars.”
TRPA is currently working on a bike path that will eventually go all the way around the lake. Since the completion of the Incline Village to Sand Harbor section, environmental analysis is currently underway for the Sand Harbor to Spooner Summit section, as well as a feasibility study for the west shore. The hope for these trails is to increase miles traveled by bike and foot, while decreasing traffic. E-bikes may be a big part of that evolution.
Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City is rapidly noticing the growth in popularity of e-bikes. From 2018 to 2019, their e-bike sales have tripled.
Phil Abernathy, e-bike guru and shop technician for seven years at Olympic Bike Shop, believes e-bike popularity is increasing for three main reasons: First, customers who come from motorcycle backgrounds are now looking to get into the forest more or access trails that are normally closed to off-highway vehicles (HOV). E-bikes are also now attracting the 40s age demographic that have mostly given up on cycling – e-bikes create less demand on the body. Most distinctly Abernathy says, is the growth in e-bike use in people 50 and up who are already cyclists and had a partner who once cycled. E-bikes are helping them get back out on rides together.
“Our tourists come to us going ‘Hey, we want to do this trail we’ve heard so much about it, it’s beautiful, but we also have mom with us who’s not the most active but she does know how to ride a bike,’ And we say ‘Perfect, this is the bike for her and then mom can go with the family.’” Abernathy said.
The shop has eight rental e-bikes as a part of its fleet. “In the entire month of August, about four e-bikes a day had a reservation and another two would be gone in the first two hours of us opening,” Abernathy said. “As opposed to three years ago where we only had two e-bikes and they would sit in the rack all day.”
City e-bike companies such as Jump, which allows users to rent e-bikes from an app on their phone to get across town, are largely popular in areas like San Francisco and Santa Cruz. By not having big e-bike companies in Tahoe, Abernathy believes it benefits local bike shops around the Basin because city bike riders already have an understanding of e-bikes and find that they can go into a bike store in Tahoe to rent them. However, whether these types of e-bikes would work well or not in Tahoe remains a controversial issue. “Those opinions and how they vary are its own sense of turmoil on e-bikes,” Abernathy said.
Anthony Zingaro, president of Stealth Tahoe, started the electric bike company based out of Truckee in 2016 when he noticed there weren’t any stores that specialized in electric bikes. While their storefront is too small to be able to handle rentals, Zingaro has seen a large interest from the local community buying the electric bikes for commuting to work or using the bikes to come back from an injury.
“To commute on an e-bike all summer you save so much on gas and insurance,” Zingaro said.
But, since e-bikes are still new to the market, understanding access and the class system is important.
“One of the challenges we have in the Tahoe Basin is because we have two states, five counties and the forest service and state parks, there’s an inconsistency in the rules,” Middlebrook said. “A bike path could go a mile and pass three different land ownerships, so one of the things we are doing right now is working across the Basin with all of our partners to create consistency with the rules around e-bikes.”
Class one e-bikes are pedal-assist only, no throttle and can reach a maximum speed of 20 mph. These are the most common that Zingaro sells at Stealth Tahoe.
Class two e-bikes also reach a maximum speed of 20 mph but are throttle assisted. These are popular for commuting and are allowed on bike paths in California.
These were the most popular bikes sold for locals in the summer of 2019 at Stealth Tahoe. Class three e-bikes are similar to class one. They do not have a throttle, but they can reach speeds up to 30 mph through pedal assist.
“There is some form of management on how these machines are used and how they are allowed to access wilderness areas and not create tension between traditional riders or hikers or whatever it might be,” Abernathy said.
If a bike does not fall into one of the three class systems, then it is classified as a moped or an electric motorcycle. When customers come into bike shop around Tahoe, they are educated on the class system and where they can and cannot ride.
Some conservation groups are fighting to keep e-bikes off non-motorized trails in federal land systems for fear of future issues with trail regulations after e-bike riders attempted, but were denied the ability to ride at Acadia National Park early this summer.
“Since it is still new, every rider is an advocate for it and if people want them to stick around then people need to learn about them and treat them with respect just the same way that mountain biking was when it came out too,” Abernathy said.
While e-biking access is a controversial issue between some groups, it’s popularity continues to grow and shops are seeing the benefits it provides to customers.
“We have a customer who is 85 and rides it from Truckee to Cisco Grove and then he rides it from Truckee to Tahoe City, Kings Beach and then back to Truckee,” Zingaro said. “If he didn’t have an electric bike, he wouldn’t be doing that.”