The Nightmare at Bixby Traffic jams in paradise

By Kate Woods Novoa

I moved to Big Sur from Orange County in 1985. I worked in Salinas then, and commuted from Palo Colorado Canyon, 32 miles. It took fewer than 45 minutes, whether I went Highway 68 or Reservation Road. That was during peak commute time.

“How can you commute so far?” I was often asked. “Are you kidding? This is the most beautiful commute in the world. I love it.” For me, who was accustomed to a nine-mile commute that took an hour and a half during peak traffic times in Orange County, this was indeed heaven.

A lot has changed in 34 years. A lot — including me, my work, my residence — but all that while I stayed connected to Big Sur, her community, and my love of her.

Southbound traffic on Highway 1 leading to Bixby Bridge during the Memorial Day holiday last weekend was nothing short of a nightmare.

Anyone who has been stuck in LA traffic, Orange County traffic, or any urban sprawl in California traffic will recognize and even be familiar with these conditions. There are major and serious differences, though. This is a two-lane road that snakes its way across the side of mountains that are always trying to return to their natural state. It is a tough road to drive under any circumstances, but now the danger has reached epic proportions.

I expected the rain on Sunday to lighten the load on Bixby. It did not.

The danger of this situation can no longer be ignored by anyone who cares about Big Sur; it is now a crisis. The cause — whether it is overpopulation, over-tourism, overuse, over-advertising, social media, or all of it — no longer matters. It is a crisis. It is a danger to the health and safety of all residents and visitors.

There is no way for emergency vehicles to get through this traffic to respond to auto accidents, cliffside rescues, fires or the simplest health emergencies. The more visitors are lured into this area — with the ad campaigns of local governments, the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the California tourism industry — the more dangerous it becomes. The world of social media and Instagram hasn’t helped the situation. It’s more likely these emergencies are going to increase.

What we typically think of as emergencies — auto accidents, cliff rescues, wildfires — need to also include those that are health hazards, the pollution from all these idling cars and the human waste left on the side of the road. These health hazards are also emergencies due to the sheer volume.

We are very much like Third World countries with the lack of infrastructure we have in Big Sur. There are few public restrooms, and they are not well posted or available. Other cultures have different ways of handling their human waste and see nothing wrong with roadside waste. According to National Geographic, 1 billion people still defecate outdoors.

Local businesses on fragile septic systems are severely taxed from the use of their facilities by travelers who stop only for one thing, to use the bathrooms, according to Rick Aldinger, general manager of the Big Sur River Inn. Many residents who live next to Highway 1 have to deal with this health issue everyday, not to mention dirty diapers, toilet paper, and garden-variety trash in their driveways.

On May 20, 2016, a group of Big Sur residents, government agencies, and political leaders convened at Treebones Resort. The meeting was led by Kathleen Lee, then chief of staff for Dave Potter, who was a Monterey County supervisor at the time. (Lee is currently district director for Rep. Jimmy Panetta.)

Before the next meeting could take place, the Soberanes Fire took off in July. And other difficulties — the collapse of the Pfeiffer Bridge and the 15-month closure of Mud Creek, postponed that “next meeting” until we could gather again at a private residence in July 2018. Much had changed, so we couldn’t really “pick up where we left off.” We had to begin fresh. And we did. We were and are intent on developing a plan, as other overburdened tourist destinations have done.

We have spent three years studying other destinations and what they have done, giving and doing interviews, as well as publishing these issues on my blog, as individuals and as the Community Association of Big Sur, known as CABS, under the leadership of executive director Butch Kronlund. Scholarly papers are tackling this issue as well, using Big Sur as a study for sustainable tourism. It  is not an easy task to bring all the various entities together on a project of this magnitude, and it is laborious and time-consuming, but we are committed.

We all know Big Sur is unique. But it is unique not only in its landscape but in how the landscape is “owned.” Landowners in this 72-mile stretch of land include private owners, the county, the state and federal landowners. The National Scenic Byway, Highway 1, is maintained by two locally staffed stations of the California Department of Transportation here on the coast.

In an effort to promote awareness around the issue, CABS recently launched the Big Sur Pledge. The pledge asks people to promise to be aware and considerate of the environment and the people in Big Sur. Earlier this week, on Memorial Day, a group of local residents brought the Big Sur Pledge directly to the visitors of Bixby Bridge.

It isn’t the answer, but it is a small part of an overall project that attempts to raise the awareness of our visitors regarding the fragile nature of this environment and what they can and should do.

The association will be conducting community meetings in August with involved agencies, residents, and tourist organizations by bringing together experts in dealing with divergent governmental agencies and in sustainable tourism so that we may all work to the common goal of helping Big Sur survive.

The convention and visitors bureau has created a “Sustainable Moments” campaign toward this goal. I would respectfully submit that our goal should be not just a moment, but a Sustainable Future for Big Sur -— the environment, her residents, her businesses, and her visitors.

If we don’t protect Big Sur and her majestic environment, the other facets will cease to exist. We owe her that much and more.

Memorial Day weekend traffic  | Video by Tim  Huntington

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Sumrall: Highway 1 toll could resolve issues

Salazar: Solutions offered for Highway 1 traffic mess

Cardin: Tolls could improve highway, provide restrooms

Bauman: Rocky Creek Bridge also suffers

McGibney: Highway 1 toll proposal should be reconsidered


Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.