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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2020

Cycling in Place

This is another column on the virus and how it affects our cycling lives. I have waited until the last possible days to write it because circumstances are changing on an almost daily basis. In particular, we who live and ride in Sonoma County have been waiting to see what the County Supervisors and Chief Medical Officer would come up with in revising our Shelter in Place ordinance, which they have been hinting about for a few days. Those revisions went into effect this morning (April 29). But before bringing things up to date with those amendments, I want to go back to the early days of the crisis to recall how we got here.

Last month I mentioned that my annual Apple Cider Century, scheduled for March 21, had to be cancelled, first as a simple bit of prudence but also because the county had announced—around March 15—its first foray into the world of staying at home and social distancing. As we all know, the Bay Area was way out in front on implementing such restrictions. The fact that medical and political leaders were so proactive with their measures—even though they seemed extreme at the time—is now credited with keeping the virus from running rampant through our communities. 

When officials announced their restrictions, they allowed county and state and regional parks to remain open. In fact they encouraged their use to the extent of waiving parking fees at many parks, in effect promoting the idea of driving to the parks. I can’t read the minds of those who made that call but my guess would be their good intentions were to soften the impact of the restrictions by offering people the opportunity to get out of the house and get some fresh air and exercise in the parks. I suppose they envisioned people driving three miles to their nearest neighborhood park. 

In spite of the Apple Cider Century being officially cancelled, some of us rode the route on our own on Saturday, March 21, each of us solo, starting at different times. It was a beautiful spring day and the ride was as good as it ever is. But one weird thing was noticed by many riders: traffic on the main roads heading toward the Sonoma Coast was extremely heavy, as heavy as one would expect on a holiday weekend. Roads like River (Hwy 116) and Bodega Hwy were choked with a non-stop stream of cars, mostly making a bee-line for the Sonoma Coast State Beaches. 

Cyclists weren’t the only ones to notice. Sunday’s paper had a front page article about the huge crowds at the beach. Thousands of people decided the open parks, with free parking thrown in, plus great weather, plus a chance to dodge around the Shelter-in-Place mandate, were just too good to pass up. The result was that every beach was packed with crowds. The parking lots were overflowing, with people parking anywhere they could. Chaos…anarchy. Social distancing was impossible. I don’t suppose any one person or any single carload of people thought they would be the straw that broke the camel’s back but really, driving 20 or 30 miles to the beach? Or more? (Many of the visitors were from out of the county.) That was not what the planners had in mind.

Those who had crafted the ordinance, including the open-parks proviso—had their good intentions blow up into an ugly health crisis as well as a political hot potato and their reaction was prompt. The next day, March 23, they announced that, because of the abuse of the parks policy by so many people, they were forced to close all parks until further notice. The one exception was the many “linear parks”…multi-use paved trails, otherwise known as bike trails. Those were to be left accessible for walkers…but not cyclists.

The rationale provided for banning bikes on the trails was a little flimsy but just barely plausible. (I’m not going to parse it out here.) Some of us considered protesting and good arguments could have been made to support our views…but with the Grim Reaper sitting over there under that shade tree, patiently sharpening his scythe, it didn’t seem like the right time to be quibbling over the rights and comforts of cyclists. We mostly let that one go.

It did seem bitterly ironic though that the selfish behavior of motorists—in flocking to the beaches—ended up creating a situation that punished cyclists by getting them banned from the network of trails that had been built at least in part for their use and convenience and safety. 

Make no mistake: self-absorbed, me-first attitudes are at the heart of this problem. The open-parks exemption was like offering free candy to children. Many kids, brought up with good values, would politely choose one piece of candy. But plenty of others would grab two handfuls and come back for more. A lot of people choose what pleases them first and never think about the ramifications for the larger community. But it isn’t just motorists or some other groups who are guilty of putting their own pleasures ahead of those of society. There are many cyclists unwilling to sacrifice any of their rights or customary habits in this time of trouble. 

How the Shelter in Place strictures affect cyclists—at least in Sonoma County—come down to two issues. One was the ban from the very nice network of trails we use every week…in my case almost every time I go for a ride. I am happy to note that the revisions to the March 23 ordinance put into effect today allow cyclists to return to the Class I bike trails. So that is one of the two issues addressed, and—so far—with a happy ending. But while the ban was in place, many cyclists continued to ride the paths, even thought the bike ban was widely publicized and signs were posted at the trailheads. Many other trail users were upset about it and some of them complained about it to the local paper and to their County Supervisors, etc. It was selfish behavior by a few riders creating bad PR for all riders.

The other issue is the details in the general exemption in the ordinance for cycling. It has been accorded the status of an essential activity and is allowed, but with certain constraints. The State and all of the assorted Counties around the Bay Area have granted some exemption for cycling but the details in each ordinance vary and the result is a confusing patchwork or rules and penalties. However, one statute appears constant throughout all of them: that your cycling should start from your own home…that you are not allowed to rack your bike on your car and drive to some distant spot to start a ride.

We had several almost endless and occasionally acrimonious discussions on our club chat list about this rule. Two riders sent notes to the list that expressed a sense of grievance that they had found themselves warned by park rangers or county sheriffs about having driven to distant sites to start rides. One group with two cars had actually parked in the lot of the State Park regional headquarters in Duncans Mills—a site crawling with rangers—so they were guilty not only of using a park when the parks were closed but of driving to a ride start. In that case, a ranger gave them a friendly warning: don’t do this again. In the other case, four carloads of cyclists parked on a country road…cars with bike racks on display. In that case, a sheriff left a written warning citation on each car, (Enforcement has begun with friendly reminders but if infractions continue or are too egregious to ignore, actual tickets can be written and the fines range up to $1000.)

In both cases, the cyclists tried to wriggle out of any responsibility for what they’d done by fiddling around with fine points of language in the ordinance…lawyer shit. Some of us got fed up with it and chastised them: you did a wrong thing and you need to own it. Get over it! Ride from home! And stop riding in groups! Most people agree but I know some cyclists are still driving their cars to far off places to ride.  But like people using cell phones while driving, they’re just getting better at hiding it.

A less cut-and-dried detail in each County ordinance concerns where rides are allowed to go. Start from home…okay…but how far from home are we allowed to wander? The State edict says you must ride in your “local neighborhood” but what does that mean? My desktop dictionary defines “neighborhood” as “a district, especially one forming a community within a town or city.”  If that were taken literally, we wouldn’t be able to ride much beyond our city or town limits, so no long rides. (However, one of our club members proved it could be done last week by completing no less than 80 laps of a 2.5-mile circuit near his home in Petaluma…200 rather insane miles in one day.) 

Sonoma County’s ordinance contains such a thicket of legalese it’s hard to discern exactly what their intentions are. The one I like best is the Mendocino County statute: “The recreation must be initiated from one’s residence and may not involve the use of a motor vehicle or public transit to the location of exercise…” That’s all it says but it says enough. No limits on the length of the ride. My own spin on that is the common-sense suggestion I made last month: limit your rides to what you can do on the two water bottles you fill at home…40 to 60 miles. Because the Sonoma County ordinance is so vague on the point, I’m using the Mendo mandate as my guide. I hope that’s both appropriate and defensible.

I’m not nearly as concerned about cyclists contaminating one another or anyone else as I am about the perception of bad boy behavior by some cyclists turning the tide of public opinion against us to the point where the politicians and administrators feel it’s expedient to ban all cycling, everywhere, just as they decided to close the parks after first leaving them open and then people behaved badly. (Now they’re opening some of them up again, but on a limited basis.)

Everyone’s lives have been so disrupted by this pandemic…first of all, anyone who becomes sick and possibly even dies. Then all the people whose jobs are hanging by a thread or who can’t pay their bills. And everyone on the front line in the health care sector and the first responders. That is serious stuff. Dire…drastic.

Then there are all the people whose chosen form of recreation has been banned or severely curtailed, from softball to basketball, rugby to lacrosse, from aerobics to the weight room at the gym, from bowling to darts…on and on. Not to mention all who miss the spectator sports, either in person at the old ball park or on TV. All those folks are frustrated and some are seriously cranky about not being allowed to do what they normally take for granted. And then they see those cyclists—those weirdos!—still out there, still getting to do their biker thing while everyone else is cooped up at home. It’s got to chafe on a few people who either are grumps  about bikes to begin with or else aren’t familiar with the exemptions in the ordinance.

So cyclists are kind of living on sufferance during this crisis. Don’t assume it’s a lock that we will continue to be granted that cherished exemption. Never forget that for many in our world, cyclists are still considered oddballs and at times a nuisance. They don’t understand what we do or why we do it. If we irritate enough of the wrong people, we may end up getting thrown under the proverbial bus.

If the tide turns against us it will be because of cyclists who don’t follow the letter of the ordinance. First of all, it specifically states that rides should be close to home. That automatically rules out any ride that requires putting the bike in the car and driving to some distant point to start riding. That means, for most of us, that distant venues like King Ridge and Pope Valley are off-limits for the time being. But our region is rich in nice back roads, wherever you live. It might be different if you lived in central LA, but anyone living anywhere in the north bay can be on nice roads within a few miles of their front door. They may not be the most scenic, iconic, spectacular roads we know and love but dang it…suck it up a little! Make a friggin’ sacrifice!

Finally, there are those general traffic offenses down to cyclists, most notably running stop signs…things most of us do at least some of the time. Those always piss off non-cyclists who see them happening and now is not the time to be pissing off our neighbors. If you usually think of stop signs as elective, maybe for a while here you can at least get it down to a California roll…?

We keep hearing that we’re all in this together and it’s that notion of shared sacrifice and shared extra-efforts that makes this tolerable. But when everyone else is making those sacrifices, there is one thing that is sure to stoke up their outrage and that is someone they think is gaming the system. Could be price gougers. Could be people still out partying together. Could be hucksters selling phony vaccines. And it could be cyclists who appear to be breaking the rules.

The next time you think the rules don’t apply to you, and if you can’t imagine following the rules simply because it’s the right thing to do, try picturing what it would be like to be standing next to a county sheriff’s car on the side of the road with a $1000 ticket in your jersey pocket or finding such a ticket on the windshield of your car. It probably won’t come to that, but this is a fluid, evolving crisis unlike anything seen in our lifetimes. Who knows which way things will unfold? Let’s try to be good boys and girls so the tide of public opinion still flows in our favor.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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