They flock across the Golden Gate Bridge, riding in unwieldy groups or shooting single file down a steep road into the picturesque town that is one of the top destinations for Bay Area visitors.
Last year more than a half-million tourists on rented bikes pedaled into Sausalito, a city of about 7,000 known for its historic waterfront, panoramic bay views, outdoor festivals and, in peak seasons, its congealed traffic.
The influx of what locals call wobblers, who don’t consider bikes their usual mode of transport, and Spandexers, experienced cyclists who know the roads and ride like they own them, has increased steadily over the past decade.
Combined with visitors who show up in buses, ferries and cars, the annual tourist crunch has spurred ongoing public debate, a program that stations bike valets and ambassadors on the streets and a controversial, yet unsuccessful, push to put a tourist impact plan on the June ballot.
“How can you be visitor-friendly and still regulate it?” asked Russ Irwin, a resident who spearheaded the petition drive for a measure that would have forced the city to address and review issues related to tourism every two years. “People are conflicted about it. If you are in your backyard and there are five songbirds, you think it’s beautiful. But if there were 5,000 birds, you are in the middle of a Hitchcock movie. That’s the analogy I like to use.”
Irwin and a small band of volunteers had no trouble gathering signatures last fall. They collected 595, at least 100 more than they needed. But after officials early this year whittled down the number – eliminating signers who weren’t registered voters or gave incomplete or illegible information – they were five votes short.
This month the City Council, which routinely works past midnight to accommodate public and official comment, stayed until 2 a.m. to consider this year’s pedestrian and bicycle plan. The council approved a plan for ambassadors to direct and hand out information to tourists, valets to park bikes in a lot for $3 and the possibility of charging bicyclists $2 to sign up for a queue for the ferry back across the bay.
But many acknowledge it won’t satisfy everyone. Managing tourism can be tricky, particularly in a small city hemmed in on one side by water and on another side by a major highway.
The issue is “significant, complex and political,” Dr. Edward Fotsch, head of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, told the council. Blaming, complaining and hoping won’t help, he said, and urged city officials to work more closely with bike vendors in San Francisco and ferry companies, which contributed last year to the ambassador program.
“The problem is that on a busy day we have over 3,000 bike visitors a day into a downtown that is a half-mile long,” Fotsch said in an interview. A doctor and health care tech executive who fronted startup money for the ambassador program last year, he wants the city to fund the newly established nonprofit, Sausalito Plus, that will hire and train ambassadors this season and is expected to generate money for the city.
“The streets are jammed and the sidewalks are jammed,” during the tourist season, he said. “Bikes are locked to trees and parking meters and slow-moving seniors. They will lock a bike to anything.”
Once they are ready to leave Sausalito, bicyclists sometimes have to wait in line a few hours for ferries that often leave less than full because of the time it takes to load bikes. A taxi ride back across the bridge can run $30.
Many locals say they go out of their way to avoid downtown during peak times. Two-thirds of respondents in an online poll Irwin posted on the site Nextdoor said they didn’t go downtown during business hours or stayed away entirely.
“We are the gateway to Marin, and Marin County is the most beautiful county,” said Councilman Herb Weiner, who’s been known to direct traffic himself.
“People want to come over the bridge. You can’t see San Francisco from San Francisco. What are you going do to, deprive them of that? Put a cap on the number of bikes? You can’t do that.”
Weiner said the council has been studying traffic issues the past decade and has seen vehicular traffic calmed as key streets were controlled and tour buses routed differently on their way out of town.
One warm day this month, before a spate of rainstorms discouraged tourism, the streets and parking lots were filling up by noon. There was a line for valet car parking along Bridgeway, the main street that some locals call Speedway. Visitors were filing past clothing stores, T-shirt and souvenir shops, and restaurants. With only 132 hotel rooms and little room for construction, the city mostly hosts day visitors.
“I love it here more than in San Francisco,” said Debi Sparks, a visitor from Philadelphia, who discovered Sausalito when her son lived there for three years. “I left my heart in Sausalito. It’s so quaint. I’d love to settle here, but I’m not an heiress.”
Business owners and employees also bemoan how expensive it’s gotten to live and work in Sausalito. The owner of a candy store, who pays almost $10,000 a month in rent, relies on family to staff his business because he can’t afford employees. As in San Francisco, many who work in town don’t live there.
“We are in a bubble here,” said Luz Elena Castro, owner of Dynamic Energy Crystals, a block up from Bridgeway. She said she wishes that downtown guides would encourage visitors to explore other streets, where crowds are lighter, and different parts of Marin.
Irwin said he’s hoping for ongoing dialogue with city officials and eventually a plan that will balance needs of tourists and residents. So far, he said, it’s been hard to get exact figures for revenue tied to tourism because shops and restaurants also serve locals.
“There has been some progress,” he said. “But it’s still somewhere in the political sausage-making machine. We haven’t stuffed the skin yet.”
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.