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Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?



You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.

  1. Napa needs a subway, it is a suburb of San Francisco

  2. This seems like a great role for uberPOOL. Traditional public transportation might also work but with just a single lane and low prestige vehicles, I don’t imagine tourists would get very excited. Get 4 people in a vehicle instead of 1 or 2.

    Lots of ways to incentivize through legal, financial and marketing means.

  3. As someone that’s coming to Napa this weekend I think your x,y idea is terrible. Yes, something needs to be done to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, but it might be difficult/stupid to reduce number of people. Some sort of mass transit might be a better option (in theory).

  4. Barry Waitte says:

    The odd/even system did not really solve any problem for the gas crisis. There were still massive lines at gas stations, fist fights and other altercations, and basically an ineffective mandate. The traffic issue in Napa (I live right off 29 north of Yountville) can be mitigated with a combination of actions from infrastructure enhancements to ideas like Michael presents. Highway 29 is the same road from Yountville north now as it was when I first came to Napa in 1959. But I believe a thoughtful process of understanding what options, in combination with each other, should be done (hello County Sups) before we get to a lottery mentality of access.

  5. Rob McMillan says:

    It’s a difficult problem, but we need to back up and get answers to why there is traffic. The first study which was limited in scope from the County, concluded traffic wasn’t from tourists.

    If that’s true, finding solutions to even eliminate all tourists won’t change the traffic problem.

    It’s a discussion that is overdue, but best to start with understanding the cause of problems before solving them

  6. Well remember the horrible traffic of the 1960’s and 70’s that took place in South Lake Tahoe, gaming summer recreation and skiing driving massive tourism from CA. When it went away the local economy greatly suffered with many business ended and employment opportunities and land values impacted. It will not be the tourists looking for work, and without that work the traffic problem will be handily solved. A campaign broke out “don’t kill the goose laying the golden eggs”

  7. Stifling the ability of potential consumers from visiting business within a free market economy will surely be a tough sell. Even under the current scenario these businesses are finding it ever more difficult to create a profit, or at least rationalize the investment made. Which leads to the issue of tasting rooms (DTC margins vs the three tier system), events, and other profit centers that many local residents resent. What is the tradeoff? Take away the ability for profit and what happens? Does the Napa Valley then open itself to other less desirable development issues? There has to be a solution to maintain the integrity of the Valley, and unfortunately that comes with a price. Sitting in a traffic jam in the middle of wine country is not why I moved to the area. But perhaps that is the tradeoff, at least for now. The other option would be to turn the Napa Valley into a National Park, like Yosemite. Then we could really control the traffic. But really, I am a fan of a bucolic wine country setting sans traffic jams. It is a complex issue.

  8. +1 on Rob’s comment.

    But if you do some quick (and likely flawed) math, there are around 6m visitor days in Napa each year. Assume everyone comes in a car and there are 2 people and you have 3m. Divide by 365 and you have ~ 8200 visitors’ cars in Napa on average. Bump that 50% for weekend and you have 12,000 cars. Assume people split their time 75% in wineries/restaurants/etc. vs. 25% driving during the day and now you have 3,000 cars on the road at any one time. Further assume that 1/3 of that is on 29 and now you have 1,000 cars on 29 at any given time. Divided by the busiest 20 miles you have 50 visitor cars/mile at any given time. Not a *huge* number. And those 12,000 cars are merely 10% of the number of the roughly 120,000 cars owned by Napa County residents.

  9. To Rob’s comment:

    “It’s a discussion that is overdue, but best to start with understanding the CAUSE of problems before SOLVING them.”

    A case of “Ready. Fire. Aim?”

    If there are too many tourist vehicles clogging Napa’s roads, then embrace “de-marketing” as championed by Northwestern University professors Philip Kotler and Sidney J. Levy.

    An excerpt from their classic Harvard Business Review (November December 1971, pp. 74-80) article titled “Demarketing, Yes, Demarketing”:

    “The popular conception of marketing is that it deals with the problem of furthering or expanding demand. . . .

    “This is a narrow concept of marketing . . . that arose in a period of goods oversupply. . . .

    “But suppose that an economy were suddenly plunged into a state of widespread product [or intangible service or “public utility”] shortages. What would be the role of marketing management then? . . .

    “. . . in practice excess demand is as much a marketing problem as excess supply. A company faces a host of difficult customer mix and marketing mix decisions in periods of excess demand. It has to find ways of reducing total demand or certain classes of demand to the level of supply without damaging long run customer relations.

    “Our name for this kind of activity is ‘creative demarketing.’ More formally, we define demarketing as that aspect of marketing that deals with discouraging customers in general or a certain class of customers in particular on either a temporary or permanent basis. The tasks of coping with shrinking demand or deliberately discouraging segments of the market call for the use of all the major marketing tools. As such, marketing thinking is just as relevant to the problem of reducing demand as it is to the problem of increasing demand.

    “. . . Marketing is the business function concerned with controlling the level and composition of demand facing the company [or government agency]. Its short run task is to adjust the demand to a level and composition that the company [gov’t agency] can, or wishes to, handle. Its long run task is to adjust the demand to a level and composition that meets the company’s [gov’t agency’s] long run objectives. In this article we will describe three different types of demarketing:

    “1. General demarketing, which is required when a company [gov’t agency] wants to shrink the level of total demand.

    “2. Selective demarketing, which is required when a company [gov’t agency] wants to discourage the demand coming from certain customer classes.

    “3. Ostensible demarketing, which involves the appearance of trying to discourage demand as a device for actually increasing it.

    “(A fourth type, unintentional demarketing, is also important but does not need to be considered here. So many abortive efforts to increase demand, resulting actually in driving customers away, have been reported in recent years that the dreary tale does not need to be told again.)”

    [Bob’s footnote. Good luck finding this article on the Web. I had to write to Professor Levy in retirement in Arizona to get my hands on a digital copy of the text. Long out-of-print as a reprint from Harvard Business Review.]

  10. Or the locals can relocate to less traffic bound wine regions, like the Finger Lakes. Lots of water, lower alcohols, and only 6 months of winter. Who’s with me?

  11. Postscript.

    Professor Levy’s co-authored HBR article titled “Demarketing, Yes, Demarketing” can be found in this 1999 anthology of his writings:

    “Brands, Consumers, Symbols and Research: Sidney J Levy on Marketing”
    edited by Sidney J. Levy, Dennis W. Rook

    Google has scanned the book.

    A link to an excerpt:,+Consumers,+Symbols+and+Research%2BSidney+J.+Levy&hl=en&sa=X&ei=J5rlVLPDIoWXgwTnw4HoCQ&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Our%20name%20for%20this%20kind%20of%20activity%20is%20%22creative%20demarketing.%22%2BBrands%2C%20Consumers%2C%20Symbols%20and%20Research%2BSidney%20J.%20Levy&f=false

  12. Dusty Gillson says:

    I really don’t like the overbearing regulation of who can come and who can’t. If I want to spend a weekend in Napa, then I guess I’ll just have to rent two cars and make sure the licenses are proper for me to go Sat. and Sun.

    Maybe the tasting rooms should just keep raising their prices until it quells the demand? Napa wine prices certainly seem to be headed that way.

  13. Anon A Mouse says:

    How about we take that ridiculous barely used wine train and convert it into a usable commuter rail line. I personally would be glad to use it to travel

  14. doug wilder says:

    Highway 29 North of Yountville hasn’t changed much since (likely) earlier than I recall from my first travels there in the sixties. Along with growth in tourism, there has been parallel growth in the labor community who live outside of the agricultural area. Casual observers probably don’t realize that some of the larger employers have over 150 employees. Most of these people arrive on the roads in commute within a narrow band of time. An efficient light rail system on the existing railbed with green-fueled shuttle buses from work to the train may take several hundred cars off the road. I’m reminded of the role rail played in the valley in the 19th century by the tracks that remain in downtown Calistoga. I think workers at Yosemite park on the outskirts and are shuttled in.

    A lot of the congestion is the result of the traffic signals which you can’t get away from. Lengthening and synchronizing lights could provide some relief especially in peak periods. I find that once North of St. Helena, past the signals, traffic eases greatly. Creating a quota or alternating access days would be difficult to manage. How could someone arrange a 4 day stay at Meadowood if their pass was for 24 hours?

    Making intelligent infrastructure change that needs to forecast conditions into the 22nd century will take decades to implement.

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