Banff National Park traffic woes can't be solved by car ban, official says

Park management says it will not charge for parking, nor will it force drivers to leave cars at the park's entrance.

Mandatory transit, paid parking suggested as options to reduce impact on wilderness

More people are using Banff's public transit system Roam than last year, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism says. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Banff National Park management says it will not charge for parking, nor will it force drivers to leave cars at the park's entrance.

Parks Canada has faced criticism this week for how it manages congestion in the country's busiest national park.

Banff recorded nearly 4.2 million visitors in the 2017-18 fiscal year, from April 1 to March 31. That was a three per cent increase over the previous fiscal year.

"Banff National Park certainly, at certain times of the year in certain parts of the park, is a very busy place," park visitor experience manager Greg Danchuk told Alberta at Noon.

"What we've been trying to do with visitors is tell people, in advance, plan ahead, get the information that you need."

A former park superintendent argued earlier in the week that the park should consider charging parking fees to people who visit in private vehicles. Kevin Van Tighem, who is now an author and conservationist, said that fees would push drivers onto public transit and provide funds to pay for alternative transportation infrastructure.

"I still come down to the idea that people aren't the problem," he told the Calgary Eyeopener. "We just don't need their vehicles. Their vehicles are what are clogging up the parks."

'Take a bus almost anywhere'

But Danchuk said the park and town have been investing in public transportation. Just in the past year, he said, $4 million was spent on new initiatives. If you want to visit Banff, you can take a bus from Calgary, and there are options around the parks, as well. 

"People can take a bus almost anywhere, the main parts of the park anyway," Danchuk said. "If you're already here and at a campground, you get free transit from the campground down into the town. From there, you can take transit into Minnewaka, to Lake Louise, to Johnston Canyon at very affordable rates."

Visitors wanting to catch of glimpse of golden larch trees near Moraine Lake, Alta., often wait several hours for a shuttle bus. (Chris Franklin/CBC)

He said Parks Canada is focusing on restricting parking in certain areas, and aiming for better traffic flow, which is currently posted online in real time. 

As for encouraging people to take transit, he warns it will take some time to change habits.

Lessons from Utah?

In Utah, park officials have long controlled summer crowds that continue to grow.

For about 20 years, shuttle services have been mandatory in order to enter Zion Canyon. Visitors park at the entrance and then hop on a shuttle. Throughout the canyon, they can hop on and off the shuttle at different locations. 

"What we have found over time is that visitors today expect our shuttle system as part of their park experience," Jack Burns of Zion National Park told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"The convenience of jumping on a shuttle and being about to get on and off wherever you like in the canyon is something that people really enjoy."

Now the park has become so busy, management is looking at an online booking system to reduce long shuttle lines.

Banff's Roam Transit service connects the townsite with a number of local attractions. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

Zion Canyon is different than Banff. The canyon is accessed by one road in and out.

Banff connects southern Alberta travellers to other parks, including Jasper and Kootenay.

All seven mountain parks — Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier — tallied more than 9.2 million visitors in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

As a result, Parks Canada continues to try to change visitor behaviour, encouraging travellers to pick off-peak times to visit, like in the fall and spring, and during the week rather than weekends, Danchuk said. 

"Transit we find ... takes a long time to implement and to be successful," he said. "You're changing people's patterns, visits and their behaviour, and it takes time to do that."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Alberta at Noon.