The Cambrian

Highway 1 traffic in Big Sur is a mess. Here’s how Caltrans is planning to fix it

Is the iconic Highway 1 car trip from Cambria to Big Sur an endangered species?

Many people dream of zipping past gorgeous scenery in a top-down convertible, the wind in their hair. And scores of visitors do make the rugged, 100-mile trek from Cambria to Carmel.

But more vehicles wind up on the highway than the roadway and the terrain can handle.

The end result? Traffic jams in paradise.

Enter the Big Sur Highway 1 Sustainable Transportation Demand Management Plan, available online at www.sustainablehighway1.com.

As the plan’s introduction says, the goal is to “preserve the rugged and scenic nature of the Big Sur experience for all people through balanced, adaptive management strategies that encourage the use of transit and active transportation to enhance the travel experience and support sustainable corridor access.”

Are visitors loving Highway 1 to death?

The traffic crunch and other issues aren’t just a problem for visitors.

The gorgeous stretch of federally designated All-American Highway “provides access to residences, businesses, and public facilities as well as being a key transportation corridor between communities and activity centers to the north and south,” according to the site. “Visitor demand along the Big Sur Highway exemplifies the popularity of access to recreation areas and the desire for scenic recreational touring.”

Unfortunately, with so many people wanting to be on Highway 1 at the same time, we are, in effect, “loving it to death,” Caltrans project manager John Olejnik said.

The plan’s website says “private automobile use along the highway is increasingly unsustainable — reducing the quality of the visitor experience, creating operational concerns and degrading the natural, human, and historical attributes of the highway.”

Vehicle congestion and other issues cause slowdowns with long lines of cars creeping their way up or down the steeply scenic oceanfront road. Or traffic can stop outright because motorists want selfies of themselves in front of the gorgeous scenery and there are few places to pull over.

Add to that a lack of public restrooms and fragmented and unreliable cellphone service, and you’ve got a recipe for a beautiful but frustrating drive.

The Caltrans plan aims to “address issues associated with the Highway 1 corridor, including limited off-highway parking, visitors walking along the highway, increased travel times, identifying potential electric-vehicle charging stations and other operational concerns,” according to the website.

“Also addressed be will the physical and environmental constraints which limit the ability and appropriateness of expanding the footprint of roads, parking areas and other transportation infrastructure,” the site says.

Possible Big Sur traffic solutions

As discussed a meeting held Oct. 29 in Cambria, subsequently repeated in Carmel Valley the next day and at the Big Sur Multi-Agency Advisory Committee meeting on Nov. 1, some of the proposed solutions to those issues include:

• Getting people out of their cars and onto public transit, such as an interlocking system of shuttle routes. There’s a public-transit gap between Nepenthe and San Simeon, Olejnik said.

• Creating more viewpoints and pullouts and/or formalizing the dirt or gravel-topped ones that are already there. Imagine what a difference a handy pullout or parking area could make the next time you’re stuck in standstill traffic because a tourist wanted a selfie at Bixby Bridge, or you’re trapped behin a 30-foot motor home that’s doing a brisk 15 mph.

• Encouraging the use of electric cars by installing more charging stations along the way.

• Managing attendance and parking availability at popular sites such as Point Lobos, McWay Falls and Garrapata Beach, perhaps with a reservation system.

• Locating visitor information hubs at key locations, such as Carmel, Big Sur and Hearst Castle. Those could be formalized park-and-ride transit stops that provide restrooms, interpretive information and information about appropriate behavior along the corridor. Information could also be provided to places where people already ask for details, such as service stations and restaurants.

• Providing additional restrooms along the route, and telling visitors where they are, to help prevent health hazard conditions that happen all too often now.

• Encouraging active transportation, from bikes to hiking, encouraging shared use of paved shoulders on the road and creating shared-use paths separate from the highway.

For those who have suggested that the Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 become a toll road, Olejnik said that current California laws don’t support establishing new toll roads.

Even if they did, drivers must have a “free parallel option” to the toll route, he said.

There is no such option on the Cambria-to-Carmel section of Highway 1, the oceanfront route to Big Sur and beyond.

You can find the Big Sur Highway 1 Sustainable Transportation Demand Management Plan and make comments at www.sustainablehighway1.com.

The deadline for those comments is Dec. 9, Olejnik said.

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Kathe Tanner has been writing about the people and places of SLO County’s North Coast since 1981, first as a columnist and then also as a reporter. Her career has included stints as a bakery owner, public relations director, radio host, trail guide and jewelry designer. She has been a resident of Cambria for more than four decades, and if it’s happening in town, Kathe knows about it.
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