It’s 1 in the afternoon as the hot Pasadena sun beats down on 17-year-old Jesus Hernandez. He knows this trail well. Leaping from rock to rock, he looks for copper-colored frogs resting in the shade of the Gabrielino Trail.
Hernandez visits this trail often through Outward Bound Adventures, a Pasadena-based nonprofit that has made this possible for him. If not for this program, Hernandez would need to take two buses and then walk almost two miles to reach the same trail.
Hernandez is only one of many Angelenos who do not have easy access to public lands through public transit.
L.A. Metro, the county’s public transportation system, adopted a plan to address this problem. The plan passed with a unanimous vote from City Council members, L.A. County supervisors, and other elected officials at a board meeting in June.
The Transit to Parks Strategic Plan aims to connect communities without parks to green spaces around L.A. County, including beaches, trail heads, parks and mountains.
“I know how uniquely important it is to have open space in parks, especially in park-poor areas,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “It’s about getting people outdoors, making their lives safe, easy, but also environmentally friendly and healthy.”
This problem is not new. Public transportation to green spaces has long been inefficient, at times requiring multiple transfers and lengthy waiting periods.
For example, an L.A. Times High School Insider survey found those who do not own a private vehicle have to travel significantly longer to access Griffith Park and Venice Beach — L.A. County’s most frequently visited green spaces, according to U.S. News.
On a Sunday at noon, public transportation takes on average an hour longer than driving to Griffith Observatory and Venice Beach. For some outdoor destinations within the Angeles National Forest, such as Mount Baldy, there are no existing transit routes.
The cause of this problem turns out to be pretty simple — Metro plans its routes using trip data from cellphones, which only provides information about where people are going, not where they want to go, L.A. City Council member Mike Bonin said.
“Historically, we almost exclusively used commute data for transportation planning,” Bonin said at the meeting. “[This] systematically undervalues transit to recreation and cultural institutions.”
The new plan will start by building upon current transit routes and existing pilot projects. These initiatives include frequency improvements to the Beach Circulator line (route BCT 109) and improving access to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area by extending Metro line 212 and increasing transfers from Inglewood Transit Center.
Eventually, Metro will also increase community outreach, informing residents not only of available transit to open spaces but also of the benefits of going, according to the project’s Metro Board Report, and the benefits of going.
Many who attended the June meeting said the plan would affect them personally.
San Fernando Valley resident Fidel Vasquez told the Metro board that his wheelchair has prevented him from easily accessing the outdoors. He said the new plan would help him and others with mobility impairments.
“The lives of many people would be changed,” Vasquez said. “I know a lot of people in the San Fernando Valley who are locked up in their homes. We really need your help.”
Bryan Matsumoto is a volunteer with Outward Bound Adventures, the group that took Hernandez to the Gabrielino Trail.
“For the communities that I represent, having transit connections to the outdoors is vital,” Matsumoto said. “I think that we all agree that we are all city people, living stressful lives in the concrete jungle. If we don’t have access to the outdoors, that’s a huge public health issue and mental health issue.”
Research at Stanford University has shown that lack of access to nature can lead to health problems. For example, those who walk 90 minutes in an open space showed a decrease of activity in the region of the brain that is associated with depression, according to the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science journal.
Residents of low-income neighborhoods are most likely also those who cannot afford their own means of private transportation and who rely most heavily on public transit.
Outward Bound Adventures provides outdoor activities for disadvantaged urban youth at no cost and also hopes to teach youth to respect and care for nature and feel connected to something bigger than themselves, according to its director of operations Jorge Cortez.
“The work that the Metro is doing is really key because when you’re looking at the demographics of who is currently accessing these green spaces, those demographics don’t match the face of the community,” Cortez said.
As with most public transit projects, the Transit to Parks Strategic Plan is also an effort to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on roads and to promote greener options of transportation.
“This is one of the things we can do now immediately to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are polluting and suffocating our communities,” said David Diaz, executive director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a nonprofit that promotes bicycling as sustainable transportation.
Not everyone at the meeting was as enthusiastic about the plan. Some were not convinced Metro would allocate the needed resources after the plan is implemented. Others worried about unwanted noise pollution and increased numbers of homeless people in green spaces.
“If Metro is pushing traffic into parks, will they be providing funding for maintenance, security, and programming to support the added traffic they’re creating?” online commenter Petra posted on a Streetsblog Los Angeles article. “Politicians typically do not fund support of resources when they increase the impact.”
According to the plan’s Metro Board Report, funding will come from grants and programs will focus on sustainable transportation, including Measure A, the Clear Transportation Funding initiative passed by voters in 2016, and the Federal Lands Access Program.
The Transit to Parks Strategic Plan was first introduced in 2016, but the plan has no defined completion date, Barbara Osbourn, director of communications at the office of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in an email.
In the meantime, though, six city teens remain the exception, as they continue to explore the outdoors through Outward Bound Adventures.
Back on the Gabrielino Trail, Hernandez and his friends reminisced about their past visits there as they kicked up dust and rocks on the wildflower-lined trail.
“I remember we went on a small hike, and we had to be distanced from the person in front of us so that we could have the space to reflect,” Hernandez said.
Outward Bound Adventure’s Matsumoto said that was the goal all along.
“If you want people to care about the environment, understand science, understand climate change, you gotta take people outdoors,” Matsumoto said. “So we’re really looking to Metro to connect public transit to our public lands and make all that happen for us.”