Christopher Neely here, thinking about the push and pull between public access and safety when it comes to tourism and open space, particularly along Highway 1.
The secret is out about Monterey County’s unparalleled natural beauty. Whether you blame Instagram, or influencers or just the internet and Information Age in general, the fact is the same: tourism in the region is exploding and the tightrope between public access, sustainability and preservation is trembling.
It’s hard to think of a place where this balance is more delicate than along Highway 1 near Point Lobos Natural Reserve. For the uninitiated, just take a drive southbound down Highway 1 on any weekend and you will eventually see a stretch of cars parallel parked off the west side of the highway long before you reach the Point Lobos entrance. You can find folks carrying young children and/or coolers, many of whom are unsuspecting and unprotected as they scale the edge of the winding highway with cars zipping by at 50mph.
That cars can only be found on the west side of the highway around Point Lobos is thanks to a pilot parking prohibition passed by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in 2019. That prohibition is now permanent after a unanimous June 8 vote by the board, brought by District 5 Supervisor Mary Adams. Before 2019, cars lined both sides of the highway around the Point Lobos entrance, which not only meant unsuspecting and unprotected pedestrians were regularly crossing the state highway, but also that emergency response vehicles had a difficult time navigating the road. This was especially concerning during fire season.
The ban on east side parking might seem like common sense when considering the safety of drivers and pedestrians and the ability of first responders; however, the effort ruffled the feathers of groups concerned about access to Point Lobos. In a May 25 letter to the Board of Supervisors, the California Coastal Commission, whose rallying cry is public access to parks, “strongly” recommended against a permanent ban of eastside parking until a regional parking plan was figured out.
In supporting the ban, Supervisor Adams said she took the concern over access seriously. County parks staff said the pilot ban did not hurt park access, as seen by the rising number of visitors the park saw during that time, and no pedestrian vs. car deaths occurred in the area during that time. California State Parks, CalFire, the Point Lobos Foundation and the Big Sur Byway Organization were among the several organizations to support the permanent ban of east side parking.
However, as tourism continues to rise in the region, parking and park access will remain central questions. Stakeholders such as the Big Sur Land Trust and the ParkIt! initiative said efforts are underway to develop off-highway parking for Point Lobos in areas such as Marathon Flats and to coordinate a park-and-ride service where visitors can park in a safer lot and shuttle to the park.
Of course, the nuclear option exists as well—a reservation system for Point Lobos to limit the number of park users. When the California State Park and Recreation Commission approved the zoomed-out Carmel Area State Parks General Plan in May, Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur, told me it was the first step if a capacity limit for Point Lobos was to ever be implemented. That’s still pretty far away though, he said.