On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 2/1/2016
Napa County proposes red tape traps for cyclists
When it comes to issues around cyclists’ rights and their perceived place in the larger community, I sometimes feel as if we’re living in a sort of Groundhog Day movie, where we wake up each morning and find we’re condemned to repeat the same frustrating struggles, over and over. Just about the time we feel we’re making progress and getting our share of respect and understanding and cooperation from the non-cycling world, some boneheaded bureaucrat pops up with another misguided proposal to regulate or persecute or marginalize cycling.
There was the tin-pot dictator in Death Valley National Park who banned most cycling events within the park, as reported in this space in March, 2014, and revisited in a follow-up item in my May, 2015 column. Then there were the proposals out of the California legislature to make helmet use mandatory, along with requiring lights and reflective clothing (beyond what is already required by the Vehicle Code). That one I covered in my March, 2015 column. (On the face of it, you might think making helmet use mandatory makes sense, but if you read my column and follow some of the links I included, you can see that it was a flawed premise as it had been drawn up. The good news in that case is that the legislators who made the original proposals backed off on them, once they found themselves swamped with negative feedback.) There was the proposal for absurdly low speed limits for bikes on the Golden Gate Bridge, covered in this column in May, 2011. (As far as I know, that proposal died in committee, thanks to concerted opposition from the cycling community.) And the case where the Caltrans planners wanted to eliminate bike-lane designation on an important highway with the express intent of intimidating cyclists into not using the road. I weighed in on that one in this column in December, 2010. (In this case, determined pressure from the Sonoma County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee convinced Caltrans to do the right thing and designate the shoulders as bike lanes.) Hard work and righteous push-back have managed to derail most of these anti-bike proposals, but why do we have to keep fighting approximately the same fight, again and again?
Just the other day, someone sent me a link to an item out of Missouri that is so preposterous it seemed like it must be a dark-humor spoof. But no, it’s very real. A Republican state representative there—a non-cyclist, of course—has filed a bill to require all bikes to mount 15-foot tall poles with gigantic flags on the top. If I started listing all the ways this is a dumb idea, it would take up a whole column. For the record, this same pinhead floated a bill two years ago to ban all bikes from all country roads in the state. That bill failed, and I have no doubt this latest, farcical brain fart will fail as well.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The non-cycling bureaucrats never rest. They keep dreaming up new ways for government to hassle cyclists. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole: every time you smack down one silly proposal, another one pops up somewhere else. They always drone on about how it’s in the interest of safety, but what it really amounts to is non-cyclists, with not a clue about what it means to ride a bike, assume they know better than the folks who do ride the bikes or who are the experts…and then those of us caught in the cross-hairs of their bright ideas have to work overtime to quash yet another lame-brained scheme.
I’m not going to lose too much sleep over that knuckle-dragger in Missouri and his crackpot notions, but what prompted me to write this column, and to rant in general about bureaucrats run amok, is another proposal much closer to home. The Napa County Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal on February 2 that would make it much more difficult and expensive to hold any sort of biking events in that county. The proposed restrictions and fees are outlined in a Board Agenda Letter from staff to the Supervisors, dated December 15, 2015. The draft recommends approval.
Among the recommended measures would be substantial fees levied on event organizers to pay for “such activities as sweeping the roadway surface and repairing any damage which may present a hazard to event participants.” Additional fees, as yet unspecified, would be charged for processing any event applications. Cleaning deposits would also be required. There is an additional proposal, not currently recommended but kept on the table for future consideration, of charging a fee of $10 for each participant in an event, presumably to be tacked onto the event’s entrance fee. Also a provision that 25% of all revenue from the event be earmarked for charities in Napa County. All of the fees, collectively, could run to several hundred dollars or even thousands, not counting that 25% slice out of the proceeds. For small bike clubs putting on events at the lowest possible price, these fees could essentially put the events out of business. Ditto for non-profits trying to generate a little fund-raising revenue for a good cause. In fact, some event organizers have already indicated that they will take their events elsewhere if these requirements are implemented.
There are all sorts of red tape tangles to work through if this ordinance passes and if you want to run a bike ride in or through Napa County. I’m not going to itemize them all here. If you’re interested, you can link through to the Board Agenda Letter. The bottom line though is that it will become very difficult for the average bike event organizer to put on a ride in that county. And you know what? I have a feeling that’s a good portion of the intent of the proposal. Not stated overtly. That would never do. But behind all the details in the document, that’s the message…bikes: go away.
I’m astonished that the public works department would propose that bike events cover the cost of routine maintenance along public roads. Hello? That’s what our taxes are for. Of course, they say it’s for the cyclists’ safety. They always say that! The lawmakers and bureaucrats constantly worry about the poor little cyclists on their little toy bikes and how unsafe it is and how we have to make it safer for them…and at the end of that tunnel of logic, it’s the cyclists who have to pay the fees and jump through the hoops and, in one way or another, justify their existence…for taking up two feet of asphalt on the side of the road. Why is that?
Napa County’s public works staff and Supervisors claim they are pursuing this “in response to various concerns which had been raised by the general public.” They don’t specify what those concerns are or to whom the term “the general public” refers. Having been through similar situations in the past, and having become just a bit cynical in the process, I’m inclined to assume the general public in this case represents a few cranky folks calling up their Supes to complain the day after some century ride has put an above-average number of riders on some road they had to use.
We went through this in Sonoma County back in the ’90’s when a few frustrated residents along West Dry Creek Road went to Supervisor Nick Esposti and demanded that something be done to curtail bike events on their road. Esposti was a conservative good old boy who was more than happy to go to bat for the no-bike NIMBYs, so meetings were convened in some conference room in a County office. I was one of the principal representatives for the bike community. It ended up being a tempest in a teapot. Saner heads prevailed and the various residents and stakeholders and politicians and bureaucrats all figured out a way to get along without a new overlay of cumbersome, onerous regulations and restrictions.
In my memory of it all, one of the tipping points was a statement made by the California Highway Patrol Captain responsible for that region. I can’t give you an exact quote, but in essence, this is what he said: “Every day I have to deal with speeders and reckless drivers, with drunk drivers and stupid teen-age drivers. Every day I have to sort out horrible auto accidents with gruesome injuries and fatalities. Compared to all that, the little problems caused by a bunch of cyclists riding along a quiet country road don’t even come up on my radar.” The anti-bike brigade had assumed the law-and-order cop would fall right into line with their position. They were shocked, I think, to find out he had a rather different (and more reasonable) perspective on the matter.
Something very similar happened in Napa County back in the 80’s. It would appear the suits in Napa County have short memories, because the current folks in charge seem to have lost track of that fairly recent history. I wasn’t involved in that one. It was slightly before I became involved in the North Bay scene, so I don’t recall the specifics of the matter. However, what I learned from others is that it was essentially the same scenario: the anti-bike folks got the system cranking with proposals that would ban bike events or make the regulations around them so difficult that the bike events would give up and go away. I don’t know what went on in their hearings or Board meetings or whatever, but the ultimate outcome was that the proposal was shot down in flames. But like some undead zombie, that same anti-bike energy has risen from its grave once again.
The Napa County public works department has identified 13 bike events each year that meet the parameters of this new law. They range in size from under 100 participants to 2400 (presumably the Tour of Napa Valley, the local club’s big century in August). Assuming most of the events are clustered in the sunnier months of the year—May through October—that amounts to about two events per month. Is one event every other week that terrible? Is this such a scourge on the landscape of Napa County as to require a whole new layer of bureaucratic wrangling?
If you’re putting on a race like the Amgen Tour of California, with road closures and all the rest of it, sure…you should be jumping through some hoops. You should be paying reasonable fees and maybe a bit more, giving back to the community. But let’s not forget that most bike events are just a gathering of cyclists using the public roads as they are intended to be used. No one is asking for road closures. No one is asking for traffic control. And most definitely, no one is expecting public works to go out ahead of time to sweep the course or patch potholes or remove weeds along the road shoulders, just for their day in the saddle.
Riders gathering for a century are absolutely no different than members of a sports car club following a suggested route to a group lunch at a restaurant in Yountville. It’s no different than a Farm Trails or Art Trails weekend, where folks drive around to visit gardens or artists’ studios. And it’s no different than the myriad wine tasting events that are happening all over Napa County every weekend…almost every day. Any and all of those “events” generate more traffic and have a significantly greater impact on the roads and communities where they happen than the infrequent bike events. So why are the bike events singled out for special attention? You got it: because the vehicles of choice are bikes, not cars.
In the Board Draft Agenda, there is an item titled FISCAL IMPACT. It’s a simple item. It asks one question: Is there a Fiscal Impact? And the answer is: No. Oh really? Whoever came up with that throw-away line ought to do a little research, perhaps starting with this article. Or try this article…same subject. What both of them say is that cycle-tourists, alone or in larger groups, are good for the local economies where they do their cycle-touring. They tend to be more affluent than the average tourist. They spend more money. They stay more days, and so on. For instance, the first article notes that the State of Oregon has estimated that cycle-tourists account for over $1,100,000 a day in revenue for that state. $400,000,000 a year. That’s a lot of dollars being generated by people who are doing something quite low-impact and “green.” Many states—the article mentions Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Montana, and more—are setting aside largish chunks of money to promote cycle-touring. They see it as a great investment.
A few years back, I addressed this same topic in one of these columns: doing the math on the positive fiscal impact a bike event like a century will have on a local economy. At the time—about six years ago—I figured our local century pumped over half a million dollars into the region’s coffers. Judging by more research I’ve done since then, I think most folks who study these things will say my estimate was too low; that the economic benefits are actually much more robust than that. What with inflation and my initial lowball figure, it might not be too far-fetched to suggest that a bigger bike event might inject a million bucks into a region over the course of that one event. (If you’re talking about a really big event, like a Levi’s GranFondo or an Amgen Tour stage, kick those figures up through the roof…way more money in play.)
So…there are 13 bike events in Napa County each year, each one putting a good chunk of money back into the local economy. It wouldn’t be fair to say they would each generate a cool million in local revenue, as only their one, biggest event is the size my club’s event. They say the average size of their events is 750 riders…less than one third of the 2500-rider event I used in my calculations. So let’s say the events generate a bit less than a third of a million on average. Times 13 events, that works out to somewhere between three and four million bucks of revenue coming into the county, thanks to those low-impact, low-profile events, one every other week for half the year.
Now, in their infinite wisdom, the red tape tanglers of Napa County want to make it more difficult for bike riders to participate in bike rides in their region. Instead of promoting cycling, as other, wiser communities are doing, they appear to be intent on obstructing and stifling cycling. They seem to want to kill the goose that’s laying those golden eggs for them. How on earth can they be that short-sighted?
This rush toward regulations and restrictions is stacked up on the very shaky assumption that there is something wrong with the events going on right now; that somehow, these relatively small trains of riders on any given Saturday morning are causing significant difficulties for society at large. I know these mass bike rides can sometimes create modest conflicts. But most of the time the riders in these events do the right thing and stay out of the way of the folks with whom they share the roads. Most of the time, everyone manages to get along. If you stand back and look at this for just a little while, without any front-loaded prejudice or opinions, you might have to admit that this proposed ordinance is a solution looking for a problem, and that the problem doesn’t really exist.
Napa Valley is one of the greatest tourist destinations in California, indeed in America. On any typical weekend, the county is buried in tourists, from downtown Napa to up-valley Calistoga. If it weren’t for tourists, the whole place would be a remote, sleepy backwater. You would think they’d be a little more savvy about attracting and cosseting their visitors, but apparently that doesn’t apply to the ones who want to explore the valley on bikes. I don’t for a minute think everyone in Napa County is anti-bike, especially not the merchants and hoteliers who gladly accept the credit cards of those two-wheeled tourists. I see this as just another example of politicians and civil servants getting so wrapped up in their red tape that they lose sight of the big picture.
I hope the Supervisors will consider very carefully before putting this ill-advised ordinance on the books.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org