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Study: Coastal Access Is About More Than Locked Gates

Sunset at San Simeon Beach
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Santa Monica Beach
A sizeable crowd enjoys the beach in Santa Monica. | Photo: J. Etzel, some rights reserved

Public access to beaches is an ongoing problem in California, but coast-dwelling millionaires who illegally block paths and beach access stairways are only part of the issue.

That’s according to a new study released Thursday by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and San Francisco State University. According to the study, Californians across the demographic spectrum value their access to the state’s coastline, but three quarters of the state’s residents said that the expense of going to the beach is a big factor in limiting their coastal visits.

“This new research shows that we are at a tipping point where deciding to visit the coast is a close call for most Californians, given the cost,” said Jon Christensen, lead investigator for the study at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “We found Californians value our public beaches as a place to gather with friends and family, enjoy nature, and relax, but the expense of getting to the coast and staying there is close to prohibitive for many families, making the coast inaccessible to many ordinary people.”

(We've put an interactive summary of the report on our site for your convenience. It shows information about how Californians use the beach gathered from surveys, social media, and other sources. Check it out.)

The report, "Access for All: A New Generation’s Challenges on the California Coast,” is based on surveys conducted in October 2016 by UCLA and the Field Poll. According to that survey, 90 percent of Californians consider the state of the state’s coastline important to them, with 57 percent — more than half — calling it “very important.” That’s true of Californians who live in the state’s interior as well as those in closer proximity to the beach.

In 1976, the California Legislature passed the Coastal Act, which mandated that the state work toward “maximum access” to the beach for all Californians. That act, and the 41 years of work to ensure that coastal landowners cannot block public access to land between the tidelines, have contributed to near-universal appreciation for the state’s beaches among Californians from all regions and walks of life.  More than three quarters of Californians — 77 percent — say they visit the beach at least once a year. Regardless of age, residence, or ethnic group, Californians come to the beach for the same few basic reasons: to swim, wade, and walk the sand; to enjoy the scenery; to socialize with family and friends; and to give children a safe place to go wild for a while.

And all Californians hope to find the same amenities at the coast: clean sand and water, restrooms, usable trash receptacles, and parking nearby.

But cost seems to be as much of an issue in dissuading beach visits as antisocial coastal mansion owners. Sixty-two percent of voters responding to the surveys said blocked access to the coast was an issue preventing them from visiting, while 68 percent cited lack of public transit options, 75 percent said that there weren’t enough affordable places to stay along the coast for overnight trips, and 78 percent said parking was too limited and too expensive.

Couple on Beach
Spouses share a moment at Hermosa Beach. | Photo: SupportPDX, some rights reserved

The relative cost of visiting the beach has climbed in recent years, especially for those Californians who don’t live within easy day trip distance. In 2016, the California Coastal Commission reported that the state had lost more than 24,000 “economy” rooms near the coast since 1989, with many of them being replaced by less affordable rooms marketed to the more affluent traveler. While respondents said they were willing to spend an average of $118 per night for beach lodging, rooms in the “economy” class cost between $135 and $260 during the summer.

Parking dissuades Californians from the beach due both to its cost and its scarcity. Parking and day-use fees at coastal parks can exceed $15 a day, a sizable sum for many less-affluent Californians. And parking lots that are too far from the beach for visitors to easily schlep coolers, toys, blankets, and such further discourage visits.

Parking would be less of an issue for many visitors if convenient and affordable public transportation existed along the shoreline, but bus service tends to be spotty and infrequent on many parts of the coast.

“If California wants to provide continued coastal access for all its citizens, we will need to focus on providing better transit options, affordable parking, and a range of lower-cost overnight accommodations,” said Philip King, a professor of economics at San Francisco State University and co-author of the study. “Addressing these barriers to access is every bit as important as managing development and sea level rise, but they have historically received less attention.”

At least one barrier to Calfornians’ coastal visits is likely a legacy of past injustice. African-Americans responding to the surveys were the least likely group to report visiting the coast at least once a year, with 33 percent of African-American respondents saying they visited less often. (That said, 67 percent of African-American Californians surveyed said they visit the beach at least yearly, a sizeable majority.) Of Black Californians who visit the beach infrequently, a third said part of the reason was that they didn’t know how to swim. As many as 70 percent of African-Americans nationwide don’t swim, in large part due to the intergenerational repercussions of decades of exclusion from public pools and beaches.

Man on beach admiring kelp
Appreciating nature is a big reason Californians visit the beach. | Photo: Eric Huang, some rights reserved

All these hindrances, physical, economic, and political, impede Californians’ access to the coast in their own ways, and the report maintains that the Coastal Act ought to be used to reduce social impediments to beach visits as well as physical barriers. To that end, Christensen and King suggest that the Coastal Commission and other state agencies charged with implementing the Coastal Act’s access provisions “change the narrative” of the beach access issue, addressing both the climbing costs of beach visits and the cultural factors that may make some Californians feel like the beach isn’t for them.

"These findings are crucial because they provide quantitative data to what many communities experience, the lack of equitable access to our natural public spaces,” said José González of Latino Outdoors. “Equitable access is not the same as equal access and it's crucial that for the long-term stewardship of our public coast that all of our communities feel that our coast and beaches truly belong to all and can be enjoyed as such."

Want to learn more about the California coast? Check out our coverage of the California Coastal Trail.

Banner: Sunset at San Simeon. Photo: Matt High, some rights reserved

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