Growing up in New Jersey, Lori Mortimer was never too far from the beach. “Everyone had a different town they went to for their beach days because there were so many public beaches along the coastline,” Mortimer recalls, speaking to me by phone from her home in Methuen on a broiling July morning. Mortimer relocated to the Boston area for work in 1995 and quickly discovered one of the Bay State’s weirdest ironies. It can be really tough to go to the beach in Massachusetts.
The coast of Massachusetts Bay runs more than 1,400 miles from Westport to Salisbury, and most of it — about three-fourths — is privately owned. And according to our most recent coastal land survey, only about 10 percent of the coastline is “truly accessible to all members of the public.” That survey was undertaken more than 30 years ago, but advocates say there’s no reason to believe the figures are substantially different today. For comparison: A similar survey in New Jersey in 1977 found that only about one-fourth of its coast was privately owned.
Even in places where Massachusetts residents have the right of access to the shoreline, coastal towns often make it difficult for the public to set foot on public beaches by banning nonresident parking near beach entry points or by forcing them to reserve a precious few spots ahead of time and pay $20 to $30 for the privilege.
Mortimer encountered this barrier several times. She tried jousting for parking places at Salisbury State Park with throngs of fellow beachgoers and occasionally drove out to Crane Beach in Ipswich and paid the parking fee. “Eventually we just gave up on it,” Mortimer says. “These days, I get my beach fix whenever I go back to New Jersey for a visit.”
This is not normal. Most states have placed stricter limits on just how much of a beach can be owned by one entity. Private property usually ends at the high tide line. But in Massachusetts, it can extend all the way to the low tide line, because of a law dating back to the 1640s. The former state Senate president William Bulger tried to change this law in the 1970s, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court indicated that it would rule in favor of property owners, effectively squelching the reform effort. And as Chris Burrell reported in a recent story for GBH News, Massachusetts hasn’t addressed its lack of public beaches by acquiring more private coastal property and making it fully public. Consider First Light Beach, recently acquired from private owners by the town of Brewster. In the state’s hands, this could have become a new publicly accessible venue for sunning and swimming. But the parking lot for the beach will carry a residents-only restriction.
This model of beach ownership and its impact on public access pose a significant quality-of-life issue for Massachusetts residents. The demand for publicly accessible swimming venues is already huge during the summer months, and it’s likely to grow as seasonal heat waves become more frequent. But even if climate change were not a factor, there’s still something profoundly unseemly about some of the state’s most iconic environments being put effectively off-limits by towns and homeowners who don’t want people coming there.
Opening more Massachusetts beaches to the public would require throwing out the low-tide-line ownership rule, a tough legal battle that state Representative Dylan Fernandes and state Senator Julian Cyr, who both represent Cape Cod and the islands, are trying to reignite. They have a bill that would expand public access to parts of the coast that are privately owned.
But in the near term, maybe there’s another, simpler way to get more people onto Massachusetts beaches — particularly the ones guarded by parking bans. What if you could dodge this hurdle by catching a public shuttle bus to the beach?
Let’s say you live in Boston, Worcester, Lowell, Fall River, or any other population center that’s serviced by the MBTA or a regional transit authority. Imagine if, from June through September, you could take a designated beach bus to the sands of Nahant, Wingaersheek, or Sunrise. Each route would service two or three beaches. Fares would be a standard $1 to $3 per ride. You’d pack your beach gear into a bag, disembark at your beach of choice, and walk past those RESIDENTS ONLY parking signs, out to the surf.
Even a pilot program of beach buses would be a departure from how most public transportation routes are planned. In the United States, we tend to think of buses and trains primarily as a way of getting workers to jobs. But in other parts of the world, public transit also is a common gateway to outdoor recreation. One day, while reporting a story about Vienna’s social housing landscape in early 2020, I took a 30-minute train ride to the city’s southern reaches and hiked up Pfaffstättner Kogel, a small mountain overlooking the metro area. In Norway, you can step out of the train at Finse Station into cross-country ski bindings and take off across the frozen landscape. And in Scotland, disembarking at Corrour Station (as seen in the movie “Trainspotting”) will leave you right in the middle of the highlands, with the craggy summit of Beinn na Lap beckoning nearby.
In 2017, Seattle’s King County Metro adopted this idea of outdoors-centric public transportation by launching Trailhead Direct, a weekend bus route servicing trailheads for Mount Si, Mount Teneriffe, and other popular hikes near Seattle. Back in May, before the start of the 2022 season, King County Metro estimated that riders had used Trailhead Direct to complete over 30,000 hikes since the bus launched.
Boston doesn’t have a municipal transit-to-trails program, but we do have the Mountain Flyer. Operated by Ridj-it, a tech company that facilitates carpooling, the Flyer is a private shuttle bus that departs from Greater Boston and drops hikers at hiking trails in the White Mountains, such as the Old Bridle Path to Mount Lafayette. The Flyer returns to collect hikers late in the day, allowing them to relax and take a recovery siesta on the ride back home.
That last perk underscores the convenience of outdoors-centric transit, whether it’s servicing mountains or beaches. As Ridj-it co-founder Ari Iaccarino sees it, spotlighting the ease of mass transit-based travel has helped the Mountain Flyer cultivate a diverse ridership of people who don’t own cars and car owners who prefer to avoid the hassle of competing with fellow hikers for trailhead parking spaces (and the risk of falling asleep at the wheel after a brutal hike). “You should see people’s eyes when the Mountain Flyer rolls into the Falling Waters trailhead parking lot and every other car is getting turned away,” Iaccarino says. “That’s when it really clicks for them.”
So imagine if, vested with more transit authority funding from the state, the MBTA and regional transit agencies could do for beaches what Seattle and Ridj-it are doing for mountains. Imagine a mixed-income and multiracial ridership arriving at public beaches that have been rendered near-inaccessible by parking bans. What then? Would more towns start charging “walk-on fees” for their beaches, like Manchester-by-the-Sea does at Singing Beach, where some nonresidents like to come by commuter rail? Could the state respond by threatening to cut off beach management funding to municipalities that did this? Would lawsuits ensue?
It’s important to anticipate these backlashes because transporting people to beaches with public transportation would be a provocative move after decades of private ownership and municipal control of beaches. Beach buses would bring more people to places where outsiders generally are not welcome. Yet this might be one of the most salient reasons for a beach bus program, as the first volley in a larger battle to open the Massachusetts coastline to the public. Right now, for example, you can take the MBTA’s Blue Line to Revere Beach or the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority’s 83 bus to Salisbury Beach. But a new multi-city beach bus program could finally put more of our coastal frontage within reach of the people who’ve long been blocked from accessing it.
The growing demand for access to beaches has an eerie similarity to a more elemental issue in Massachusetts — our housing shortage and the ways in which homeowners and municipalities have stopped projects that would create more places for people to live. Consider the state’s new multifamily zoning requirement for MBTA-adjacent communities. Rather than complying with this rule and allowing multifamily units to be built, some towns have indicated that they might just decide to absorb the fines that will be levied against them, keeping “other people” out.
In a practical sense, beach buses that deliver out-of-towners to fiercely guarded coastal areas could make it easier for more of us to cool off during the summer and savor the salty landscape that’s so deeply intertwined with Massachusetts heritage and folklore. But the sudden arrival of public buses at once-inaccessible beach entry points would also affirm something homeowners, towns, and lawmakers have been reluctant to accept — that our coastline ought to belong to everyone.
Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward.