What Should We Pay To Access Nature? (Part I)

Eagle Creek river scene photo

Photo USFWS Public via flickr and Creative Commons license.

Other car-free or car-lite TreeHuggers may recognize this quandary. You've given up the car in your urban existence. How to now satisfy your inner nature-lovin', wilderess-hiking, (or cross-country skiing or just insert your sport here) self without spending an arm and a leg or exuding a cloud of carbon dioxide? Of course there are options - grab a Zipcar or try to take public transport. Yet neither of these options equal the convenience and lower cost of a personal car. So the the interesting question is, how convenient should it be to get to nature, and how much should that convenience cost us?

Recently, a half-day hike that ended up being an expensive proposition got me thinking about comparing the price for different modes of "nature transport", to demonstrate (or not) how hard and expensive it can be for car-free or car-lite urban dwellers to truly get out into nature.

For this simple comparison, I used the hiking spot at Eagle Creek, one of the most popular day hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. Just 26 miles from Portland, the Eagle Creek Trail has more than a few hikes available, with the most popular being the 4.2 mile Punchbowl Falls hike, and the parking lot quickly fills with private cars on any warm sunny Saturday.

If you took your own car, the approximate cost of this hike (using AAA numbers for cost per mile) would be the 26-mile drive both to and from the site for a 52-mile driving total. At $.58 per mile and including the $7.00 day-use parking fee, the total cost for the half-day hike (not including snacks!), would be $37.16, with a total travel time total of approximately one hour.

Now, consider if you are car-free, but have joined a car sharing service for just this reason - you want access to a car occasionally. With Zipcar, Saturdays (our hypothetical hike day) is also the busiest day of the car sharing week, so you need to schedule in advance and make sure you've given yourself enough time. To get a spot in the Eagle Creek parking lot, we scheduled the car from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. just to be on the safe side. Cost per hour = $12.25. Total cost (no snacks) = $92.25. Travel time is approximately still the same, though car share users need to constantly build a bit extra in to their schedule for car pick up and drop off.

Lastly, there's trying public transport option. Eagle Creek is not directly serviced by public transport, though it was formerly. Now, you can cobble together two bus rides and a light rail ride plus a hefty walk. Basically you'll travel from Portland over the Columbia River to Washington state and then walk back over another bridge to the trailhead. Total travel time (both ways) - slightly less than four hours, for a cost of $11.20 roundtrip.

By now, you are getting the picture.The cheapest option is also the least convenient. Although there are some cities where access to nature is easier by inter-urban trains, people without cars are penalized when trying to get out of the city. Maybe the next generation of inter-personal car sharing, where users have a bit more leeway in setting prices between themselves, will start to put pressure on car share pricing.

Read more about access to nature:
Hey Kids, Unplug, Get Outside, 'Cuz Nature Rocks
How To Go Green: Outdoor Sports
Want to Feel More Alive? Study Shows You Need to Go Outside

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