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MUIR WOODS, A REALITY CHECK:

PARKING, SHUTTLES, AND TOURIST BUSES, "JUST THE FACTS (NUMBERS), MA'AM," J. WEBB.

The following are my observations and analysis of the revisions to the visitation paradigm for Muir Woods National Monument currently being proposed.  Most importantly, permanent road shoulder parking on Frank Valley Road is a major part of the Park Service’s proposals.  My study uncovered a major self-contradiction in the Park Service’s plan, which could open the door to future abuses of the discretionary powers of the Park’s Management.

 

It is essential to understand this contradiction in the plan, and its implications for the future well-being of the forest, for members of the general public to engage thoughtfully and productively in the upcoming conversation on the proposed reservation system, and changes to the visitation model, the management of the GGNRA is envisioning.  This conversation will begin this Wednesday evening at the Tam Valley Community Center.  Here, the management team of the GGNRA will present their ideas for the future.  The meeting time is 6:30 p.m.  Please, read my commentary below and come informed of the facts.  Make your voices heard.  Hopefully, someone will be listening.

 

Background:

 

At a recent meeting with the management team of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) with community leaders from Homestead Valley and two core members (myself and Steve Thompson) of the Mount Tam Task Force, www.mounttamtaskforce.com, the Park Service’s managers previewed their ideas for a revision of the visitation paradigm for the Muir Woods National Monument that included two major elements: first was the implementation of a reservation system, similar to the one currently in use for Alcatraz Island, and secondly, the use of the road shoulder along Frank Valley Road to accommodate parking for 110 vehicles, in addition to the existing 155 paved parking spaces nearby the Park’s entrance.  This proposal comes at a time when Muir Woods has been the receiving a great number of visitors, particularly on the Weekends during the high season.  This has put great strain on both the natural resources of the Park, as well as on the people working at the National Monument.  It has led to dangerous conditions along the roads leading to the Park, the demand for overflow parking has been met with very congested and unsafe personal auto parking along Frank Valley Road.  This roadway runs along a sensitive natural habitat that is negatively impacted by its use as a de-facto weekend parking lot for Muir Woods.  After an epic day of visitation last year, it became evident to the management of the GGNRA that it was time to take control of the situation.  Their current proposal is a step in that direction.  In my opinion, however, this proposal is laden with certain problems and contradictions, some of which are revealed by my analysis.

 

Analysis:

My analysis is focused on the parking element in the proposed visitation model and what it says about the necessity to use the road shoulder of Frank Valley Road.  It also pays particular attention to the stated goal of the Park Service to limit per day visitation to Muir Woods to 4000 visitors.  Secondly, in light of the stated desired limit on visitation, I question the number of and even the necessity for bus service, be it public or private, to accommodate that need.  My conclusion is that if in fact the Park Service were to acquire the use of the 110 additional parking spaces along Frank Valley Road, those spaces added to the existing 155 paved spaces in their parking lots would provide sufficient parking for 4,000 daily visitors to the Park.  If this road shoulder parking were granted, it should lead to a demand to end all bus transportation out to the Park.  This contradicts the recently published 20 year General Management Plan for the GGNRA, which talks about reducing passenger car impacts on the Monument and the neighboring communities by using buses to carry an increased percentage of the Monuments visitors, particularly on the high season weekends.  This contradiction is quite evident and is the source of grave concern to both those who worry about the negative impacts that parking along Frank Valley Road has on the adjacent stream, Redwood Creek.  It is also of concern to those who rely on public transportation to visit the Park.

The Details:

In order to understand the analysis of the parking situation at Muir Woods, the reader must know how the parking lots currently are laid out.  At the immediate entrance to the Park there are forty-five parking spaces for auto, including handicap spaces and spaces dedicated to electrical vehicle charging stations.  Also, in this area there are slots for 8 tourist buses and 6 small tourist vans.  Immediately adjacent to this area is a larger paved parking lot with over 110 spaces available for cars, personal vans and SUVs.  These are referred to in the Park Service’s proposal as the 115 current paved spaces available.

Walking a little further down Frank Valley Road in the direction of Highway 1 and Muir Beach on the left-hand side of the road is a long wide length of road shoulder that can accommodate 35 cars.  On the opposite side of the road from this off road parking is a path that leads safely to the larger parking lot and from there on to the lot immediately in front of the main entrance gate to the National Monument.  These 35 off road, “inside the bridge,” spaces, located away from Redwood Creek and close to the Park entrance, are the most logical and least problematic place for additional parking.

 These 35 spaces, along with 75, “outside the bridge,” spaces are referred to in the Park Service’s plan as the 110 additional spaces to be used on and along Frank Valley Road.  The other 75 spaces are on the far side of the small bridge over Redwood Creek, which flows out of Muir Woods proper, alongside Frank Valley Road to the ocean at Muir Beach.

Between the 35 spaces “inside the bridge” and the adjacent parking lot, closer to the entrance gate, is a small flat clearing currently assessable by a gravel driveway that could easily accommodate another 20 vehicles.

I have timed the different walking times from the main gate to these various parking locations.  These differences are the reason for the variations in the visitation time per vehicle that I used in my study and analysis.

The Numbers:

During the meeting in Homestead Valley, I was able to query the Park Service’s staff concerning the average length of time each of the vehicles stayed in the current paved parking lots.  They said it was 2 hours, or about 120 minutes.  Previous Park Service studies reveal that the average time visitors spend inside its gates is 92 minutes.  I have concluded that the difference between the two is the time spent coming and going from their cars to the Park’s gate.  Muir Woods is less than a mile long and this timing makes sense.  Additionally, I asked the managers what the average number of people per car was.  They replied that it was 3.2, an interestingly precise answer.  The Park is open for 10 hours a day, which means that the 155 paved parking spaces can turn over 5 times each day.

So, if there are 3.2 people per vehicle, 155 spaces, turning over 5 times per day, simply multiplying these numbers tells us that the current existing paved parking spaces at Muir Woods can provide for 2,480 visitors per day (155 x 5 x 3.2).  The 35 parking spaces at the off road parking location, “inside the bridge,” would only turn over 4 times per day, due to their increased distance from the entrance gate.  So, using the same process as we used above, we can conclude that they can provide for an additional 450 visitors per day (35 x 4 x 3.2).  The potential 20 spaces in the small clearing that I mentioned above, being somewhat closer to the entrance gate,  would likely turn over 4.5 times per day and provide an additional parking for an addition 290 visitors per day (20 x 4.5 x 3.2).

Using an Excel spreadsheet to delve into and model the interactive details of the math behind the parking issues at Muir Woods, I have reached the following conclusions.  First, add up the numbers above (2,480 plus 450 plus 290) and we now have parking for 3,220 visitors per day, “inside the bridge.”  In the meeting in Homestead Valley, the members from the Park Service’s management team were quite explicit in stating that they intend to allocate 10% of their 4,000 person per day visitation goal to walk and bike-ins, which are 400 visitors.  This leaves us with a limit of 3,600 visitors per day coming to the Park in personal vehicles, commercial tourist buses and by Marin Transit’s weekend shuttle operation.  If you subtract the 3,220 parking spaces immediately available “inside the bridge,” from this 3,600 number, you come up with only 380 people that need to be bused into the Park.  This number can be achieved by bringing in just one forty passenger commercial tourist bus per hour from the City.  In this scenario, there is no reason to continue the Marin Transit’s weekend shuttle service.

What Gives?

This begs the question, why does the Park Service need the 75 environmentally sensitive parking spaces on and along the road shoulder of Frank Valley Road “after the bridge?”  If you walk out to that location you can see that it has more danger associated with it than the parking inside the bridge.  The distance from these parking spaces to the entrance gate would likely limit their turnover rate to only 3.5 times per day.  Even so, using the analytic process above, we can conclude that using these spaces has the potential of adding 840 visitors to the Park each day.

Not including the potential parking in the small clearing that could provide for 290 visitors per day, the use of the existing paved parking along with both the 35 spaces “inside the bridge” and the 75 spaces “outside the bridge” on Frank Valley Road can provide parking for 3,770 visitors per day.  Add in the allowance for 400 walk and bike-ins, and you have 4,170 visitors per day.  In this scenario, there is no possible need for any buses of any kind, be they commercial or public, to bring people to the Park.  What Gives?

Conclusion:

If the use of the road shoulder parking eliminates the need for buses, then the obverse is true.  If we continue the current bus services to the Park, we can comfortably eliminate parking along the road shoulder along Frank Valley Road, with all the benefits that implies, from the Park Service’s proposal.  Adding the proposed road shoulder parking to the continuation of the existing bus service simply enables the overuse of the natural resources.  How much over-visitation will occur above the 4,000 per day only depends on how many, how large, and how frequent the buses.  Increasing bus service will simply exacerbate the already difficult conditions on the peak season weekends.  A 4 times per hour bus service from Manzanita, the Sausalito Ferry or the City, can add 1,000 visitors per day to the visitation equation.  The numbers speak for themselves.  If the Park Service is sincere about wanting to conserve the natural resources of Muir Woods, maintain a highly positive and inspiring visitation experience for the general public, while promoting optimal public safety, it will resolve this issue by ceasing its plans to obtain a grant of permission from the County of Marin to use the road shoulder of Frank Valley Road for overflow parking.  In this regard, the Board of Supervisors will refrain from granting the Park Service any such grant of permission.

I understand that this statement will disturb those who might harbor an actual wish to permanently enable expansion of visitation to the Park.  However, I think it is important to thwart those impulses and desires at this moment, when the GGNRA is beginning to create its reservation system and circulation paradigm for the National Monument.  The implementation of the Park Service’s proposal will have long term effects on the natural resource and the surrounding communities.  Before any final decision is made to go forward with the current plan on the table, the criticism contained in this study and analysis needs to be thoroughly vetted amongst those parties concerned with this issue.

 

Thank You,

 

Clayton Smith, Mill Valley.


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