Posted tagged ‘trails’

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

April 30, 2016
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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.

Gorge Plan hits crucial stretch!

April 27, 2014
Columbia River Gorge from Chanticleer Point

Columbia River Gorge from Chanticleer Point

If you’ve been following the progress of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s (OPRD) new Gorge Recreation Plan, you may have commented during the earlier, fairly conceptual phases of the project. On April 24, the OPRD gave us the first real look at on-the-ground specifics with a first draft of the plan.

At first glance, the new plan has a lot to like, and it is crucial for trail advocates to weigh in to support this effort now! Why? Because hiking is being portrayed by a few land managers as “the problem” in the Gorge. Ironically, this is because the state and federal land agencies that manage the Gorge have failed to keep pace with the rapid growth in recreation demand over recent decades, and some trails have (predictably) suffered from overuse as a result.

Switchback on the Angels Rest Trail coming unraveled from overuse

Switchback on the Angels Rest Trail coming unraveled from overuse

Yes, trails like Angels Rest and Eagle Creek are wildly overcrowded during peak hiking periods, and they are most certainly showing the wear. But the answer isn’t to lock the public out of the Gorge! Instead, expanding opportunities with a few new trails and better ways to use existing routes is the realistic solution. But it will take the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation working together to make that happen. The draft Gorge Plan makes a big step in this direction, and it deserves our support.

What’s in the plan?

The 20-year update to the Gorge Recreation Plan was kicked off last fall with an assessment of existing recreational, cultural and natural resources currently found on State Park lands in the Gorge, and an inventory of natural or scenic features that should be protected from recreation-oriented improvements.

From this basic understanding of existing conditions, the State Parks staff has since assembled a detailed set of project proposals that attempt to fill in some of the facility gaps in the system. The overall vision is framed in a west-to-east schematic (sample shown below) that describes the assets currently found at each State Park in the Gorge, as well as proposals to enhance each of the parks.

Sample schematic from the draft Gorge Parks Plan

Sample schematic from the draft Gorge Parks Plan

Once you figure out how the schematic works, it’s an efficient way for ordinary citizens to really understand what is being proposed by the OPRD. You can download a PDF of the schematic on this OPRD web page and review it in detail. The final version of this document will guide park decisions for decades to come, so it’s very important to give OPRD your input now!

The draft plan includes major upgrades at seven park sites, including Chanticleer Point (Women’s Forum Park), Rooster Rock, Bridal Veil Falls, Ainsworth, Wyeth, Viento and West Mayer state parks. Each of these major upgrade proposals is described in poster format, as follows:

Sample major project page from the draft Gorge Parks Plan

Sample major project page from the draft Gorge Parks Plan

In each case, new trails, restrooms, bike/hike campsites and other major improvements that would enhance quiet recreation in the Gorge are proposed. There is a lot to like in these proposals, and the State Parks staff have not only put a lot of creative thought in assembling them, but have also been listening to recreation advocates seeking to make the state parks more reflective of current recreation demand — both in volume and variety. You can download a PDF of a detailed poster describing these proposals on this OPRD page.

The Trails

First, some exciting news: several trail concepts proposed on this blog have made it into the OPRD proposal for the Gorge! Special thanks go to readers who have weighed in with support for these proposals – your voice matters. Other trail concepts came from OPRD staff and the newly formed Gorge Recreation Coalition, a broad advocacy group consisting of several non-profit organizations focused on quiet recreation in the Gorge.

The following are highlights from the major trail proposals included in the draft plan, and all can be downloaded from this OPRD web page. This map key will help decipher existing versus proposed facilities:

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First up, the draft plan proposes a new trail following a fascinating old road grade from Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point (Women’s Forum Park), perhaps the most photographed vantage point in the Columbia River Gorge.

Proposed Women's Forum (Chanticleer) Trail

Proposed Women’s Forum (Chanticleer) Trail

Including this trail is a nice step forward, but the concept should more fully embrace the historic nature of the old road. After all, this rustic old road pre-dates the historic highway, and was once how visitors accessed the former Chanticleer Inn (below) from a rail stop at the Rooster Rock Cannery. The Inn was one in a string of roadhouses that once defined tourism in the Columbia Gorge.

Chanticleer Inn circa 1920

Chanticleer Inn circa 1920

Therefore, this trail should be known as the “Chanticleer Grade Trail”, to keep this important history alive, with interpretive signage along the route designed to give hikers a sense of what the trip up the old road must have been like more than a century ago. Here’s a recent trip report that gives a sense of the potential for this trail.

Next up is a proposed trail connecting the Bridal Veil Falls trail to Angels Rest. The concept is a good one, to the extent that it might take some pressure off the heavily impacted Angels Rest trail. It also traverses public lands currently out of reach to most visitors. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have the direct benefit that [url=]the Angels Rest Loop[/url] proposal on this blog would have, and this option requires more trail to be constructed.

Proposed Bridal Veil to Angels Rest Trail

Proposed Bridal Veil to Angels Rest Trail

The Bridal Veil proposal also seems to leave out a couple of prime opportunities along Bridal Veil Creek, including the possibility of a Bridal Veil Canyon Trail described in this blog, and a universal access trailhead and trail located at the old Bridal Veil Mill site, just downstream from Bridal Veil Falls. The latter was proposed in the Gorge Coalition comments on the draft plan. Both trail improvements should be added to the draft plan.

Moving eastward, another important trail proposal in the draft plan would fill a gap in Trail 400, east of Ainsworth State Park. This missing link would allow for some long loop hikes for hikers seeing a challenge, and especially for campers staying at the Ainsworth campground (where a number of additional improvements are proposed).

Proposed Ainsworth Gap Trail

Proposed Ainsworth Gap Trail

Further to the east, the draft plan proposes to include the Viento Bluff Trails described in this blog. This would be a series of straightforward, easy-to-build connections that would create a network of family-friendly loops from the Viento Campground.

Proposed Viento Bluffs Trail

Proposed Viento Bluffs Trail

The “existing trails” shown in the Viento area on the draft map are a bit confusing, as some of the trails don’t actually seem to exist, but the general idea for the area is captured, and this ought to be a high priority for OPRD. The easy access and proximity of Viento State Park to the Portland area also make these proposed trails prime candidates for volunteer labor.

Finally, the new trail proposals include yet another concept from this blog, the Mitchell Point Loop Trail. While the eastern loop from the blog version is dropped from the State Parks proposal, the western loop is retained, and this would be a dramatic enhancement to existing the Mitchell Point trail.

Proposed Mitchell Point Loop

Proposed Mitchell Point Loop

This new trail should also be a priority for construction as a viable alternative to the Angels Rest Trail. Though a longer drive from Portland, the views are equally spectacular, and the scenery more rugged. The west loop would also add a series of Oregon oak-covered bluffs to the experience, a unique alterative to the Angels Rest experience.

What’s missing from the Mitchell Point proposal? Notably, a future for the nearby Wygant and Chetwoot trails, routes that are rapidly disappearing from lack of maintenance and some rough treatment by BPA crews. A portion of the Wygant Trail shows up on the Mitchell Point map, so at least the draft plan is not proposing to formally abandon this route, but it does deserve to be called out for restoration.

You can review all of the proposed trail enhancements in PDF form on this page on the OPRD website.

How to be Heard

Oregon State Parks staff will be holding a public meeting on Wednesday, April 30 at the Corbett Fire Station. Despite the short notice and distant location for most Portlanders, it’s important to weigh in. If you can’t make it to the open house, then be sure to weigh in via the Gorge Parks Plan project website. The website is set up in blog format, so simply scroll down to comment at the bottom. The OPRD staff has thus far proven to be interested and responsive to public feedback on the Gorge Parks Plan, so your comments will be considered in a meaningful way.

The OPRD goal for the third set of public meetings is to roll out their draft Gorge Plan proposals and hear public input, especially on the prioritization of the proposed park improvements.

January Gorge Parks Plan meeting in Cascade Locks

January Gorge Parks Plan meeting in Cascade Locks

State Parks staff have posed the following questions for the public to consider:

1. Of the improvements proposed, what do you see as priorities?

2. If you could see only one of the proposed improvements implemented, which would it be?

3. Are there proposed improvements that you think should wait?

4. Is there anything you would like to see that hasn’t been captured in the proposals?

Thus far, the OPRD meetings have been lightly attended, but those who have taken the time to weigh in have been heard. It’s worth your time, and this is a rare opportunity to shape the future of recreation in the Gorge. Remember, this is a 20-year planning window, and the new Gorge Parks Plan will set the stage for how parks are manage for decades to come.

Please consider taking the time to weigh in!