The Natural Barriers Remote terrain limits potential for traffic improvement in Big Sur

McWay Falls | Photo by Mara Reynolds


By Kate Woods Novoa

Big Sur is the greatest meeting of land and sea. It is where the mountains are constantly marching to the ocean. It is a place to which the word “iconic” has been applied much too often. It is a place that has been “discovered” and Instagramed into a cliché.

We have come to experience “LA-type traffic” here in paradise, and thus, we are in need of a plan.

Just in the last few days the magazine Fodor’s Travel put Big Sur on its 2020 NO GO list. It is in good company, along with Bali, Barcelona and 10 other popular destinations. With its beauty and all the promotion it gets, the chickens “have come home to roost,” according to Fodor’s.

Big Sur is past the point of needing to be “managed.” Any plan that attempts to do this “managing” will be, by necessity, complex and difficult. In the end, it is Mother Nature who determines much of what happens here. That is the allure and the draw. We humans must be careful to consider the needs of this place — her environment —  before our own. And a proposed plan meant to tackle the problem acknowledges that Big Sur’s terrain and remote location make solutions even more difficult.

The state Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, has held a series of public meetings about what it calls the Sustainable Transportation Management Plan, a document that attempts to establish a strategy to resolve traffic issues along the Big Sur coast. The meetings were held in three locations, Cambria, Big Sur and Carmel Valley. Community input presented to Caltrans during those meetings reflected  the concerns of each specific locale.

Caltrans has significantly improved its public relations outreach in providing information about any big projects. The agency was preparing to build the now-famous rock shed near Rain Rocks followed by a viaduct over Pitkin’s Curve, and established a local aesthetics committee to help with the design of the outside/visible part of the rock shed. I was on that committee. (For  a 13-part series on how slides and trouble spots get their names, see my blog.

Now Caltrans is formulating its Transportation Demand Management Plan for the region, which builds off the Big Sur Land Use Plan and the Big Sur Coast Highway Management Plan. It is available for download here. Strategies in the transportation demand plan are organized into six categories, including:

  • Transit and Shuttle Services
  • Infrastructure Improvements
  • Traveler Information
  • Active Transportation
  • Parking Management and Enforcement
  • Data Collection and Analysis

Each of these categories involves a web of relationships with land and government agencies. For example, the shuttle service for Pfeiffer Beach which was so successful a summer ago hit a snag because the Park Management Company, which manages the beach for the landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, felt it lost revenue when it couldn’t collect the parking fees people avoided paying when  they took the shuttle.

The demand management plan notes that many improvements that are needed along the highway, including public restrooms. The plan suggests, as a start, that signage and information convey where these facilities currently are located. Again, Park Management Company, which manages the only three public restrooms along a 51-mile stretch of highway south of McWay Falls, is not willing to open up a pay area for non-paying guests to use the facilities, claiming the costs of cleaning and maintenance of the bathrooms make it prohibitive.

Improved cell phone service would also be considered an important improvement in the region, according to the TMD plan. The topography of the land and the sparsity of the population have made phone service sporadic or nonexistent. And the report notes that improvements might not be possible. “Technology infrastructure is tied to many of the potential TDM solutions,” according to the plan. “Improved technology infrastructure can allow modern, relevant, and widespread TDM solutions. Technology infrastructure improvements require a high level of engineering that may not be possible in Big Sur due to its remote location, lack of service connections, and steep terrain.”

This draft TDM presents as many possible solutions, opportunities, and challenges as possible. But like the cell phone issue, the topography of the corridor and its remote location make some solutions not just impractical, but nearly impossible. There is no electricity from approximately Esalen south to Salmon Creek; cell phone service throughout the corridor is patchy to nonexistent; and there is no room to widen the roadway to accommodate bicycles in many locations.

Slides happen with such regularity that each winter, residents on the South Coast say, “It is not whether a road closure will happen — it is a matter of where, when, and for how long.”

This winter, Caltrans has already notified the community that it will be pre-emptively close Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide before any serious storms. similar to what PG&E did this summer with its public safety power shutdowns.

It is not just the physical and infrastructure constraints the plan must consider, it is also the number of “stakeholders.” Big Sur is unique in that there are federal, state, county, public and private entities that must be consulted and which must agree to the solutions. There are 27 entities listed as the “Steering Committee” for this plan, all of them considered a necessary part of the planning process.

One of the components of the TDM is the formation of a Byways Organization. This group was first formed back in 2004 with the development of the Highway Management Plan, and now has been reactivated. The county is the lead for the group but it is looking for volunteers to serve on it.

It is anticipated that there will be representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, State Parks, the Forest Service and at least five residents from different areas. The purpose of the Byways Organization is to “serve a productive role to achieve change.” One of the goals of the plan is to establish permanent data collection, traffic counts and surveys. It is anticipated that those activities will need funding, and it is hoped that the Byways Organization will be the catalyst for that funding. Butch Kronlund, executiive director of the Community Association of Big Sur (formerly Coast Property Owners’ Association), indicates that it expects to help with the byways group.

One of the ongoing difficulties in adopting any plan for Big Sur is succinctly stated in the TDM plan: “The Big Sur Coast highway crosses through two counties, state and federal lands, and has numerous agencies and organizations operating within the corridor. This makes management challenging. No single agency can address the many issues that are a byproduct of visitation activities. Nor can any one agency develop successful TDM strategies without the input and coordination of other land managers.”

But there are other challenges as well, all led by the reality of the topography in this highway corridor. As the plan notes, since expansion of parking areas is unlikely, the transit and parking management strategies come into play to offer possibilities. Further, the TDM is tied to technology infrastructure and that may require “a high level of engineering that may not be possible in Big Sur due to its remote location, lack of service connections, and steep terrain.”

While Caltrans has made this TDM plan easily accessible and readable, it is still 118 pages long, and must be not just read, but digested, before one can make any kind of cogent comments, suggestions or express concerns.

Caltrans is seeking input on this draft plan by Dec. 9 and one can provide it here. There is a comment form section provided online, but comments can also be sent by email and snail mail.

The Byways Organization has a daunting task ahead of it. It is expected that the organization will be responsible for sorting through all the possible solutions and “opportunities” to determine if any of them are a good fit. Then the organization will find ways to implement these solutions/opportunities here — on the edge of the U.S. continental shelf, where the land and the ocean have the final say.

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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.