Amalia Pittier of Caracas, Venezuela spent a sunny day riding a rented bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with her two traveling companions, stopping to buy lunch and spend money shopping for gifts they will take home to family and friends. Little does this tourist know she’s at the center of a local controversy because she and her friends are among the estimated 250,000 visitors annually who rent bikes to ride over the bridge for a day of sight-seeing before they climb on an evening ferry for the return trip.
Pittier said she and her friends Manuela and Herman had no trouble on the ride, though they found the bridge a "little crowded."
Recent us-versus-them toned newspaper reporting ridiculed visiting cyclists as "a plague of locusts" in the San Francisco Chronicle and Marin Independent Journal. The stories whipped up heated responses from readers, both pro and con, but didn’t shed much light on the issues.
The basic grievances are the bike tourists park bikes in doorways, scatter them in the parks and even ride on the sidewalks. In addition, scores of tourists overwhelm the Golden Gate Transit ferry service during rush hour while commuters cool their heels in San Francisco waiting up to 40 minutes for a boatload of bikers to disembark one by one. Riders have to haul their bikes up a set of narrow stairs, single file, and then roll them down the gangway.
But Sausalito garners benefits from the dollar-flashing foreigners. Sausalito, the primary destination of bike renters, was the only town in Marin County to have an increase in sales tax revenue in 2008, according to Daryll White of Bike & Roll, a San Francisco rental shop.
"I don’t see the bike tourists as a problem," said John Chandler, a regular commuter on the Sausalito ferry. "It is a major problem the way the bridge district is not handling it," he said. "But to the extent they add revenues to the city, I’ve got no problem with them."
Jeff Sears, owner of Blazing Saddles, the most popular bike rental shop, said the problems stem from the rapid growth in popularity of bike rentals in the last five years and not enough organization to meet the changing needs. His and other rental companies have been working with Sausalito’s vice mayor and police chief on the issues. Sears said he donated a dozen bike racks and the Marin County Bike Coalition provided more.
"The merchants are all happy the riders are coming," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the response is positive. It is only a small group of residents in Sausalito that have political pull who complain."
He said renters get a ticket good for a ferry ride from Sausalito or Tiburon and pay $9.50 each, only if they use the ticket.
As for the crowded ferries and delays during the evening commute during peak summer riding season, Golden Gate Transit District spokeswoman Mary Currie said, "We solved the problem last year by adding a boat to get the commuters home."
Currie said the transit district is currently
investigating a plan to overhaul the docks in San Francisco, including
changes that would eliminate the need to carry bikes up ferry stairs
before disembarking. The entire project would take two years, she said.