اخبارالعرب 24-كندا:الأربعاء 7 ديسمبر 2022 04:18 مساءً Visiting Banff National Park is often marked with traffic jams in the townsite and at key attractions — vehicle lineups lapping parking lots with no spare stalls.
In the face of increased demand from visitors, Parks Canada assembled a panel of nine experts last year to tackle future transportation in the park. The report, released Monday, offers strategies to re-envision transportation and encourage reducing private car use.
"People don't come here to sit in traffic jams or search all day for a parking spot," said panel chair Bill Fisher. "We need to address that the status quo just won't work anymore."
The group of planners, transit engineer and park management experts believe that improving transit access and possibly increasing fees, along with fostering Indigenous and private partnerships, will ease some of the park's congestion issues.
"It's not like we can simply solve all those problems by building a bigger parking lot," said Fisher.
But some conservation groups believe the question isn't just about how people are moving through Banff National Park. It's about how many visitors these sensitive areas can manage without sacrificing what parks are all about: environmental integrity.
Lake Louise was a key area of focus. Traffic volumes have increased 71 per cent over the last 10 years as people flock to the lake to see the unique turquoise waters. Parking lots are full to the brim by 7 a.m., and many will wake up before the crack of dawn to secure a parking spot.
"Over time, the panel sees a shift of vehicle access restricted to the intercept lot or transportation hub with no private vehicle access to Moraine Lake and Upper Lake Louise," says the report. "This may become necessary to adequately protect these environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas."
How would people get to Lake Louise? The panel suggests a gondola service would make more sense. Moraine Lake would still require its own transportation loop — by bus or autonomous vehicles.
Fisher said a gondola instead of vehicles on the road would operate at a smaller environmental footprint and would allow wildlife corridors below to truly function.
"It might be a better visitor experience and it could reduce greenhouse gasses," Fisher said.
Mobility hubs, one in the Banff townsite and one at the Lake Louise Ski Area, are seen as the way forward. These locations would include intercept parking, washrooms and transit connections, along with other facilities.
There is already an appetite for this, the report says, noting Indigenous people are eager to explore providing intercept parking services near Calgary.
And the Town of Banff is eager for a land swap outside of the municipality's lease allotment to build a mobility hub somewhere that's ideal and less environmentally sensitive.
"This aligns with our long-standing request for large parking areas on the edge of town," said Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno. "They even go a little bit further to say how these areas need to be integrated with transit and other options, and we think that that makes a lot of sense."
Passenger rail service between Edmonton, Calgary and Banff was discussed, noting the ideal scenario would see rail stretch all the way west to Lake Louise.
A bus system that's integrated around mobility hubs is seen as a first step. It could help people move between the national parks — Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay — as well as Kananaskis Country. It's an idea that is just a vision right now, one that would take a lot of collaboration between different levels of government and private interests.
Conservationists say environment already under strain
Conservation scientist Sarah Elmeligi is with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). She says many ideas in the report include development and more infrastructure other than roads. The train and the gondola are all things that she said would disturb ecological integrity.
"The only way that they become ecological wins is if roads are decommissioned and removed," Elmeligi said. "I'm not sure that that's actually a feasible thing."
She said having simple, not overly developed transit hubs make sense. But at the end of the day, Elmeligi believes a transportation strategy itself won't change the volume of people on the landscape already impacting grizzly habitat or trail braiding.
Joshua Welsh with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative says he's seen reliance on transit in other parks overload eventually. That's especially the case if a park doesn't address its root problem: the number of people coming in and congregating at trailheads and popular sites.
He said Zion National Park in Utah has a constant stream of shuttles that are full and remain full all day as they bring visitors to attractions.
"What the experience is like for people who are on trails, we've seen the photos," he said. "It's a traffic jam of folks. So is that the experience that we want? You know, those are some of the tough questions that we have to ask ourselves."
Welsh said in some places, like Glacier National Park in Montana, there's a pilot reservation system in place for vehicle entry to certain parts of the park.
"If we don't have more places for people to go, setting limits to the number of people being able to access sensitive natural places will be essential," Welsh said.
Banff town council, officials see opportunity
In the Town of Banff, the panel's suggestions are aligned with what officials have been asking for: traffic relief and a solution to personal vehicle traffic.
Mayor DiManno is excited about the tools it mentions to change driver behaviour and encourage people to either hop on buses or pick a bike ride on a trail or pathway instead of time spent circling a parking lot.
"I see it as a real watershed moment in Banff National Park right now," DiManno said. "I see it as really positive that we are aligned in our thinking."
8.3M vehicles pass through gates every year
The experts noted pricing tools could encourage a switch to more environmentally sustainable transportation.
This includes exploring seasonal costs or changes to how much visitors may pay at the gate depending on type of vehicle. It also includes changes to parking fees that would make parking a second choice, especially for families who pay more to take transit.
The park has seen a 30 per cent overall increase in vehicle traffic over the last decade. According to a Parks Canada news release, approximately 8.3 million vehicles enter the park every year — only half carrying visitors and the rest driving on through to destinations beyond the park.
Parks Canada declined an interview on the report but provided a statement.
"While the report is out for public and Indigenous review and comment, and Parks Canada conducts its own internal study, we will not provide comments on specific strategies identified," said a Parks Canada spokesperson in the statement.
The review is set for 60 days, wrapping up Feb. 5.
Then the agency will prepare a "what we heard" report for May 2023 and use the results in future planning.
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