Monday, March 16, 2020

High Peaks Shuttles: Visitor Needs and Resource Protection

Marcy Field Parking Area sign by John WarrenPeter 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.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




46 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    The cost and logistics of your described shuttle system are totally unrealistic, and your argument that parking lots are inelastic is disingenuous. An empty parking lot costs virtually nothing to maintain or staff, while empty shuttle buses require ongoing maintenance, protection from vandalism, etc. It is very hard to imagine what other use there could be in the Adks for a fleet of expensive electric buses during most of the year when they are not needed to shuttle hikers to trailheads. Plus, put me in the category of someone who is unlikely to want to actually use the bus. I drive a long time to get to the mountains, and that means I need to be flexible with plans depending on when I eventually get there, what the weather is doing, etc. Adding a bus schedule to the mix with, additional fees no doubt, would not be something I would want. Frankly, I would just avoid those areas at those times that require buses. I want to go on a hike, not an urban mass transportation experience.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Hello all. I hope everyone is safe and sound. This is going to be a long journey.

      I have some responses… a friend told me I just had to look!

      So, to start here, Hi Zephyr. No, the logistics and cost are not totally unrealistic. I’ve done pricing models, and for a fraction of the money the State is investing in ORDA sites, for example, a flexible electric shuttle system could be implemented. Shuttle systems are successful elsewhere. Not every problem is unique to the Adks.

      You are right to point out that much of the time these buses would not be needed for hikers. That should be part of the plan: there are myriad other uses, from ORDA to local and county transportation to schools – electric school buses are gaining favor.

      Finally, you and others who say that a scheduled system will not be good enough have an ally in me. As is said in the article, I personally think that any system that does not have an “on-demand” option will fail.

  2. Eric says:

    Shuttle is definitely a good option but no one will use it unless it runs 24 hrs. Hiking with a deadline is worse than hiking in the rain. It ruins the whole experience. Those wanting to just limit to access because they think it will improve the environment are living in a world of twenty years ago before the internet and iPhone. If you restrict access to the existing trails people will just make their own trails and share the GPS tracks on AllTrails and before you know it there will be nine different four-foot wide herd paths to every summit. Improving existing trails and expanding parking at existing trailheads is the best way to both protect the woods and enhance the visitor experience.

  3. Gregory M Moore says:

    Shuttles should be reserved for the top couple of weekends only. This is not a national park with 7-day a week, spring-to-fall overflowing demand. And rather than spending money on the electric shuttles, repurpose other buses from the region. For example, school busses largely sit idle all weekend. Spending the saved money could be better spent in thousands of other ways, including in other green projects.

    Build the permitted parking lots to properly take care of 95%+ days of the year. Then use shuttles on the overflow weekends — weekends which are pre-determined.

  4. adkDreamer says:

    Please provide the model name and manufacturer of these magical electric shuttles. If they truly are 100% carbon neutral then the following must also be true:

    1. All materials, processes, tools, machining of the components parts, personnel, etc must be shown such that no fossil fuels were used in the build and construction process of these electric vehicles, and
    2. The source of electricity to fuel these electric vehicles must be shown to only be sourced by wind, hydro or solar power and in fact the sources themselves used no fossil fuels in their respective construction, and
    3. The personnel that drive and maintain these electric vehicles must also be shown to only use food and products that are non fossil fuel generated and/or transported.

    • Steve B. says:

      Would diesel buses from the 40’s be OK with you ?. Just trying to get a handle on what we should be aiming for.

    • Tim says:

      I believe most of electric in this area comes from hydro.
      As for carbon neutral food for the drivers, they would probably be eating food anyway.
      Why does everything always boil down to money? Good things cost money. So be it.
      I am grateful to Pete for using the term “interested parties” rather than “stakeholders,” a word that rubs me the wrong way.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Pretty snarky… nonetheless, I should change my percentage rather than be guilty of rhetoric. It’s not 100%. However either shuttles using petroleum-based fuel or passenger cars can’t come close, especially given that the charging infrastructure can and will use renewable energy.

      On your point #3, wow! No, the personnel must not be shown to be other than, you know, people. But that was creative!

  5. Boreas says:

    I wonder, at least for this season, if shuttles are even going to be rolled out if we are to be limiting gatherings of people because of COVID-19. Restaurants are now closed – how many people will be allowed in a bus or on a peak? With restaurants closed, what will tourism even look like this summer? Something to consider.

    • WELL I suggest ALL Those with COVID 19 be bussed into the PINKO LINE PARK to enjoy Their last days on Earth COUGHING AND PUKING in the Adirondacks ….. Just Saying THEY HAVE EVERY RIGHT to Their Final Park Visits.

      • Boreas says:

        There will be PLENTY of parking this spring, and probably well into the summer. I doubt we will need buses. And you assume “they” will be someone other than you?

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Absolutely right, Boreas. I’m making that point with the High Peaks Advisory Group. For the foreseeable future, shuttles are not a good idea. They are not compatible with distancing protocols, and this crisis is almost certainly going to continue into the summer.

  6. One2travelfar says:

    Many year round Adirondack residents have a great need for medical transportation. Put those buses to use during their down time.

  7. James Bullard says:

    A shuttle system concentrates people into groups both on the bus and, at least at the start, on the trail. Even if we flatten the curve with social distancing the COVID-19 virus is expected to be a problem for for the next 18-24 months. While hiking alone or in family units is a good activity is good, bunching people into groups in a small space is not.

    • JohnL says:

      Do you seriously believe this (Covid-XX) is going to be a serious issue for that long? Eventually the general population will realize it’s as much hype as fact and return to normal. My prediction is that at most, it will last until the election, because that’s the main reason for the issue being as amped up as it is.

      • Balian the Cat says:

        JohnL as much as I would like to disagree with your comment, I don’t know you to be a crackpot – do you really believe this is some sort of hoax? If it is, it is one of enormous scale and complexity. I think I would be just as worried about the state of the world if such a fiction could take hold as this has as I would be regarding a pandemic.

      • James Bullard says:

        JohnL, I don’t think the people of China or Italy would agree that it is hype. And if you believe it can’t come here, you are badly misinformed. It IS here, even in the North Country. Its spread is a simple matter of math. The difference between this and flu is that no one, NO ONE has immunity to this and it can be deadly to a much greater extent than flu. If we succeed in preventing it from becoming as bad as China and Italy, that success will in retrospect, look to some, perhaps even to you, as an overreaction. But that is the point. That outcome is why we need to take this seriously now.

        • JohnL says:

          Wasn’t talking about China or Italy. Was talking about the U.S.

          • Steve B. says:

            What is happening in China and Italy are models for what is likely to happen here.

            Italy had 2,000+ deaths last I looked and were seeing 300+ per day. Population of 60 million. That equivalent here is 10,000 dead at the same stage and Italy is not every close to over any sort of hump.

            The math is inescapable.

            • James Bullard says:

              It isn’t entirely inescapable. If, a big if given how stubbornly independent Americans are, we all pitch in and cooperate with the protocols of cleaning, hand washing and social distancing, we can reduce those numbers. If the opportunity to transmit isn’t there, the virus can’t spread. And if we lower the height of the peak we can avoid many deaths because the hospitals won’t be stretched beyond capacity and that is the point. The virus spread may be inevitable long term but large numbers of deaths are not and stretching the spread out over time buys time to find a vaccine.

              • Boreas says:

                Well said. At this point we are not likely to affect the total number of infections over the next 6 months, but the healthcare system is the weak point for those few who will require hospitalization. Testing is extremely limited and testing triage/protocols are questionable. Ventilators are limited. Importantly, once a doctor, nurse, or staff member has been exposed and has tested positive, they are out of the system for a while until they are no longer shedding virus. Unfortunately, personal protection such as masks and gloves are still in low supply across the industry! So many healthcare practices are closing their doors for 2 weeks or so or only seeing acute-care patients.

                No need to stress excessively, but we all need to work together, follow reasonable instructions, and limit social activities for a while. And buy only what you need at the store – don’t hoard. Leave some bread and toilet paper for me!

      • Boreas says:

        JohnL,

        I am a healthcare provider, and I can assure you this is a serious issue. While politics unfortunately is involved with everything, this is a serious public health issue, not simply a political ploy as many talking heads are accusing. As you say, it is very likely the outbreak may have settled down by election time, but from there on out, we don’t know if it will be a recurring problem or not. If so, a vaccine is probably 18-24 months out, and we don’t know how effective it will be. We also don’t know if having the disease once will offer any immunity down the road. We just don’t know – it is a novel disease.

        But until we know more about it, it will be prudent to err on the cautious side and unwise to downplay the potential seriousness of the disease and how it will effect healthcare or life in general. The next month or two will seriously test our supposedly “superior” healthcare system and our economy, and the next six or so months will test our nation’s ability to put partisanship aside to fight a common enemy and return to normalcy. That you can count on.

  8. Tom Bebee says:

    There probably no perfect solutions, but shuttles IMHO should definitely be part of the mix. Perhaps your hiker arriving at the shuttle trail head at 1:30AM by headlamp should have planned on some emergency shelter in the case he was not able to get back in time :-).

    • Eric says:

      Sometimes getting back to the trailhead at 1:30am is exactly what is planned. Never heard of is sunset hike? Or sunrise hike? Who the heck wants to be on top of a mountain in the middle of the day? It’s all about the light.

      • TomB says:

        Good point. In that case then the hiker would not be at all concerned that a shuttle was not available as the story depicted.

        • Zephyr says:

          There are many reasons you can end up after dark that have nothing to do with poor planning. These have all happened to the best of us: injured party slows up the group, lost our way, broken ski or snowshoe, difficult conditions, etc. I remember one trip in June where it snowed and we had to stop to heat up some food and try to warm up. Ordinary hiking problems can change your schedule.

  9. JohnL says:

    Not again!! Is this subject on a permanent 1 month loop on the AA? Seems like it’s been rehashed at least a million times here. If I’m wrong, or out of line mentioning this, please forgive me.

    • Boreas says:

      You aren’t wrong for mentioning it, but this is news. It is pertinent. It will be an issue until it no longer IS an issue. Typically each of these articles is penned by a different contributor, and each has their own perspective they bring to the discussion.We would all like the problem to magically disappear, but it is going nowhere soon. I recommend you get used to reading about it or simply go elsewhere for your reading if it bores you.

      • JohnL says:

        Wow, Boreas. Telling me if I don’t like it here, I should go somewhere else. Harsh, and not like you. But, it reminds me of what some people say to the people that don’t like it in the US.

        • Boreas says:

          JohnL

          Recommending, not “telling”. That would be impolite. What is the use of complaining about people discussing a hot topic? Best way to avoid is is to avoid it altogether. And now with people unable to congregate at the bars and restaurants and bitch about stuff in general, where are they gonna bitch? It will all settle down…eventually…

          • JohnL says:

            Apology accepted Boreas. BTW,I’m not in NY at the present time. Are bars and restaurants closed there? Sad, but not unexpected. Here in SC, at least for now, everything is open. Not a lot of people at my favorite Irish Bar/Restaurant tonight, but open.

            • Boreas says:

              Did I apologize? Oh well… Bars and restaurants are only open to take-out and delivery. The luck of the Irish took it on the chin this year. Tourism will take it on the chin this spring. Hopefully shelter-in-place and group restrictions won’t make it to summer.

              • JohnL says:

                As I said. Had dinner at Flynns Irish Pub in South Carolina last night. Today they (SC) closed all restaurants to sit down dining. Take out only. Oh well. Good luck all. See you on the ‘other’ side.

  10. Zephyr says:

    One things for sure, nobody is going to be spending money on a High Peaks shuttle system for this summer! With millions out of work and chaos everywhere I have a feeling hiker numbers will be way down. Maybe the state will create some make-work programs that include trail maintenance and improvement.

  11. As much as we like to talk about shuttle systems, they are expensive, inefficient, seldom work properly and are user unfriendly. Parking lots sized to meet the demand are the only solution to recreational use in the Adirondacks

  12. Don Pachner says:

    I agree with your analysis, Pete, but would add that

    (1) An on-demand late evening shuttle might be a good idea. How we would communicate that need is an open question, but certainly feasible, and

    (2) The electric shuttles could be electric school buses (purchased on grants by regional schools) and rented to a regional authority or local/county or state government agencies for use as shuttles during the peak hiking season. This is done by some school districts now, which rent their electric buses out to summer camps during the summer recess.,

  13. Zephyr says:

    It will be interesting to see where we are once the summer hiking season gets here, but at the moment I am seeing an explosion of hikers/walkers at local parks, State Parks, and anywhere you can get outside and practice safe distancing. People on the local walks seem really happy to just get outside. It is hard to find a place to park at a local State Park where normally at this time of year it is deserted. Will hiking in the Adirondacks see the same boom this summer? Or, will we be forbidden to travel there? In any case, I suspect nobody will want to or possibly even be allowed to get on a shuttle bus until well after we finally get a vaccine. We’re talking years down the road now. Time to move on to another topic…

    • Boreas says:

      Zephyr,

      Is there a more important topic?

      I too have seen a dramatic uptick in outdoor visitation in my area. Many people are out of work and stir-crazy. Yesterday afternoon I saw probable 100 people bundled-up and walking at Ausable Point S.P.. Mostly groups of 2-3 family/friends maintaining a safe distance from other groups. Hard to say how it will effect the Adirondacks. Obviously more usage by locals, but non-resident visitation, especially from Canada (border), will be reduced if for no other reason than lack of visitor services. But locals use rest rooms too. Should we be installing portable toilets where running water facilities are closed? People will “go” where/when they need to go. I am not sure how that will be addressed.

      I assume areas of the Park closest to population centers will see continued or increased usage. Should DEC/NYS be allocating money for temporary portable “rest” facilities in those areas or trailheads? Keene seems to be discouraging visitation. What are other communities doing? Will discouraging outdoor visitation have a real impact on the spread of the virus into those communities? Quite the predicament for the short term – do we encourage outdoor recreation for health and psychological reasons or discourage it in an attempt to slow the virus?

    • Boreas says:

      Just to add to my comment above: It would be great to see a common website by the Chamber’s of Commerce around the Park stating what restaurants, gas stations, and facilities are still open for take-out, delivery, .etc., and what communities are discouraging visitation altogether. The businesses that are still open are relying on customers (from anywhere) to pay their staff. With no customers, will they continue to stay open?? Not likely.

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