The High Cost of Free Parking (part 2 of 2)

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Cars now overflow the remote Vista Ridge trailhead routinely

This is the second in a two-part series that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of his proven principles could apply to trailheads in our public lands, as well.

The second part in this series explores some possible solutions for the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, and the value of confronting the true costs of free parking to our most treasured public lands.
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No more free parking!

Does anyone really expect free parking at a Timbers or Blazers game, or drop in for dinner without a reservation at one of Portland’s finest restaurants to find a table waiting? Or be exempted from tolls when crossing the Columbia at Hood River and the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t reserve the right to complain about it! That’s human nature.

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Bumper-to-bumper at Vista Ridge on a Friday

Such is the dilemma for public land managers face as they attempt to impose limits on access to our trails on Mount Hood and in the Gorge. While we can all probably agree that the impacts we now see from overuse require limits on access, we’d probably like someone else to suffer the inconvenience.

The good news is that our most overused trails are relatively few in number. Any seasoned hiker can rattle them off, as many already avoid these trails on popular weekends and seasons: Angels Rest, McCord Creek, Wahclella Falls and Eagle Creek in the Gorge are now infamous for their crowds, while Ramona Falls, Mirror Lake, Salmon River, Elk Meadows and (most recently) Tamanawas Falls on Mount Hood see overflowing weekend crowds.

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Frustrated hikers pushed out of the Wahclella Falls trailhead have resorted to parking on the I-84 off-ramp

Experienced hikers already know where the lesser-visited trails are and make a point of steering toward these places for a quieter, better outdoor experience. However, as the Portland region continues its rapid growth, even some of these “secret” trails are starting to show some strain: Herman Creek, Starvation Ridge and Gorton Creek in the Gorge and Vista Ridge, Bald Mountain and Cooper Spur have all seen spikes in use over the past decade or so as hikers seek less crowded trails.

We have met the enemy and he is… us!

The first step in adopting a trailhead parking policy to address overcrowding is to recognize the problem: when trailheads routinely overflow, it’s a problem! You can see this on weekends on every one of the overcrowded trails mentioned above. The crowding is now year-round in the Gorge and whenever the ground is snow-free up on Mount Hood.

For some trails, like Mirror Lake and Eagle Creek, the crowds extend beyond the weekends, especially on Fridays and Mondays. But even on these most heavily used trails, weekdays usually mean plenty of parking to spare, with no overflow.

This variation in day-to-day use at the most crowded trailheads is a case study for variable parking fee, with fees set higher on weekends and holidays, and lower (or not at all) on weekdays. As Donald Shoup demonstrates in “The High Cost of Free Parking”, adopting such a strategy can shift weekend and holiday use to less popular trailheads with free parking, or to non-peak days at more popular trailheads.

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The popular Wahclella Falls trailhead still has open spaces on most weekdays

If we adopted a variable pricing policy tomorrow for overused trailheads in the Gorge, we could cut weekend crowding on trails now being harmed by overuse in half, overnight. Sounds easy, right? Well, one complication comes from the public blowback that would almost certainly occur. Remember, we all reserve the right to complain when things aren’t free!

Another complication comes from the fact that several of the most popular trailheads also have heavy tourist use. Places like Horsetail Falls, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls in “waterfall alley” are good examples where the majority of peak period visitors aren’t hikers, just people touring the Historic Columbia River Highway and walking the paved paths to the most famous roadside views.

Shared tourism and hiking trailheads should be priced, too, as they fit the same definition for overcrowding with parking spilling far beyond established parking areas. Crowding is crowding.

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The impacts of overuse in the Gorge are real and jarring. This boot path cutting a switchback on the Oneonta Creek trail formed in just the past two years.

At Multnomah Falls, a new hazard has emerged from the overflow on weekends, with visitors now parking beyond the narrow historic highway viaducts that flank the falls and lodge. Signs on the viaducts sternly warn against pedestrians walking along them, but whole families are now a common sight in the narrow viaduct vehicle lanes on busy spring and summer weekends at Multnomah Falls.

At Oneonta Gorge, the huge overflow of visitors has created a hazard for hikers attempting to scale the log jam at the mouth of the gorge, and ruined the outdoor experience for those who make it beyond the log pile with a noisy, carnival atmosphere.

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Vandals have almost completely carved up the walls of the restored Oneonta Tunnel since it opened six years ago…

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…a testament to the destructive behavior that allowing large crowds to from on our public lands can foster?

Worse, the overcrowding at Oneonta has led to a shameful degree of vandalism in the recently restored highway tunnel. Would vandals pay to park here? Perhaps, but at least the crowds that lead to that sort of destructive behavior could be prevented with managed parking. Otherwise, this precious gem will likely have to be closed to the public, once again.

At Mount Hood, overcrowding at places like the Salmon River Trail and Ramona Falls has also led to vandalism and car break-ins, in addition to heavy impacts on trails. Managed parking could greatly improve the situation here, while allowing hikers to discover the many lesser-used trails on Mount Hood that could benefit from more boot traffic while providing a far better hiking experience.

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A relatively quiet weekday at the massive (and overflowing on weekends) Ramona Falls trailhead

In many of these examples, a parking pass is already required today, but this has little effect on managing peak use. The key difference is variable pricing for parking that provides an incentive for visitors to avoid peak periods at the busiest trailheads, but gives options of other trails or off-peak days when little or no parking fee is charged. It’s a proven approach whose time as come in our most visited public lands.

…and now transit!

Since proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service on this blog four years ago, we’ve seen significant steps forward in providing transit service to Mount Hood and the Gorge. The Mount Hood Express now provides daily service from the Portland area and on the Washington side of the Gorge, transit service now connects to Stevenson, with a new shuttle to Dog Mountain.

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The new Mount Hood Express bus provides daily service to the mountain.

On the Oregon side of the Gorge, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is partway through a pilot project to bring transit service to the most heavily visited spots in the Gorge. ODOT plans to provide service from a park-and-ride location inside the Portland area to the most popular trailheads in the Gorge.

Transit service provides a needed option to driving, especially for those who do not have access to a private vehicle, but also to those who simply want to avoid the hassle of driving (and parking).

Transit is also a good counterpoint to adopting a parking strategy for the Gorge and Mount Hood, as parking fees provide an incentive to use transit during peak periods, which in turn, helps provide the critical mass to keep the service going. This is a tried and proven relationship between parking policy and transit in cities, and overdue as a strategy in our most heavily used recreation sites.

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Park transit station at Niagara Falls State Park, New York

That said, transit is mostly a way to provide another option for visitors. It simply won’t have the capacity to have much impact on overall visitation during peak periods, when parking areas at our most popular trailheads is already overflowing to two or three times the planned capacity for the trail.

How could this work?

Applying Donald Shoup’s parking management practices to recreation areas is less complicated than in an urban setting for the simple fact that there are so few places to manage, most have a single entrance point and they are all in public ownership.

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The Forest Service recently completed a major remodel of the Wahkeena Falls wayside to better manage crowds, but without managing parking, this new landscaping doesn’t stand a chance of surviving the overload.

The public reaction to actually putting a price on parking at our busiest trailheads, even during peak periods, is the driver for why we aren’t already attempting this – not the complexity of actually making it work. After all, cities around the world are already doing it, and against much more complex obstacles.

So, what are the parking management tools that could be borrowed from cities? Here are some that could work in the Gorge and on Mount Hood:

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These systems are all being used in cities today, and some combination of these practices could be applied to parking on our public lands. One challenge for public lands would be on-site enforcement, however, as this is an essential ingredient for urban parking policies.

On this point, I propose that a portion of the trailhead parking revenue could be steered toward dedicated county law enforcement to patrol parking areas. Not only would this provide an essential incentive for visitors to pay their fee, but it would also bring a much-needed security presence for busy trailheads that are increasingly targeted for car break-ins.

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The Starvation Creek wayside does triple duty as a popular trailhead, wayside for tourists and freeway rest stop. This site is a candidate for a combination of short-term timed parking and long-term fee parking.

So, how much revenue does a parking strategy generate? Well, consider that the City of Portland collects some $35 million annually in parking fees from its downtown meters, which in turn contributes to the city’s transportation budget for street maintenance. The city also collects another $7 million annually in fines for parking violators, more than enough to cover its enforcement costs.

While a parking strategy for the Gorge or Mount Hood would be unlikely to bring that much parking revenue, the Portland model does show that fee parking at the most popular trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood could not only cover operational costs, but also bring new revenue for woefully underfunded trail maintenance and construction. That could be a valuable selling point to regular hikers and visitors.

Those pesky agency permits…

One of the institutional obstacles to adopting a coordinated parking strategy for the Gorge, in particular, is the mix of land management agencies involved: the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) all have some sort of parking permit that applies to some of their respective recreation sites.

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Welcome to Wahclella Falls! Forest Pass or $5 fee required… here.

The Forest Service and OPRD both have a mix of free and fee sites, with the Forest Service requiring a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee at places like Eagle Creek or Wahclella Falls, but no charge at its busiest locations like Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls and Wahkeena Falls, where tourists outnumber hikers. OPRD charges $5 day-use fees at places like Rooster Rock and Benson Lake, but not at busy trailheads like McCord Creek and Latourell Falls.

Meanwhile, on the Washington side of the Columbia, DNR charges a $30 annual fee or $10 daily fee for its Discover Pass to park at places like Beacon Rock, Hamilton Mountain and all other Washington State recreation areas.

All of these are flat-fee permits, so they do nothing to help discourage overcrowding on busy weekends and arguably encourage more use, since an annual fee provides a flat rate for unlimited visits. In fact, the annual passes do just the opposite, encouraging multiple visits for a flat rate. There’s nothing wrong with hikers spending a lot of time in the Gorge, of course, but we all share the burden when it comes to managing the impacts through trailhead parking fees.

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It’s unclear how much revenue is left for trails once administration costs for the Northwest Forest Pass are covered.

Today, trailhead permits are pitched for their ability to generate funds to build and maintain trails, but hikers are rightly skeptical about how much funding actually goes to trails. In the end, it’s not a problem of the trail passes, but rather, by the low fees relative to the trail impacts the most popular trails are experiencing.

For example, a hiker purchasing an annual permit for $30 and spending a dozen days in the Gorge or on Mount Hood each year pays just $2.50 per visit to cover their trail impacts, or less than many hikers will spend on coffee en route to the trailhead.

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Lots of passes and hassle, not much revenue for trails… and no impact on crowding.

There is little chance the states of Oregon and Washington and the U.S. Forest Service will ever join forces and create a unified trail pass, and besides, their pass systems aren’t effective at managing peak use, anyway. Instead, they should cooperate to adopt a pricing strategy for our most overused trails that is an add-on to (or replacement for) the existing pass system at these locations.

The ethics of putting a price on parking?

At this point, you might be thinking (as I generally do) that we should all enjoy free access to our public lands. Of course we should! We pay for tem every April 15, after all. Thus, adding parking fees at our overused trails will most certainly bring howls from avid hikers who spend a lot of time on the trail, and who dutifully purchase their $30 annual trail passes now.

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Would revenue from a parking policy bring more of this to the Gorge and Mount Hood? Almost certainly, if managed properly.

Yet, when overuse starts to bring the “tragedy of the commons” to our most cherished places, it’s time for all of us to step up and find a solution. Putting a price on parking is a proven and effective way to get there. More importantly, pricing is really only needed on our most heavily traveled trails. Most trails will continue to be “free”… of a parking fee, anyway.

Putting a price on parking arguably discriminates against people with limited incomes or who are unable to visit in off-peak periods when little or no fee is required. Land managers will therefore need to consider ways to ensure that everyone can visit our public lands, no matter their ability to pay. But such programs are already in place in several state and National Parks, and could be easily included in a Gorge or Mount Hood parking strategy.

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That’s no road – it’s what the Angels Rest trail has become in recent years, thanks to massive overuse from a complete lack of parking management at the trailhead.

Today, land managers are already beginning to put restrictions on overflow parking in the Gorge and on Mount Hood. It’s a good first step, but not enough to address peak demand on weekends and holidays, and in the end will mostly frustrate visitors who have arrived expecting place to park.

The next step for our public agencies is to start managing parking, itself. It’s long past time to try it in the Gorge and on Mount Hood, for the sake of our trails and most treasured places.

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9 Comments on “The High Cost of Free Parking (part 2 of 2)”

  1. Beavis Says:

    Could not agree more. As someone who was born here, I nolonger even bother hiking on the weekends and have adopted other hobbies to fill the time.

    Personally I think the cost should be atleast $500 for an annual pass. Make the fines be around $5000 for no compliance and garnish wages if we have to.

    It’s not just the overcrowding, it’s the bad attitude of most of the people that have moved here and decided that they can still behave like animals from the over populated hell hole they came from.

    I also believe that there should be big tax incentives for companies to allow people to work weekends in exchange for days off during the work week. Weekdays are the new weekends in terms of how busy it is.

    The other part: less sharing = less crowds. Each person sharing photos n bragging is just leading to even more people going there.

    I also would like to see the no dogs or leashed dogs policy enforced. The under 30 / “hey man, the rules dont apply to me” crowd needs to be heavily prosecuted for breaking rules.

    Conclusion: lets enforce the rules, high costs on weekends especially, and tax incentives would have a chance at making life in the gorge and other areas less than the hell they’ve become since people have decided they have to move here.

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  2. Guy Says:

    >Personally I think the cost should be at least $500 for an annual >pass. Make the fines be around $5000 for no compliance and >garnish wages if we have to.

    WOW, hiking for the rich and the retired eh? Some of us who still need to work 5 or 6 days a week don’t have any option but to hike on the weekend. That’s just our tough luck under your scenario I guess! How many families with young Children do you think can afford a $500.00 pa permit to hike?

    Re the post, thought provoking Tom but I’m still in the no column for now!

    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Xenia Says:

    Well it certainly is not the experience that John Muir had in mind for us. How about holding down the baby train?

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  4. Doesn’t the Gorge already have a visitor center at Stevenson? The Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson already serves as the Gorge’s official visitor center.
    I don’t hike in the Gorge or Mt. Hood (because of the overcrowdedness), so this doesn’t really affect me, but I can see how a parking fee might be useful for those hikers who do. Good article.

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  5. Tom Kloster Says:

    Thanks for the comments! Somewhere between Beavis ($500!) and Guy (not interested!), something like a $10 weekend/holiday charge at a place like Angels Rest or Eagle Creek would probably encourage enough people to find a different trail or different day to hike an overused trail. For Guy, it would add an additional fee to hiking an overused trail on weekends, true, but it would also protect the trail and provide a better hiking experience (unless you like crowds). But it wouldn’t be out of reach for most people — just taking a family to a movie gets you north of $50 for a few hours, after all.

    Xenia, the numbers on population growth are like this: one third of the 600,000 additional residents expected in the Metro area in the next 20 years or so are from natural increase (e.g., children of people who already live here), so a good amount of the pressure is from newcomers. Where I differ from Beavis (and I say this as a Portland native — one of the few!) is that newcomers to the area are some of the best caretakers for all the places we hold sacred. I think that’s because they’ve come here specifically to spend time in the outdoors, and usually from a place that has nothing like the Gorge, Mt. Hood or the Coast to offer.

    So, I do think we benefit from the influx… but that doesn’t make it less daunting. In the end, we also need a LOT more trails, too..! 🙂

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  6. Tom Kloster Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Fluttershy – posted on top of you..!

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  7. Guy Says:

    >>For Guy, it would add an additional fee to hiking an overused trail on weekends

    I guess the big question is what defines an “overused trail”? My fear (Not unfounded in my experience) is that once you provide a public agency with a new source of money it’s never enough, how long before all gorge & Mt. Hood trails are $10.00 a go. If you hike these trails once a week as I do your are at at the Beavis loony suggestion of $500.00 pa.

    What’s the money collected used for? If the fee is just to reduce overuse then perhaps all the money collected should be donated to charity? Or used to build more hiking trails? But my bet is that the money would just be divided up between the various governmental agencies & swallowed up into the gaping general funds budget never to be seen or accounted for again.

    Not trying to be controversial, just another point of view!

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  8. Beyond Frustrated Says:

    This is so depressing to see and witness. I grew up in the gorge, I remember just two decades ago when a drive down 84 would be empty and there wouldn’t even be a car at Multnomah Falls. Oh how times have changed, Multnomah Falls may as well be Disney Land at this point it’s so corwded.

    The problem is really snowballing now. Portland has become too popular of a destination, the ‘coolest’ city in America, which has ruined Portland and many nearby locations. Then the once wild-lands, the gorge, the lakes, oh dear, it’s a nightmare. The phone apps like Instagram are ruining these places. Everyone has to go get their “selfie” taken at the same overused spot, which is always tagged with GPS and put on the internet, which causes more overuse, and more litter, destruction, and disregard for the environment. There is little interest in the wild lands themselves it seems by these miscreants, they simply want to get more “Likes” and “Hearts” on their selfies. It’s all about ‘me me me me’ which is all to typical for our society and what we have become. What a culture we have created and allowed to thrive.

    Automatic GPS tagging on internet photos has led to many places I have known and loved for decades to be destroyed. I know of a few remaining secret places still that haven’t been decimates by careless hoardes, some near to others that have been ruined and some that are still off the beaten track, and you better believe I keep them secret. The struggle to maintain and protect natural beauty at even the basic trails we all know and love without them being destroyed is starting to remind me of the struggle to preserve and protect archeological sites and Native American historical relics – speaking of – don’t even get me started on Wind Mountain which I have witnessed total morons re-stacking and rearranging the quest sites! Good grief, who are these idiots and why have they no respect for anything?!?

    Humans in all their selfishness are ruining the planet, and now we see it in our very own backyards as they are being used and abused.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that if you know of a special place, don’t share it with anyone who has a cell phone camera to blast to the world to see and go destroy!

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  9. Chip Down Says:

    Reasons I oppose TH parking fees:

    I’ve seen what government does with my/our money, and it enrages me nearly to the point of violence. I have the right, maybe even the duty, to starve the beast.

    I abhor complexity and bureaucracy, and I’ve yet to see a TH parking plan that wouldn’t make our world more complex and bureaucratic.

    From the standpoint of efficiency, it bothers me when I see government creating new sources of revenue, because I know that the administration of the scheme will cut into the revenue generated. This is especially true in a situation where enforcement is difficult. This isn’t quite like the public swimming pool or golf course where it’s easy to collect a fee from each patron.

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