In some ways my life would be much easier and cheaper without a car. I live on the edge of a major city. Parking is a pain in the ass. Driving often is too. Parking tickets are a constant threat and occasionally expensive bummers. Gas is above $4 gallon often here in California and insurance and registration costs are more painful than I’d like. I put up with all of that unpleasantness because, for the most part, a car is the best way to access surf spots, mountain bike trails, and campgrounds. Of course, there are also plenty of people who can’t afford a car in a city, or have done the calculus and decided it simply isn’t worth the effort to own one. Presumably, many of those people want to get out into wild spaces too.
That’s where the burgeoning transit-to-trail movement comes in.
Let’s make it easy, or easier anyway, for people without cars or people who’d prefer not to drive, to get to trailheads, goes the thinking behind the transit-to-trails idea. Up in Seattle, the idea has coalesced into a program called Trailhead Direct. King County Metro (the local transit authority) and King County Parks have put their heads together and come up with a plan to allow Washington residents far easier access to the backcountry without having to drive themselves.
The idea isn’t exclusive to the PNW, though the success the Trailhead Direct program has had in Seattle shows the promise of getting people out of cars on their way to nature.
Trailhead Direct started with just one route back in 2017. In 2018, the program expanded with help from additional funding from the city. REI and Clif Bar came on board too and chipped in with sponsorship and helping to spread the word. It worked. Last summer, some 10,000 people boarded buses to ride to trailheads, rather than drive themselves. That means thousands of fewer car trips. It means thousands of fewer cars filling parking lots. Tons of gasoline unburned. Less frustration with traffic on the way to get out of town, or to return. Parking areas in fragile ecosystems not overrun and choked with cars.
At least with this program, hikers could board a bus in downtown Seattle and be outside, pack on their back, sun on their face, wind in their hair, within an hour. The fares are reasonable, if not downright cheap. A hiker can board a bus in Seattle, and pay only $2.75 for a ride to Mailbox Peak, some 38 miles away. That’s the same as standard bus fare (it costs me that same amount to ride a bus in SF four miles to the Financial District, for comparison’s sake). You can even bring your dog on board. The Trailhead Direct program is weekends and holidays only in the spring and summer, but that’s when most people are hiking anyway, so it makes sense.
You can, of course, take public transit to trails in many urban areas. Where I live, in San Francisco, I could take a bus to the waterfront and then a ferry across the bay to camp at Angel Island, for example. In Vancouver once, I remember seeing a couple on a bus with backpacks packed for a multi-day trip somewhere in the backcountry, presumably. They hopped off at a stop near a stand of trees near a northern suburb and began fastening their hipbelts for a hike as the bus pulled away. I was envious.
But the Trailhead Direct program is unique in that unlike figuring out your own public transit method to a wilderness area near a city, they’ve simply built a system designed specifically for the purpose. Every weekend and holiday the buses fill with hikers weary of driving or the carless who still want to get out and drive them right to popular trailheads. It helps that a place like Seattle is surrounded by exquisite mountains and trail networks. Those places, however, remain mostly inaccessible to the carless, who, stuck in urban areas most of the time, probably need access to green and wild spaces the most.
“Each person who steps off the bus and onto one of our trails has the opportunity to fall in love with the outdoors and become a champion of our public lands, helping ensure we preserve these lands for generations to come,” says Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands.
Pilot programs similar to Trailhead Direct have popped up in other urban areas too, most notably Los Angeles. Largely with the same goals in mind, to allow people without cars to escape urban life to be wowed by nature.
But even for those with cars who already champion public lands, leaving them at home can be a freeing experience.
You can find out more about Seattle’s program, here. Photos: Eli Brownell, King County Parks