This summer I took an amazing trip to the Pacific Northwest. I spent two weeks out there, some parts solo and some with friends. It was a wondrous, restorative, exhilarating trip for many reasons – and there was a lot to enjoy from a car-free perspective, too. I explored Vancouver BC by bike, took Amtrak Cascades (twice!), and rode multiple bus routes in Portland OR.

I mean, how gorgeous is this view from my train?

However, portions of the trip would have been impossible without a car (requisite disclaimer: I’m not anti-car. I simply recognize that there are times and places for them). For example, my friend LT and I hiked in Olympic National Park for three days and two nights. The cover photo for this post is a picture I took from our campsite at Moose Lake. Incredible, right?

In order to get to Olympic National Park, LT and I had to rent a car from the Seattle airport, where we were, and drive about 2.5 hours to Port Angeles, where we stayed the first night. Then, once we were in Port Angeles, we had to drive still another 30 minutes to the Olympic Visitor Center, and then another 30 nail-biting minutes to the trailhead. After all those miles of driving, our hike wound around the mountains for about 4 miles until we reached Moose Lake. It was secluded, breathtaking, and everything we wanted from our National Park. And there was so much driving to even get to the part where the hiking began.

Why is this a problem? Well, I took it for granted that driving is just how people access our National Parks, until I read this article by Andrew Carpenter over at Mobility lab. In the article, he lays out why this is a problem and what can be done about it. Andrew says:

A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.

He goes on to categorize our National Parks’ transportation concerns in three ways: getting around, getting in, and finding our parks. Some parks (e.g., the National Mall in DC and Grand Canyon National Park) have great non-car mobility inside the park, while others struggle and even have congestion (e.g., Yosemite). There are some parks that do a decent job of getting people to the parks with connections to transit like Amtrak. And Andrew acknowledges that for large, remote parks, a personal vehicle may still make the most sense for getting around.

Some of you are probably thinking: duh. Parks are really large, devoid of infrastructure, and lacking the presence of people/industry/commerce, and that’s what makes them amazing natural resources that we should preserve. I totally agree. Building a Metro to Moose Lake would be nonsensical to the mission and imperative of Olympic National Park.

But.

Everything has a trade-off. LT and I spent hundreds of dollars renting a car that stood idle for 3 days while we hiked, and which people with lower incomes might not be able to afford. We shared the road with dozens (maybe hundreds, maybe thousands) of other people on their way from Seattle to Olympic, causing traffic for locals as well as for other vacationers. We released fuel emissions into the air outside and inside the park, contributing to global warming and decreasing air quality.

This is a topic with no silver bullet solution. Obviously cars are going to continue to be a good option for many parks and for many people. But it’s worth thinking through these issues of mobility in our National Parks, especially as they remain under-funded and inaccessible to many populations. My thoughts:

  • If vehicles are the best way to get around many parks, what are the options to reduce the # of vehicles and increase access? Strategies could include shared vehicles like shuttles, reduced-price rentals for low-income folks who want to access the park, dedicated low emission vehicle fleets for park visitors to use, and entrance fees that reflect the true cost of driving/parking and incentivize those who bike/hike up to the entrance. Some of these solutions are contradictory, so the National Park Service and local planning organizations would need to assess which combination is the best fit to meet their specific goals.
  • How does the state of transportation in and around our National Parks reflect auto-centric biases, as well as biases about which types of visitors are attracted to the parks? For example, snow removal policies on paved roads vs. paved trails enable and prioritize motorist access but not cyclist access (see GGW’s great piece on Mt. Vernon Trail snow removal by the National Park Service).
  • How does our national attitude toward physical activity contribute to automobile traffic and congestion, particularly within the parks (e.g., people driving around the Grand Canyon’s rim instead of getting out and walking down into the canyon)? How accessible should our parks be for those in cars vs. those exploring on foot/bike/shuttle/kayak/etc.? And importantly, how can we make our parks accessible for those with mobility issues while also balancing the need to reduce congestion?
  • What are the trade-offs and benefits for each park in the long and short term: financially, environmentally, socially, etc.? Calculations are needed for the long-term expense of road maintenance versus alternatives like investing in shuttle systems.

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