Managing New Peaks At National Parks
Visitors are flocking to the Nation's natural and cultural wonders in record numbers. How are agency leaders responding to the related traffic and impacts? Here is the story of new approaches to managing congestion in a recreational setting.
In 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) celebrated the agency’s centennial anniversary. The keystone of the celebration was a nationwide campaign called “Find Your Park.” The campaign encouraged members of the public to find and explore national parks throughout the Nation. More than 330 million visitors answered that challenge, resulting in a 21-percent increase in visitation over 2006 levels.
Transportation facilities such as roads, parking lots, and buses are often the gateway experience to national parks for many visitors. For visitors traveling to areas like Washington, DC, traffic congestion may be expected. The Arlington Memorial Bridge (part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway) carries more than 70,000 commuters across the Potomac River each weekday. However, in rural areas or where adjacent to wilderness, delays finding a parking space, time spent in an entrance station queue, or traffic jams on a park entry road may be an unwelcome surprise and diminish a visitor’s experience.
In the years leading up to the centennial anniversary year, many parks reported seeing substantial increases in both visitation and related traffic congestion. To maintain access for visitors while protecting resources and preserving safety, NPS is responding to increasing congestion using best practices in traffic management and in social science.
|NPS Mission Statement|
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.
A Systemic Management Issue
Unlike commuter and freight travel patterns, which are well-known and extensively studied, no model exists to predict recreational travel patterns. Levels of traffic may vary greatly from year to year or even week to week, depending on economic factors, regional events, and marketing done by each State (for example, Utah’s extremely successful Mighty 5® campaign promoting national parks is likely a factor that influenced recent visitation upticks in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks). Managing congestion within this uncertainty requires leadership from park management and expertise from planners and social scientists, along with patience and understanding from visitors and park partners.
In 2010, NPS conducted an agencywide survey to gain a better understanding of why and where park congestion occurs. Of the 188 parks that responded, 59 percent reported that they have (or previously had) congestion. According to the survey responses, the most congested NPS areas are parking lots, roadways providing access to the parks, and visitor centers. The top three congestion-related impacts are decreased visitor experience, reduced safety, and challenges to park operations.
Many parks also reported congestion during morning and evening commuter peaks (for example, commuter routes pass through parks like Saguaro National Park in Arizona and Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania) along with midday tourist peaks. Other findings revealed that multiple parks had more congestion on weekdays versus weekends, and that the majority of parks with congestion were in rural areas (rather than those within an easy commute of a large urban area). In short, the 2010 survey revealed that congestion is a challenge at many parks, in many locations, and on more than just summer weekends. Essentially, the survey results revealed that congestion is a systemic management issue for NPS.
Responding to The Challenges
Departments of transportation, cities, and counties use a wide range of well-tested congestion mitigation tools. Many of those tools are adaptable for use in national parks, but others (ramp meters, for example) are not appropriate in a recreational setting because they may impact cultural landscapes or wildlife patterns, or be intrusive to the visitor experience. In the past, NPS often expanded parking lots and launched transit systems to mitigate congestion. While many of these “first generation” systems are very popular with visitors, they have not fully resolved congestion—in fact, shuttles appear to have increased crowding at already-crowded destinations and contributed to parking demand increases at shuttle stops. Improving operations at entrance stations and decreasing wait times often has led to more cars entering the park faster, only to find more cars arriving at parking lots at the same time, creating parking congestion.
“As cities throughout the United States have discovered, NPS cannot build its way out of congestion,” says Steve Suder, multimodal program manager with NPS. “Adding new parking lots, entrance station lanes, or new buses to popular destinations sometimes produces a counter-intuitive impact—even more crowding. We believe that improving our traffic operations in the field is essential to reducing congestion.”
Because transportation planners and others with related expertise are rare in parks, two new nationwide efforts tailored to support NPS field conditions have emerged: the Congestion Management Program and Visitor Use Management.
Congestion Management Program
NPS maintains a transportation asset management portfolio as part of the Federal Lands Transportation Program. The asset management program at NPS includes congestion management. Because NPS has no systemwide congestion data (and is unlikely to have any in the near future because of the cost of data collection), the NPS Congestion Management Program discarded a systems engineering approach in favor of a programmatic one. The programmatic approach focuses strongly on assistance to the field, rather than on data collection and analysis. Two elements form the backbone of the Congestion Management Program: the Congestion Management Toolkit and congestion assessment reports.
Congestion Management Toolkit. In March 2014, NPS published the Congestion Management Toolkit custom designed for NPS parks (and easily adaptable for any Federal, State, or local recreation agency). More than 50 tools—from traffic calming and circulation changes to adding shuttles and parking management—offer parks the flexibility to address a tremendous variety of congestion problems. Each tool comes with a general description, information on where to use it, implementation considerations like cost and timeframe, and examples of past deployments of the tool. The toolkit respects current NPS funding and staffing levels, along with partner concerns and visitor access needs.
Parks all over the United States, including Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and West Virginia; Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio; Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Maryland; Glacier National Park in Montana; and Joshua Tree National Park in California, have used the toolkit to explore potential beneficial changes in congestion management operations. Outside of NPS, FHWA’s Office of Federal Lands Highway, the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, and numerous consultants have used the toolkit to support transportation planning activities for parks.
The toolkit is available for free at www.nps.gov/transportation/pdfs/NPS-CMS_Toolkit.pdf.
Congestion Assessments. Congestion assessments are a quick response—a triage of sorts—for parks facing congestion management challenges. Launched in 2015, assessments are short standardized reports that blend observations from park staff in the field with transportation expertise. Assessments summarize a park’s congestion problems and note past and projected planning efforts and congestion hotspots. The assessment report includes a customized implementation table based on the tools from the Congestion Management Toolkit. The entire process is generally completed within 90 days. Assessments can be a standalone product, a prelude to a transportation plan, or an input to other comprehensive visitor use management planning.
As of fall 2017, 12 parks had completed assessments. At least 15 more assessments, including ones at Hawaii Volcanos National Park in Hawaii, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, are slated for completion in 2018.
Managing Visitor Use
In 2011, six Federal agencies collaborated to charter the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council: the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NPS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The council’s goal is to enhance best practices, interagency consistency, cost-effectiveness, and the defensibility of decisions related to visitor use management. In 2016, the council launched a new Federal land management interagency framework to address issues such as visitor crowding, congestion, and related resource impacts that may accompany an increase in visitation or a change in visitor use patterns, or both.
Proactively managing visitor use increases the ability of NPS to protect resources, encourage access, and improve visitor experiences. The four-step framework for managing visitor use stresses flexible goals and implementation using a sliding scale of analysis. The time, money, and other resources spent on planning is calibrated to the complexity of the situation.
The visitor use management methodology helps parks to develop a collaborative vision for providing and managing visitor use in a unit of the National Park Service. The process examines current and potential strategies for providing access, connecting visitors to key experiences, and managing impacts to protect resources and promote high-quality visitor experiences, while meeting legal requirements. More information on visitor use management is available at https://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov.
Responding in the Field
The most common traditional strategies used by NPS to relieve traffic congestion are using rangers to direct traffic, managing special events with volunteers and by reallocating staffing, providing transit with remote parking lots, and changing traffic circulation.
Special events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and Patriots’ Days at Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts are long-established events where parks actively manage congestion for a short time. While parks can manage traffic related to planned special events, managing traffic at high levels every day is not sustainable because of staffing and budget constraints, and potential negative impacts to visitor experience and natural resources.
Sometimes intensified crowding may mean that some restrictions on access or parking become necessary to preserve resources and provide an outstanding visitor experience. Parks actively considering a reservation system include Acadia National Park in Maine, Arches National Park in Utah, Glacier National Park in Montana, Muir Woods National Monument (part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area) in California, and Zion National Park in Utah. Except for Arches, all of these parks already have a transit system in place.
In July 2017, visitation levels in Glacier National Park topped 1 million for the first time (a 100-percent increase over 2000 levels). The park’s superintendent, Jeff Mow, offered a friendly reminder about conditions in the park during the unprecedented influx of visitors. “We ask that visitors bring their patience, prepare for significant parking delays, and expect more people on the trails this summer,” he said. “Glacier Country has a tremendous amount to offer its tourists. While people wait for times that are less crowded to visit the park, our surrounding public lands and local businesses can offer exceptional opportunities for people coming to see this spectacular region.”
|NPS Congestion Management Process|
More parks also are beginning to experiment with an adaptive management framework for traffic operations to reduce congestion, rather than building new facilities. In 2016, rangers at Yellowstone National Park’s West Yellowstone entrance station in Montana restaged their staff to reduce long lines of vehicles, which at times had stretched into the community. Rangers walked the queue to greet visitors before they got to the fee booth. They offered welcoming messages, a park newspaper, and other information, resulting in dramatically reduced queues.
In another example, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado completed a congestion assessment in 2017 that focused on operational strategies to manage crowds. The park’s approach included making minor changes in entrance station operations, establishing temporary dropoff zones, assigning rangers to control traffic, and opening temporary parking areas. This approach proved successful throughout the peak visitor season.
Swelling Crowds at Zion National Park
Zion National Park is an example of a rural national park experiencing dramatic visitation increases along with crowding and resource impacts. In 1997, Zion limited personal vehicles in most of Zion Canyon and launched a transit system to address growing visitation. For a time, transit successfully restored quiet to the canyon, and visitors enjoyed the opportunity to leave their vehicles behind. The system enabled them to “hop on/hop off” for easy access to trailheads, water, and geology. Today, with dramatic increases in visitation that the shuttle alone cannot address, Zion Canyon is once again a crowded and noisy destination.
In summer 2017, visitation at Zion was double what it was when the transit system launched. Long lines for buses, packed conditions on steep trails, and safety impacts are all concerns for park management.
“Visitation at Zion National Park is skyrocketing at a rate exceeding even recent record-setting years,” says Jeff Bradybaugh, superintendent of Zion National Park. “Over Memorial Day weekend, our busiest weekend, we hosted well over 90,000 visitors. The incredible increase in crowd size supports the need for developing a plan to proactively manage visitation levels to protect park resources and provide the exemplary experiences visitors expect in their national park.”
Zion’s park management team is considering three preliminary alternatives to reduce congestion and improve visitor use management. In addition to a no-action option, two action alternatives propose versions of a reservation system. One alternative is an online, year-round reservation system for all front-country areas such as Zion Canyon. The other alternative proposes a reservation system only for specific sites such as heavily used trails and other crowded areas.
Prior to selecting the three preliminary alternatives, the park considered a wide variety of management strategies. It dismissed items such as implementing congestion pricing, adding new and expanded parking, dispersing use to other areas of the park (more than 90 percent of the park is wilderness), and adding more shuttle buses (because it could not add or financially support enough shuttles to meet the growing demand). Zion expects to select a preferred alternative for its plan in 2018.
Congestion at Cuyahoga Valley
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located between Cleveland and Akron along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Congestion is on the rise in Cuyahoga Valley because of shifts in visitor activities (growing interest in cycling, hiking, and river-related activities) and modest increases in overall visitation. Like many parks, most visitors arrive in a personal vehicle. A unique feature of this park is the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which features a hop-on/hop-off rail service to and from Cleveland.
The park’s boundaries are porous, meaning it has no entrance stations, and it includes many attractions and related parking areas. Dozens of partners own, operate, and maintain the roadways that crisscross the park. Because the park does not own any of the roadways, staff is somewhat limited in its management options. The efforts at Cuyahoga Valley have focused on parking management and improving distribution of special events throughout the park.
Most visitors are local, repeat visitors. In the past, picnics and family events were very popular in the southeast portion of the park. Recently, the park has experienced a significant shift toward the use of two regional bike trails, a greater number of train riders, and increased interest in river kayaking. These shifts mean that visitors are now largely concentrated in the park’s central river/trail “spine,” resulting in a substantial increase in parking congestion near these facilities. At times, parked cars may stretch along roadsides for more than half a mile (0.8 kilometers) from a popular trailhead, while large parking areas previously frequented by families are underused.
In summer 2017, staff from Cuyahoga Valley National Park, NPS’ Denver Service Center, and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center participated in a congestion assessment, designed to expand the park’s March 2017 parking management approach. In less than 90 days, the team developed the assessment with multiple tools for the park to adapt to changing conditions, including improved special event coordination and better circulation in crowded parking lots. The assessment plan has a strong emphasis on flexibility to address parking, safety (particularly at crowded railroad crossings), visitor information, and issues related to special event management.
“With significant congestion at several of our more popular areas, and due to concerns for visitor safety, resource integrity, and to improve visitor experience, we were excited for the opportunity to work with the Congestion Management Program,” says Craig Kenkel, superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “We readily welcomed the assessment and the process was straightforward and very beneficial. The team is professional, [and they] provided ideas and solutions, and validated work we have already implemented.”
As visitation levels rise, parks must carefully consider when and how to intervene to protect resources, visitor experiences, and safety from traffic-related impacts. New tools, advances in social science methods, and faster options for delivering technical support are helping parks to respond to traffic congestion within an adaptive management framework.
With support from transportation and visitor use management specialists, parks will remain dedicated to providing enjoyable and memorable access for the visitors of today, while preserving world-class resources and experiences for the visitors of tomorrow.
Linda MacIntyre serves as the manager of NPS’ Congestion Management Program, which is part of the Federal Lands Transportation Program. She has over 25 years of experience in transportation planning, strategic planning, and public lands management. MacIntyre has a bachelor of arts degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, both from the University of Colorado.
Aung Gye is the Transportation Planning team leader in the Office of Federal Lands Highway at FHWA in Washington, DC. He manages the Transportation Planning Program within FHWA’s Office of Federal Lands Highway.
For more information, contact Linda MacIntyre at 303–969–2483 or email@example.com.