Allan Kafley spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp in Nepal. His father told him about traveling through jungles, mountains, and forests in the family’s native country of Bhutan. “But those things were a fantasy because I was growing up in a refugee camp,” says Kafley. “I knew nothing about that.”
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
In 2008, Kafley moved to Seattle, where he now works as the multicultural outreach manager for ECOSS, a Seattle-based urban environmental nonprofit. There, he often leads trips for people who are like he once was—new to this country, new to English, new to outdoor recreation, and without a reliable way to get to a trailhead. This summer, though, the local transit agency, King County Metro, is launching its second year of seasonal service, allowing anyone to get to a trailhead the way Kafley once traveled around Seattle: by bus.
Around 20 times each Saturday, Sunday, and summer holiday, the agency is running shuttles between three local light rail hubs and four popular trailheads in the Seattle area. Kafley has used the service to take groups of new arrivals—Nepali, Bhutanese, Burmese, Somali—to hike, fish, and camp.
In fits and starts, small programs have sprung up in cities around the US to get people without vehicle access into public lands, be they national or neighborhood parks. Slightly less than 9 percent of Americans don’t have cars, but the numbers are higher in denser places like Los Angeles (12 percent), Seattle (17 percent), and San Francisco (31 percent). Today, riders can travel from Fresno and Merced to Yosemite, and Visalia to Sequoia National Park, both in California. They can hitch a 30-minute ride from a Portland light rail hub to popular Multnomah Falls. Since the late 1970s, they’ve been able to bus from downtown Aspen to the Maroon Bells peaks, in Colorado. Bay Area passengers can reach a bunch of trailheads by bus. At one point, pilot projects allowed riders to travel from Los Angeles’ downtown Union Station to the Angeles National Forest—a 14-hour walk transformed into a less-than-one-hour metro and shuttle ride.
Public transportation and other local agencies, working with nonprofits and local community groups, have established these programs for several reasons. Some are motivated by equity, by the idea that everyone, no matter where they live or how much they make, should have access to public resources.
“There’s been a real shift on the part of public agencies towards a more accepting and inclusive vision for public lands,” says Donald Rodriguez, a professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands. “The agencies are very much trying to throw out the welcome mat, and hoping people see these places as theirs, even though they historically have not been.”
Others are hoping to deal with a pragmatic issue: traffic. Multnomah Falls, outside Portland, has only 186 parking spots for the thousands of visitors flocking to the Columbia Gorge area. And the US Forest Service, which runs the site in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Transportation, has no interest in building a multi-story parking garage. “We’re very protective of this area. It looks about the way Lewis and Clark saw it when they paddled up the river,” says Don Hamilton, a public information officer with ODOT. “It’s jaw-dropping.”
So since 2016, ODOT has run a shuttle service between Portland, nearby Rooster State Park, and sites like the falls that dot the Columbia River Gorge. Average daily boardings have jumped from 505 in the first year to 677 in 2018, with 83 percent of those reaching the shuttle without driving, according to an ODOT rider survey. Other popular destinations, like the Bay Area’s Muir Woods and Hanging Lake, outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado, have set up shuttle systems to avoid a crush of cars.
Public land officials increasingly want to attract new people to their spaces—people who have a vested interest in protecting them in the future. “Historically, the constituency for public lands has been an exclusively white and exclusively upper and middle class demographic,” says Rodriguez. “Now, with the changing face of America, there’s a legitimate concern among public agencies about who is going to be their constituency going forward and whether public lands are going to be a priority for this changing demographic.” That includes, of course, the 80 percent of Americans who live in urban spaces, and the 87 percent expected to live there by 2050. And it includes people of color, who will account for over half of the US population by that year.
“People need to access nature in their backyard,” says Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, the assistant director of a program dedicated to providing equitable access to urban parks and open space at the nonprofit Wilderness Society. “If they don’t connect there, there’s not much chance of them wanting to explore and take ownership of these places and be stewards.” (The Wilderness Society works with King County on its Trailhead Direct program.)
Some transit-to-trailhead programs have been slow to get off the ground. The problem is generally money. A US Forest Service-funded program dedicated to increasing access for car-free Californians lost funding in 2016, after four years of work. And in Los Angeles, at least two shuttle systems connecting Metro to trailheads have been abandoned after a season amid funding woes.
“The thing that’s really difficult for people is that all public transit requires a subsidy,” says Emilyn Sheffield, the chair of the Department of Recreation, Hospitality and Parks Management at California State University, Chico. “These proofs-of-concept are never going to break even.” One of the LA shuttle pilots, to Angeles National Forest, cost the US Forest Service $35,500 for three weekends of service, according a document from Los Angeles Metro.
In Los Angeles, Metro is trying to find ways to connect people to green space, even in smaller patches. Next month, the agency is set to release a transit-to-parks strategic plan, which will assess which communities in LA county are “park poor”—that is, have the fewest green spaces within a 10-minute walk—and how Metro might connect them to recreation hubs. Eventually, the agency might support shuttles or buses between specific neighborhoods and parks, or even reroute existing services to make it easier for transit-dependent communities to get exercise and fresh air.
To get that done, agencies like Metro will have to work hand-in-hand with local outdoor groups on the ground, like San Francisco-based Latino Outdoors, Oakland-based Outdoor Afro, and ECOSS, in Seattle, to publicize transportation efforts. This summer, Kafley, the outreach director, expects to lead plenty of groups to the city’s nearby trails through Trailhead Direct. “People leave their stress and anxiety” when they go outside, he says. “It’s really beneficial in all aspects.”