Spotty transit access keeps the carless out of vaunted state park system

By: - August 19, 2021 6:00 am

Susan Tanner of Minneapolis boards an Arrowhead Transit bus near Split Rock Lighthouse State Park after spending a week at her family’s cabin nearby. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

For the three years Lee Oglesby lived in Minnesota, she went to Minnesota State Parks twice.

Oglesby, who got to know the outdoors as a Girl Scout in Florida before relocating to Minnesota to work in publishing, didn’t have a car and hesitated to rely on others to get outdoors. “I don’t wanna impose on my friends and assume they have room for all of my equipment,” Oglesby said. 

Minnesota is home to 75 state parks and recreation areas and many more county and regional parks. Although every regional park in the Twin Cities is accessible by transit on weekdays, only about one-third of state parks are accessible by public transit. 

Limited transit access helps keep Minnesota’s vaunted park system from reaching a broad swath of Minnesotans without a car, which comprise about 7% of households as of 2019. Visitors to the Minnesota outdoors are — according to the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — more likely to be white, have a college education, and make more than $60,000 a year. 

Deb Alper, who volunteers with the Sierra Club North Star chapter, thinks transit access to parks is yet another equity issue in a state with some of the largest racial disparities in the nation when it comes to income, education, health — and environmental quality. 

“By and large we all pay for parks, and regional parks are used [mostly] by suburban folks. We all pay taxes and regional parks are funded by the Met Council. Inner city people, people without cars are being stilted,” Alper said. She displayed a map made by Sierra Club volunteers, which became outdated months after it went to print, showing connections to the outdoors by transit one rainy afternoon inside the refectory at Minnehaha Falls. 

Deb Alper of Sierra Club North Star chapter looks at a map made by Sierra Club volunteers of parks in the Twin Cities accessible by transit. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Though limited, there are transit options to parks, which Alper has spent years promoting. Before the pandemic, she led small group trips to over 20 different parks, including Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, Hyland Park Reserve in Bloomington, Coon Rapids Dam and Fort Snelling State Park. 

Minnesota has 40 public transit agencies — in addition to those serving the Twin Cities  — at least 15 of which have a state park in their service area. A survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation found at least 12 of those agencies make stops at parks. Many of these agencies are “dial-a-ride” providers; think of it as your friend you can call to coordinate carpools between all of your friends to go places. 

Arrowhead Transit, which is one of those agencies, serves northeastern Minnesota, from as far south as Isanti and north to International Falls, serving communities such as Grand Marais, Grand Rapids, Ely, Cloquet, Aitkin and North Branch.

It also has the most state parks in its service area. One of its routes running between Grand Marais and Duluth on Highway 61 is frequented by backpackers. It connects several state parks with a short walk from the highway, including Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche and Temperance Falls. 

But that service runs just every Tuesday, and is designed to get folks living on the North Shore to Duluth for the day and back. Most of their services are concentrated in the major communities it serves. “We try to provide as much access to transportation as we can that would serve the largest number of those in need,” said co-director Brandon Nurmi in an e-mail. Resources to expand service are already scarce.  

For other greater Minnesota agencies, requests to serve the outdoors are rare. Itasca State Park, home to the Mississippi headwaters, is impossible to get to without a car. The Tri-Valley Heartland Express may serve it during its annual leaf tour, while the other agency, Hubbard County Heartland Express, typically doesn’t receive requests for Itasca and isn’t currently taking any new ride requests because of the pandemic. 

Even if Hubbard County Heartland Express did serve Itasca, the system itself is also close to impossible to get to from the rest of the state. The only transit connection to the rest of the state is a twice-monthly route to Bemidji, where riders can connect to Jefferson Lines to get to Fargo, Grand Forks, Brainerd and the Twin Cities. 

Metropolitan Council Transit Link bus departs the trailhead of Crow Hassan Park Reserve. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Access isn’t much better in the cities. Buses are banned on most Minneapolis parkways because they weren’t designed to handle heavy vehicles, limiting access to the Mississippi River for those without a car or bike. Metro Transit also tried to serve Fort Snelling State Park between 2017 and 2020 but could never generate consistent ridership to justify it. “All day service needs a continuous corridor of destinations, and parks tend to be isolated,” said Metro Transit spokesperson Laura Baenen.  

Getting to the outdoors can require multiple transfers, which can be hard on families with children. To get to the state and regional parks in the rural fringes of the metro, families need to take transit as far out as they can go, which can be an hours-long ordeal, before transferring to Transit Link, a ride service run by the Met Council on weekdays to serve areas not served by consistent transit. 

People aren’t using Transit Link to get to the outdoors. A bit more than 100 riders — or less than 1% of its ridership — used it in 2019 to get to parks like Carver Park Reserve in Victoria and Rum River North County Park in St. Francis. The Met Council also does not market Transit Link, which means the program remains obscure to those living outside the rural fringes. 

Easier access in Washington, California

Faced with similar park transit access issues, King County in Washington State worked for the past four years to provide access to four different trailheads at its major county parks. (King County comprises Seattle.) Ridership on their most popular route, serving Mt. Si — 45 minutes east of downtown Seattle — more than doubled in that period. King County also found all four routes combined were cheaper to operate than a rush hour commuter route. A partnership with outdoor gear company REI helped finance and market the program. 

Los Angeles Metro’s Micro service, which is similar to Transit Link but uses an app to summon rides, takes people to trailheads in the Hollywood Hills. 

In the Bay Area, three transit routes serve mostly-rural western Marin County, which includes a number of state parks, a national recreation area, and a national monument just north of San Francisco, seven days a week. 

Until transit access to the outdoors is improved, those who can afford it will start finding their own ways there. Kassira Absar, a consultant who evaluates programs for government agencies and nonprofits, was previously transit-dependent. She bought a car in 2019 because she wanted to visit state parks more often. The visits became more frequent when the pandemic began. 

“With COVID, it was so hard to do anything, so I [went] every weekend to county parks and regional parks. I now go to a type of park, regional, county, state park once a month, even in the winter,” Absar said. “In two years I put on 11,000 miles, mainly to see family and to go to state parks.” 

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.