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Experimental Big Sur Shuttle Test Drives New Way To Reduce Traffic

Big Sur has a complicated relationship with tourists. The community relies on visitors for its economic survival. But too many can cause problems. There's an experiment underway to help that on the road to one popular destination. 

Pfeiffer Beach is one of Big Sur’s top tourist destinations. Online, it’s described as a must-see stop; even for those with tight itineraries.

Visitors love to capture pictures of the sun setting through a rock archway just offshore. Or walk through the beach’s patches of purple sand.

Jen Harding did just that during a family trip from Pennsylvania.

“I googled what to do in Big Sur. Actually, friends of ours had mentioned about the purple sand too,” Harding says.

Harding arrived at the beach on a shuttle. It’s an experimental service running this summer. The idea is to see if a shuttle can reduce that amount of beach traffic on Sycamore Canyon Road. It’s the main way in and out of Pfeiffer Beach.

The $5 shuttle runs Thursday through Sunday and picks up visitors at the Big Sur Station.  That’s where Weston Call hops on. He is President of Sur Transportation, which runs the service.

As the shuttle heads south on Highway 1, Call points to a turnout across the street from Sycamore Canyon Road. Cars usually line up there once the beach parking lot is full.

“They will be waiting to get down the canyon or they'll be walking out of the cars across the street trying to walk down. No one's in that turnout. So in terms of contributing to safety, we're helping there,” Call says.

Call lives in Big Sur and is passionate about protecting it. So when he rides the shuttle, he uses the time to learn what draws visitors here. And he shares his thoughts on visiting Big Sur.

“This is not Malibu. This is not Carmel Beach. This is wilderness,” says Call.

The shuttle turns down Sycamore Canyon. It’s a two mile, one lane road. Residents use it to get home, which can be difficult during the summer when tourist traffic hits its peak.

The shuttle slows as it tries to share the road with a propane truck headed the other way.

“Could you imagine if that was a fire truck trying to get out of here? With three cars in that bottleneck that’s backed up both ways? I mean think about precious seconds lost,” Call says.

Andrew Madsen is spokesperson for the Los Padres National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service manages Sycamore Canyon Road and Pfeiffer Beach.

“Combining the visitors going to Pfeiffer Beach with the local residents going and coming from their homes has been a rising management challenge for us,” Madsen says.

The Forest Service is just one of several overlapping public and private agencies that worked together to create this shuttle experiment.  

The experiment is taking place between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Two months in, Madsen sees the shuttle as a success; for both reducing the number of cars on the road and potentially getting more people to the beach.

“That's a central part of the Forest Service mission, is providing access to the public to their public lands,” Madsen says.

This shuttle experiment is set to wrap up in about a month. Madsen says they’re already open to trying this again next summer.

Weston Call’s takeaway from this experiment is a bit different. He wants to make the case for moving toward a reservation system for beach parking. And everyone else who wants to visit the beach can take a shuttle.

“I think this is not just isolated to Big Sur. It happens at the Grand Canyon. It happens at Muir Woods. It's happening at Yosemite and it's just, this is our time,” Madsen says.

As he sees it, it's time to reduce the impact visitors have on one of Big Sur’s top tourist destinations.

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