Marin County bicycling boosts economy but locals worry about impacts

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Thousands of cycling tourists flock to the trails and roads of Marin County. And while they pump dollars into the tourist economy, unauthorized use of protect nature areas, blocked trails and riding at unsafe speed are leading bike tour companies and cities to look for solutions.

“Marin is very impacted when it comes to accessing bike trails. We don’t go somewhere unless we’re authorized to be there. For example, we don’t ride in Marin Headlands because it is an ecologically sensitive area,” said Craig Wilson, owner of EcoBike Adventures, a Redwood City-based business. He brings riders from San Francisco, the peninsula, and the South Bay to Marin County for three to four-hour tours on electric bikes.

Sam Bolster, general manager of the San Rafael branch of Mike’s Bikes, a local bike store, said Marin County considers itself “the birthplace of mountain biking.” Fairfax is even home to the Marin Museum of Bicycling and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Yet there’s a high number of residents who cycle do not often welcome visitors.

“Our stores offer a number of free group rides. The Sausalito branch of Mike’s Bikes has a 26.5-mile group ride every Wednesday called “Col de Pantoll.” The group goes up the coast and up Mount Tam. We typically hold a little BBQ after the ride. I’ve seen between 50 and 100 people at a group ride during summer months,” said Bolster.

Cristina Torresan, communications manager for Marin County Parks, said there have been concerns about out-of-area visitors blocking driveways and failing to abide by local parking restrictions.

“In many of our Marin County Open Space District preserves where people like to mountain bike, there’s no off-street parking. The reason we don’t market or promote cycling tourism much is because there is limited parking. We want to discourage mountain biking on social trails and other trails not signed for bike use. In most instances there are erosion and safety concerns, as well as habitat to be protected.

Juli Vieira, president and CEO of the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce, said Sausalito sees approximately 200,000 cycling tourists a year.

“The high season is April through September, with July and August being the months where we see the most riders. Cycling tourism has a significant impact on our infrastructure, including our first responders,” said Vieira.

She said a high number of cyclists rent the bikes in San Francisco and travel to Sausalito over the Golden Gate bridge. Most do not stop to buy more than an ice cream cone.

There are a number of areas where out-of-the-area cyclists are welcome.

Stafford Lake, a 139-acre county park in Novato, is home to the Stafford Lake Bike Park. The Bike Park, which is in the first phase of construction, consists of a Wilderness Trail Bikes Perimeter Trail, the Mike’s Bikes Progression Zone, with beginner, intermediate, and advanced trails, a maintenance trail that allows access to the upper areas of the park, and the Kid’s Learn-to-Ride Zone.

The Bike Park will eventually expand to 17 acres in the northwest segment of the 139-acre recreational property.

“We actively promote visitor use of this park. We always encourage visitation and there’s ample visitor parking. The track has expert-level jumps and allows kids to grow into features,” said Torresan.

ENSURING A SMOOTH RIDE

“Eighty percent of my customers are corporate clients. I reach out to companies who want to do team building. They bring between 10 and 20 employees who want to visit attractions like Angel Island and Sausalito. We’ll often use the ferries, putting bikes on boats to Sausalito and Tiburon. They often add an entertainment package on top of the tour where I pre-book their group for drink and hors d’oeuvres at a local restaurant,” said Wilson.

He said the maritime atmosphere “seals the deal” for many customers. They particularly enjoy bonding over food and drink at the end of the ride.

“One of the most redeeming features of Marin is the harbor scene. That oceanside, high-end feel you get when you’re right on the water, that’s where the magic happens.”

COMPANIES NAVIGATE MARIN

Sara Terrien, owner of Sausalito-based Chain Chain Chain Marin County Bike Tours, said she stays in business by offering custom tours that avoid difficult routes like the climb to Muir Woods National Monument or Mount Tam.

“A favorite route begins in Sausalito and circles the Paradise Loop, followed by lunch at Rustic Bakery in Tiburon. I try to steer visitors away from the misconception that riding to Muir Woods is an easy ride unless you are skilled in climbing and descending hills, and comfortable with auto traffic,” said Terrien.

Terrien, who conducts tours mainly on the weekends, said her visitors tend to be from other countries and states. While planning her routes, she keeps her focus on natural attractions.

She is concerned by some of the large-scale, cycling tourism she has seen in crowded commercial and residential areas like Sausalito.

“Cycling tourists can bother homeowners and vendors when riders barrel over the sidewalks or ride several abreast. Drivers complain of being nervous (when they navigate) by tourists or large groups on bikes,” said Terrien.

Nicki Clark, owner of Marin Outdoor Adventure, a bike tour company based in Muir Beach, said sustainability is “at the forefront of my business.”

“I typically take out very small groups of one or two people to bike at places like Mount Tam or Tennessee Valley,” said Clark.

Clark said she has many international customers who are looking for challenging rides.

“People love the views and the coast. They underestimate what they thought it would be. When they get to the top, they’re blown away. Climbing together in a foreign country creates lasting memories,” said Clark.

A WELCOMING ATMOSPHERE

At the Mill Valley-Sausalito multiuse path (MUP), a 3.7-mile bicycling and pedestrian path that runs from Mill Valley to Sausalito Riders coming in from San Francisco, riders tend to travel at higher speeds than the MUP’s 15-mph speed limit. There are sections of the MUP where the maximum speed is 10-mph because these areas have higher pedestrian traffic.

Deborah Alley, chair of Mill Valley’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said the city and Marin County are addressing excessive speed with enforcement, encouragement, and engineering. In addition to Miller Avenue streetscape improvements completed in 2017, Mill Valley will complete connectivity from the MUP by way of Miller Avenue to a Class II bike lane on Camino Alto. Camino Alto is the primary segment that connects the MUP to Corte Madera. The connection will be complete in 2019. It will encourage faster cyclists to move off the MUP, particularly in areas where the maximum speed on the MUP is 10 mph.

“There are a lot of community members on the MUP who are kids, so they’re younger and are moving slower than faster riders. The MUP is also adjacent to some sports facilities like Bayfront Park. We want to ensure safety in these areas,” said Alley.

David Eshoo, formerly an associate engineer for the Mill Valley Department of Public Works, said improvements for the MUP are on the way.

“Riders will be able to come from Corte Madera over the grade and come out into the Camino Alto corridor. Then they can bypass the portion of the MUP that is near soccer fields and playgrounds where there might be children and dogs. The improvements will be made in spring and summer 2019,” said Eshoo.

Jim Welte, director of membership and engagement for the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has done a great deal to promote spending at local businesses.

“We’ve worked with Marin County Parks on projects like creating visitor signage for the MUP. The signs are at the MUP roundabout and at the cutoff to Tam Junction. (They point) people to Miller Avenue, downtown, and Tam Junction, respectively. These signs direct visitors to Mill Valley shops and restaurants,” said Welte.

Welte said there have been “great results” from the signs, which are coupled with information provided by staff at the Mill Valley Visitors Center. The visitors center is located at the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce office at 85 Throckmorton Ave.

“We get people stopping all the time to ask for a recommendation for an Italian restaurant or a place to buy local apparel,” said Welte.

Welte said there’s been very little local pushback on cycling tourism in Mill Valley.

“(This is) largely because the city of Mill Valley has invested in making it safer to travel in Mill Valley on two wheels,” said Welte.

Welte said Mill Valley has not had a broader conversation about cycling tourism with other communities or chambers of commerce in Marin County.

“That’s because communities in Marin are distinct. For example, Fairfax and San Anselmo are the gateway to the north side of Mount Tam. They may see cycling on the mountain differently than we do here on the south side. But we all share our deep respect and appreciation for how much a draw Mount Tam is for cyclists,” said Welte.

Welte said although Marin residents may have different perspectives on cycling tourism, residents generally support the idea of making cycling safer.

“The cycling culture is deeply ingrained in Marin. There’s pretty broad, widespread support for creating more bike-centric facilities in Marin,” said Welte.

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