“The implementation of a shuttle program to transport visitors to Pfeiffer Beach is a vital first step in managing visitation within Big Sur. It provides an opportunity to interact with those visiting in a way that allows us to be better hosts by keeping everyone safer. By having terminals with restrooms and trash facilities at either end, we help Big Sur to be cleaner and healthier. By connecting with those visiting and taking the shuttle, we give each other an authentic experience that leaves us all richer for the effort.”
Butch Kronlund, CABS Executive Director
Sycamore Canyon Shuttle to Pfeiffer Beach Day Use Area (PBDUA)
The collapse of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in the aftermath of the atmospheric river events in early 2017 proved to be an inflection point for Big Sur. Many residents were cut off from their ability to make a living, resupply their pantry’s or fill their propane tanks to run a generator, cook or keep warm. Meanwhile, folks who lived north or south of the “Island” as it came to be known, that relied on the businesses affected by the closure, had their lives abruptly altered. Despite the apparent hardship, some longtime locals saw this break in the routine as an opportunity to pivot towards a more sustainable paradigm.
One aspect of that paradigm shift was to initiate a shuttle service to facilitate visitor access to and from the north and south entry points of the Community Trail. With backing from Supervisor Mary Adams, fiscal sponsorship from the Coast Property Owners Association (now CABS) and financial support from Monterey County, a local shuttle service embraced the challenge. Aside from the task of transporting visitors, Weston Call, the founder of Sur Transportation, took it upon himself to engage shuttle riders with positive examples of Big Sur’s environmental and cultural heritage. As a result, passengers became ambassadors for sustainable visitation. In truth, the successful prototyping of the shuttle service to bring the public access to the “island” was the green light for the Sycamore Canyon/Pfeiffer Beach shuttle project.
While the Bridge was being rebuilt, and the shuttle service bringing the public access to the “island” was being successfully run, Sycamore Canyon Road and Pfeiffer Beach were closed to the public and open only to local traffic. This provided CABS an opportunity to install a hose-type vehicle counter to determine an accurate count of local vehicular traffic. Now that the Bridge has opened, the car counter continues providing data which suggests that visitor traffic to Pfeiffer Beach is 7X to 10X local traffic. Having this data is helpful. But solving the health and safety aspects of the traffic problem has not proven to be easy.
Sycamore Canyon Road is a narrow, private, 2-mile-long road, leading from Highway 1 to Pfeiffer Beach Day use Area, in the heart of Big Sur. There are perhaps 5 separate locations where 2 cars can safely pass each other going opposite directions. Residences on or adjacent Sycamore Canyon Road, the enclaves of Pius Ridge, Pfeiffer Point, Clear Ridge and Front Hill Road are all dependent, to one degree or another on access to their properties via this single lane. Although the road is private, the United States Forest Service, the agency with jurisdiction at PBDUA, has a superior easement on the road to allow the public access to the Beach. Although there is a sign advising that pedestrians and RV’s are not permitted access, both occur on a routine basis and there is no authority preventing this from happening.
Managing the 65-slot parking area and restrooms on behalf of the USFS is Parks Management Corporation (PMC), a for profit concessionaire. Part of the terms and conditions of their management agreement include an operations plan that spells out how the parking lot, restrooms and traffic are managed. Over the years, as visitation to Pfeiffer Beach has exploded in popularity, that plan has had to undergo changes. Although PMC has a contract with the USFS, their operations plan must also be approved by the California Coastal Commission for compliance with the access, health and safety and resource protection provisions of the landmark California Coastal Act. A shuttle service designed to address the underlying issue of traffic safety must also be shown to not impede access to the public’s right to visit Pfeiffer Beach.
Of course, besides a destination, a shuttle service must have a parking lot and terminal headquarters. In this case, the “Back Country” Pine Ridge Trailhead parking lot at the Big Sur Multi-Agency Facility (MAF) has been available for a period of time while that trail undergoes repairs.
Undaunted, the following group of collaborators met to hammer out an operations plan that satisfied each concern.
- Congressman Jimmy Panetta (Kathleen Lee)
- Senator Bill Monning (Tobias Upton)
- Supervisor Mary Adams (Kate Daniels, Yuri Anderson)
- California State Parks Monterey District Superintendent Brent Marshall, Ranger Sean James
- USFS Monterey District Ranger Tim Short, Recreation Officer Tom Murphey
- California Highway Patrol, Commander Kelly Cardoza, Officer Chris Paredes
- Parks Management Co. Mike Hartley and Debbie Waggoner
- Department of Transportation Jacques Van Zeventer
- Sur Transportation Weston, Brian, Galen and Andrew Call
- Los Padres Forest Association Tim Bills
- California Coastal Commission, Michael Watson
- Community Association of Big Sur, Butch Kronlund
With the help of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau in the form of a $36K subsidy, the Sycamore Canyon/ Pfeiffer Beach shuttle project commenced on Memorial weekend 2018 and ran successfully through Labor Day weekend of the same year. Tragically, Weston Call, the visionary owner of Sur Transportation, died in his sleep at the age of 32, of natural causes in August, shocking the community and leaving a void in the hearts of all of those who loved him and came to know him for the fine man he was. In his memory, the effort continues.
Progress to Date
The 2018 shuttle demonstration project was a success but improvements to PMC’s operations plan are needed to address the fundamental problem of too many vehicles on Sycamore Canyon Road. Utilizing an adaptive management strategy, including a proposed fee increase to park and a reciprocal decrease in the cars allowed to park in the PBDUA parking lot, have been submitted to both the USFS and the Coastal Commission for approval. The Shuttle operations plan has also been submitted and includes changes in rate structure and ridership. Both plans are undergoing review. One thing, however, has been made clear to the collaborative group. The Big Sur community will not further support the shuttle demonstration project unless the operations plan results in a significant reduction in vehicle traffic on Sycamore Canyon Road to Pfeiffer Beach.
More as it becomes available.