Peter Bauer’s recent article arguing that the State is facilitating unlimited access to the High Peaks raised some interesting points. Among those points was the idea that shuttle buses for hikers will result in potentially unprecedented usage levels of already popular hiking trails. This jibes with concerns I have heard from others that shuttles will lead to even greater activity in the High Peaks, when instead we should be limiting access to protect the Wilderness.
On the other hand, I have heard from other interested parties that shuttle buses constitute a negative barrier that will effectively restrict access. Shuttles, the argument goes, represent an impediment to hikers, climbers and other users who want to park at the trailhead, on their own terms and on their own timing. This impediment will be seen as unwelcoming and have a detrimental effect both on visitation and on perceptions of our communities.
So which of these two opposing perspectives is correct? For my money, neither one.
I serve on the State-convened High Peaks Advisory Group to which Peter Bauer referred in his article, and shuttle systems are in the mix. However nothing that follows is a reflection of those discussions. Rather, I write independently as an advocate for shuttles.
I believe that electric shuttle buses and routes should be piloted and the results measured and assessed, so that what we learn can contribute to the design of a large-scale transportation system, including electric shuttle buses, to improve visitor management in the High Peaks and enhance our ability to protect the Wilderness.
Speaking from that perspective, I think both concerns have merit and bear consideration. However, there are some unfortunate and misleading assumptions in much of what I hear. Clarification is called for. Shuttles constitute a smart and appropriate approach to our growing transportation and parking problems. The issue is how to implement shuttle systems, not whether they’re intrinsically a good or bad idea.
There is no question that the High Peaks Wilderness faces a difficult and growing visitor management problem, and there is no question that on a given day multiple trail heads and parking areas can be overwhelmed with visitors. But what gets missed in much of the discussion of “overuse” is how dynamic the problem is. Frankly, the numbers in Peter Bauer’s article undersell the challenge (although he is spot-on in pointing out that much of the data we have is unreliable or incomplete).
Last fall is a perfect example. Folks were gearing up for expected madness on Columbus Day weekend, but it was the weekend before that obliterated records, with many parking areas filled before 6:30 am. It was the busiest weekend of the year and it defied predictions and preparation.
Certainly no one can say what will happen next, what days will be overwhelming, and how overwhelming they will be. It’s simply a fact that visitor use is highly dynamic: one change in the weather forecast or a flurry of social media posts can have dramatic effects.
Dynamic problems need dynamic solutions, which is where shuttles comes in: a shuttle system constitutes a dynamic approach that can be throttled up or down, and thus can be an integral part of a smart transportation system that can respond to changing visitor use and resource protection needs.
Consider parking lots. Many people are calling for more parking capacity, and new parking lots are already approved in the current High Peaks Unit Management Plan (UMP). But parking lots are not dynamic; you don’t get more static than a permanent lot!
Based on my own counts last year, one could double parking at Marcy Field and level trees left and right for increased parking at Chapel Pond and Roaring Brook, with the result that all the new space would sit largely empty most of the year and be utterly swamped on heavy use days, with hundreds of people still looking for parking. So what then? Build more lots?
Compare that approach with a robust shuttle system, where buses can be added or subtracted to routes on the fly in order to meet demand, routes and schedules can be changed, usage can be monitored and ridership can be managed and, if necessary, restricted.
There are many reasons a shuttle system makes sense:
- A shuttle system is dynamic and can adjust to meet demands.
- A shuttle system can regulate the amount of visitation at a given destination. There is a growing body of research linking recreation carrying capacity to transportation carrying capacity. In that context a shuttle system comprises a powerful management tool.
- A shuttle system can mitigate the need to build more parking lots. Reasonable and modest front country infrastructure is an important component of Wilderness protection, but ever-increasing parking acreage is neither reasonable nor modest.
- A shuttle system will contribute to improved public safety, as visitors who would otherwise hike along state highways with narrow or non-existent shoulders will have a better way to get to their destination.
- A shuttle can be a vehicle (excuse pun) for education and information dissemination, since the passengers constitute a captive audience that can be given everything from static information, such as Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, to contextual, real-time information such as trail conditions, weather, and potential hazards.
- Finally, electric shuttles are the key component of a 100% carbon neutral transportation system. This gets overlooked all the time. It’s beyond me, frankly, that in a region which should be a leader in mitigating climate change, a reduction in the number of carbon-spewing vehicles traveling our byways hardly gets a mention. Electric shuttles are ready for us, if we’re ready for them.
I’ll happily admit that a shuttle system (or any other proposed solution, for that matter) is no silver bullet. The devil is in the details, as they say. For example, I happen to think that any transportation system that lacks an on-demand capability is bound to fail (imagine a hiker with no car coming out to the trailhead with a headlamp at 1:30 am). But a shuttle system means neither open season on protection of the Forest Preserve nor degradation of the visitor experience. Quite the opposite.
Photo of Marcy Field Parking Area sign by John Warren.