An article recently appeared in the Marin Independent Journal that highlighted just how bat-shit crazy this chunk of Northern California is. It begins thusly, County parks officials launched a new bicycle speed enforcement program on open space trails this weekend, stationing two staffers with special radar-type devices in areas that have generated public safety complaints.
Officials hesitated to characterize the move as a crackdown, preferring instead to call it a pilot program that initially will be aimed at educating trail users…. Violators will face warnings at first, but citations may be issued at some point "depending on circumstances."
Let’s unpack that for a moment.
Marin is equipping a couple of rangers with radar guns because people are scared and/or have a deep and abiding hatred of bikes. First you’ll get a warning for speeding, but eventually, they’ll be ticketing you.
This is Northern California, so the article is also full of pleasant odes to maintaining peaceful relationships, gathering data on how bikes are used, etc. etc., but when you strip away the BS, it boils down to this: It’s not a crackdown, per se, it’s just, you know, a f@cking crackdown
. And maybe I’d be okay with that if Marin County hadn’t already been giving mountain bikers an absolute beatdown for more than 30 years.
Three Decades of Crazy
If you’re not from Northern California, you can be forgiven for thinking that Marin County is a mountain bike-friendly place. Marin, after all, is the much-touted birthplace of mountain biking. .
But let’s be clear about this—that was then and this is now, and Marin County has been an absolutely horrid place to actually ride a mountain bike since, oh, about 1983.
It’s not that Marin is lacking for in interesting terrain. Despite being just a short drive from one of America’s busiest metropolitan areas, Marin County has a staggering amount of open space. Thanks to a strong push from environmentalists during 1960s and `70s, roughly half of Marin County—about 160,000 acres—is under permanent protection. That is a beautiful thing. The crappy part of the picture is that bikes are not welcome in most of it. Only 16 percent of Marin’s singletrack is bike legal.
Stop and con sider that figure for a moment...Sixteen. Percent. That's it. Or let's put it a bit more realistically: It is currently illegal to ride your mountain bike on more than three-quarters of the single track in what was mountain biking's garden of Eden. Oh, and it's worth noting that this is an area overflowing with mountain bikers. This is a recipe for disaster.
Bikes were initially cleared from Marin's trails due to concerns that bikes would destroy the environment they’d worked so hard to preserve. I can understand that initial fear. But when several independent studies came out in the `80s and `90s showing that bikes had no more impact on trails than hikers and less impact than equestrians, you’d think the restrictions in Marin would have been lifted or, at the very least, reconsidered. Not a chance in hell. The rallying cry against bikes simply changed pitch. Now we’re unsafe to other trail users.
There have, in fact, been a handful of run-ins between mountain bikers and hikers over the years. No denying that. Let me suggest the obvious reason why this occurs: You take a massive group of trail users (mountain bikers) and you funnel them onto a couple miles of singletrack or you tell them the only other trails they can ride are these steep, loose fireroads with blind corners…. Are you really surprised that chaos results? If you were the conspiracy-theory type, you’d be inclined to think that someone actually wants collisions and acrimony in Marin.
For the record, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It’s really not that complicated a situation—For decades, Marin’s policy makers had their heads up their asses.
I’m not saying that bikes belong on every trail. Absolutely not. I’m saying that when you funnel an entire user group on a couple of trails, you create chaos and anger. Any trailbuilder worth his or her salt knows that you have to disperse trail users across the land to reduce congestions. Marin, however, steadfastedly ignores the obvious.
Let’s Get Back to the Radar Guns
Radar guns are not actually new to Marin mountain bikers. Marin County code dictates that “no vehicle, including a bicycle, shall be operated at a speed greater than is reasonable for safe operation, nor in any manner which may endanger the safety of others or the protection of environmental resources.” Your first ticket carries a $50 fine and $155 court cost penalty.
This new announcement about the crackdown that is not a crackdown, however, is a sign that times are changing--both for the better and the worse. There are elements of the story, for instance, that give you hope. Marin’s policy makers have been reconsidering trail use in the County (via the new Road and Trail Management Plan) and, to their credit, have been considering opening up more singletrack to riders. The Stafford Lake Bike Park that opened last year was also a monumental leap forward for Marin. The last few years have seen a more tolerant and thoughtful group of policy makers in Marin. These are good things.
Those same gains, however, have created a backlash amongst the HOHA (Hateful Old Hiker Association) contingent, which is rallying around the idea that mountain bikers are, as one interviewee in the article put it “a big reason for the creeping displacement” of other trail users from Marin’s open space. The same quoted individual suggests that “…bike riders need to ‘slow down to a crawl’ so that hikers or those on horseback are not frightened or hurt.”
Here’s the thing, if you’ve ever ridden in Marin and encountered the special (and apparently endangered) species of hiker that flocks to the place, you probably know it’s impossible to not frighten them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve actually slowed down to a crawl, waved and said a cheery hello and have been either screamed at or had a hiking stick thrust or swung at me.
I suppose I could’ve taken a page out of their book and filed some sort of charge of “battery” against those hikers, but this is Marin. This is the status quo. It’s a dysfunctional place with a dysfunctional policy that actually creates tension between trail users.
I understand that seeing a mountain biker come barreling towards you would be a truly frightening occasion. I hike all the time. It would scare me too. The problem in Marin is that the mere sight
of a bike frightens and angers so many hikers. You don’t have to be an actual problem here, to be seen and treated as a problem. I might actually buy the argument that the radar guns are being used to “study” the issue and provide data about trail use, as the article suggests, if I hadn’t actually grown up around Marin. Having spent time in the place, I’m not believing it for a second.
So, yeah, rangers will be hiding in the bushes with radar guns. Tickets will be given. First as warnings. Then as fines. But, you know, it’s not a crackdown because that word just sounds so intolerant and Marin County is famous for being such a loving and tolerant place…that just wouldn’t do.