For decades, starting at sunrise, visitors have cycled down Haleakala in droves, filling the roads leading from the mountain all the way down to the coast.

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Sometimes, they are part of a tour group, led by a professional who knows the winding roads and all the hairpin turns. In other instances, they opt to go on their own, navigating the unfamiliar streets, commuter traffic and the occasional herd of cows that meander onto Haleakala Crater Road.

Many Maui residents have long raised alarms about the tour groups. They say they’re often filled with inexperienced cyclists, sometimes as young as 12 years old, who create dangerous conditions on thoroughfares that residents use to travel to work and schools. Owners of the commercial bike tour companies, however, have argued that curtailing the industry will kill jobs and hurt Upcountry small businesses that feed off the steady supply of cyclists.

Maui County Council members are looking at further regulating 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 reps, a group of Maui County Council members took a first step toward limiting the tours’ presence on some Upcountry roads, seeking to control the size of the groups and raise the minimum age to 15.

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

The proposal council members pushed forward after more than three hours of hashing out the details limits tours to a smaller section of Haleakala Crater Road. That stretch would span from below the edge of the national park boundary, through undeveloped pastureland, to Mile Marker 3, which would stop the tours from traveling through the nearby residential area. The tours would be banned from continuing down the rest of Crater Road, as well as Kekaulike Avenue and Haleakala Highway.

A guided bike tour travels down a section of roadway where tour companies would still be allowed to operate if the proposal moves forward. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Upcountry residents have long raised concerns about visitors who stop abruptly along the highway or sometimes wobble precariously when they hit higher speeds and turns. Occasionally, the cyclists veer from bike lanes into the main lane of travel without warning.

“Some of us are concerned about the commercial aspect of this, but for me, it’s a safety aspect,” said council member Kelly King. “I have seen young kids getting in accidents, and in fact, one of my friends who ran one of the downhill bicycle tours many years ago had a teenager who rode off cross the center line and got 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 roads. But if they travel along Baldwin Avenue, tours would be restricted to running within the hours of 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and would not be able to operate on Wednesdays and certain holidays.

The council’s push to regulate the commercial bike tours comes after the county earlier this year reached a settlement with a visitor who was paralyzed after crashing into a guardrail while cycling down Haleakala on an unguided tour. Officials said it was the first lawsuit of its kind against the county, Maui Now reported.

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

Some visitors don’t wear protective gear when traveling down the winding road that leads from 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 permit process and change the minimum age of riders to 16, according to a county-commissioned report.

The next year, a rider died after falling on a section of road in Haleakala National Park, spurring the park service to suspend tours within its boundaries. Then in 2008, the county hired consultants for a reported $250,000 to study the issue. Among the recommendations in the 220-page report: stop the tours from operating on certain sections of roads and bar the convoys from going through Makawao and Paia during business hours.

Now, almost 15 years later, the county is again on the cusp of making big changes. But not everyone is happy about it.

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

“I really love this job,” said Marlon Espinoza, who’s worked in the commercial bike tour industry since 2007. “I’ve been doing it for a while, and I will be really devastated if they have to shut down this company.”

Bike tour company operators say their businesses aren’t the only ones who will suffer if their activities are limited; they say it’ll hurt other small businesses along the bike route. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

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

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

But for other residents in the Kula community, the council’s action was seen as the biggest step in at least 15 years to make 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

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

This group of council members has been listening to residents, Mayer said, and has heard their concerns about the safety issues that arise when visitors who may not use bicycles regularly head down one of Hawaii’s largest mountains.

And unlike swimming or snorkeling, which also can pose dangers to visitors, Maui County regulates downhill commercial bike tour companies and issues permits to their businesses, Mayer said. That presents a layer of legal risk to the county that isn’t present in other unregulated activities.

“Just as we were talking (in the council meeting), somebody was taken to the hospital,” Mayer said. “I’m very sad that the person got hurt, but it proves the point that we were trying to make all along: It is not safe.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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