Maui may crack down on Haleakala bike tours clogging up narrow mountain roads

For decades, from sunrise, visitors have descended on Haleakala in droves, taking the roads leading from the mountain to the coast.

Sometimes they are part of a tour group, led by a professional who knows the winding roads and all the hairpin bends. In other cases, they choose to go it alone, navigating unfamiliar streets, commuter traffic, and the occasional herd of cows meandering down Haleakala Crater Road.

Many Maui residents have long sounded the alarm about tour groups. They say they’re often filled with inexperienced cyclists, some as young as 12, who create dangerous conditions on the thoroughfares residents use to get to work and school. Owners of the commercial bike tour businesses, however, argued that shrinking the industry would kill jobs and hurt small backcountry businesses that feed on the constant supply of cyclists.

Maui County Council members are considering more regulation of commercial downhill bike tours. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

For years the complaints continued but little changed. Until last week, when after months of discussions between residents and bike tour industry representatives, a group of Maui County Council members took the first step toward limiting attendance. tours on some backcountry roads, seeking to control group sizes and raise the minimum age to 15.

“We need to regulate this industry. We have to do something,” said council member Mike Molina, who spearheaded the proposal. “We have an opportunity this quarter to do something about it instead of just talking about it.”

Proposal board members moved forward after more than three hours of hashing out details limiting visits to a smaller section of Haleakala Crater Road. This stretch would run from below the edge of the national park boundary, through undeveloped pasture, to Mile Marker 3, which would prevent visitors from passing through the nearby residential area. Tours would be prohibited from continuing on the rest of Crater Road, as well as Kekaulike Avenue and Haleakala Highway.

A guided bike tour travels a section of road where tour operators would still be allowed to operate if the proposal goes ahead. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Backcountry residents have long worried about visitors coming to a sudden stop along the highway or sometimes lurching precariously when reaching higher speeds and turns. Occasionally, cyclists leave the bike lanes to enter the main traffic lane without warning.

“Some of us are concerned about the business side of it, but to me it’s a safety side,” said board member Kelly King. “I’ve seen young children have accidents, and in fact one of my friends who organized one of the downhill bike tours many years ago had a teenager who crossed the center line and was hit head-on by a car.”

For the proposal to become law, the county council must vote on it again. Under the draft plan, commercial bike tours could still decide to operate on other unregulated routes. But if traveling along Baldwin Avenue, tours would be limited to 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and could not operate on Wednesdays and some holidays.

The council’s push to regulate commercial cycle routes comes after the county reached a settlement earlier this year with a visitor who was paralyzed after crashing into a railing while riding down Haleakala during an unguided tour. Officials said this was the first such lawsuit against the county, Maui Now reported.

But it was far from the first serious or fatal injury.

Some visitors don’t wear protective gear when traveling the winding road leading out of the national park. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

As early as 2006, the Maui Police Department urged county leaders to limit the number of tour operators through a licensing process and raise the minimum passenger age to 16, according to a report commissioned by the county.

The following year, a cyclist died after falling on a stretch of road in Haleakala National Park, prompting the park service to suspend tours within its boundaries. Then in 2008, the county hired consultants for $250,000 to study the issue. Among the recommendations of the 220-page report: stop towers from operating on certain sections of roads and ban convoys from passing through Makawao and Paia during working hours.

Now, nearly 15 years later, the county is once again poised to make big changes. But not everyone is happy with it.

Before the council meeting last week, employees of Haleakala EcoTours feared that limiting tours to a smaller section of road would hurt their business.

“I really love this job,” said Marlon Espinoza, who has been in the commercial bike tour industry since 2007. “I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ll be really devastated if they have to close this business.”

Bike tour operators say their businesses aren’t the only ones to suffer if their operations are restricted; they say it will hurt other small businesses along the bike path. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Espinoza acknowledged that, like any other recreational activity, people sometimes get injured. But bike tour operators, he said, do their best to educate visitors that they need to be aware of their surroundings and stay out of traffic, for their safety and that of others.

“You can’t just say the road is for cars,” added his colleague, Eddie Sosa. “If you have to be a bit embarrassed because there are bikes and you have to wait to get around them once, for me that’s part of life… You have to share the road.”

But for other residents of the Kula community, the council’s action was seen as the biggest step in at least 15 years to making their roads safer.

The bike tour proposal must be voted on again by the Maui County Council before it becomes law. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“It’s only really impacted Upcountry, and the other board members didn’t see it as a priority (in years past),” said Dick Mayer of the Kula Community Association. “They weren’t driving on these roads, trying to get the kids to school, to work or to the doctor’s office.”

This group of council members listened to residents, Mayer said, and heard their concerns about the safety issues that arise when visitors who cannot use bicycles routinely descend one of Hawaii’s tallest mountains.

And unlike swimming or snorkeling, which can also pose hazards to visitors, Maui County regulates commercial downhill biking businesses and licenses their businesses, Mayer said. This presents a layer of legal risk to the county that is not present in other unregulated activities.

“As we were talking (at the council meeting), someone was taken to the hospital,” Mayer said. “I’m very sad that the person was injured, but it proves the point we were trying to make from the start: it’s not safe.”

Coverage of Maui County by Civil Beat is funded in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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