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Rocky Mountain National Park: Experiences and Lessons Learned from Using ITS for Traveler Information

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the third most visited national park in the United States. Similar to other western national parks, Rocky Mountain has experienced a sharp increase in visitation numbers in recent years. RMNP’s visitation rate increased 42 percent between 2012 and 2018.[i] Unlike some of the west’s “destination” national parks—Yellowstone is an example—RMNP has a high percentage of day visitors due to the park’s proximity to the Front Range metropolitan areas of Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins. Over 80 percent of visitors enter through RMNP’s eastern entrances just outside the gateway community of Estes Park. In response to the growing popularity of the region, both RMNP and the Town of Estes Park have initiated intelligent transportation systems technologies to inform travelers of traffic and weather conditions and to mitigate parking congestion during the park’s busiest hours of 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Project Purposes

Dynamic Message Signs, Parking Restrictions, and Shuttle Service

RMNP takes a multi-pronged approach to providing visitors information about transportation. RMNP first piloted dynamic message signs in 2011. As of 2019, there are five portable message signs under the jurisdiction of the park, and the Town of Estes Park has installed permanent message signing outside the park boundary. The national park’s DMS are used to announce parking conditions and to post vehicle restrictions. During summer months, vehicle access along the Bear Lake corridor is limited to maintain traffic flow and enable the National Park Service to respond in case of emergency. In general, RMNP follows the practice that once parking lots are full, the park then moves to using satellite park and ride lots where visitors can board shuttles to access park trailheads and campgrounds or travel into town on the Hiker Shuttle. The Town of Estes Park uses its permanent DMS to share parking lot status as well as information about catching the park shuttle. Two town signs along U.S. 36 and U.S. 34 are used to alert drivers of delays and encourage them to use the town’s new parking structure or to visit the new Estes Park visitor center.

For visitors who park their vehicles, RMNP operates three shuttle routes within the park’s boundaries, including the route into Estes Park.[ii] Estes Park runs a free shuttle within the town, and the two entities—RMNP and the Town of Estes Park—have streamlined administration by piggybacking onto a combined vehicle and service contract.

RMNP Public Affairs Officer Kyle Patterson and Management Specialist John Hannon noted that local ability to control DMS content and the ability to update messages when needed have been important to the park. Even with locally controlled messaging, there are still practical factors that have affected RMNP’s portable signs. For example, with the current DMS, to remotely control the messages on the signs requires the sign to connect to the cell network. With limited cell coverage within the park, this has influenced the sign locations. A shift to permanent message signs will require more complex infrastructure such as underground cable and more detailed programming. Additionally, Patterson and Hannon stated that as a federal agency, the park must follow federal protocol regarding software and data system protections which presents additional challenges connecting DMS to the NPS network. RMNP has considered pre-timed message schedules, but the practice has not yet been implemented. Not all message updates can be done from a remote location which affects ability to pre-schedule messages. There are occasions where staff have had to plug keyboards into the signs to change messages.

Web Information and Social Media

RMNP uses three primary social media channels: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Facebook and Instagram posts are more for building relationship stories, and Twitter focuses on real-time information. The Estes Park Visitor Center is supportive by re-posting or sharing @RockyNPS tweets. In addition to social media, traditional media outlets along the Front Range also run articles or announce initiatives related to RMNP visitation.

RMNP’s website https://www.nps.gov/romo conveys traveler information through webcam images from the Fall River and Beaver Meadow entrance gates. Webcams provide website information on how traffic is flowing (or not) at the entrance lanes. The website has 10 million visits per year, and park representatives indicate that web visitors are likely planning for a future trip.

All National Park websites include an Alert tab to draw immediate attention to situations affecting near-term travel. Alerts are limited in terms of the type of news that can be shared. Examples of approved alerts include fire closures, road closures, and weather information, such as those in the image below.

Screenshot of Rocky Mountain National park Alerts page. Image courtesy https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/conditions.htm

RMNP staff acknowledge there are considerations to take into account when it comes to implementing new technologies in the parks. Considerations include challenges with app software used for parking or campground status and limited staff resources which affect the prioritization and posting of transportation communication. Twitter is updated for immediate information, whereas website updates are intended for visitors who plan far ahead. Despite all the information available, there will always be visitors who do not research their trip and arrive with little idea of parking availability, road conditions, or traffic levels. 

The park is trying to place information at key decision points so that visitors can decide their own tolerance for traffic congestion. Hannon and Patterson mentioned that several years ago when the park become active in posting traffic information, there were businesses around Estes Park that expressed concern about signage placement and how that might affect their visitation levels because Estes Park is a destination in and of itself. In more recent years, as visitation levels have increased for the entire region, there has been more conversation about congestion and how it affects everyone.[iii] 

RMNP wants to provide important traveler information while being careful about setting expectations, and that’s one reason why the park carefully considers new technology and how useful it will be to visitors. One example is discussing the usefulness of a parking app that indicates number of spaces available. Once a traveler reaches the parking lot, will those spaces still be open? If not, then how useful is the app? Park administration considers these questions as well as infrastructure requirements and costs and staff resources associated with maintaining equipment.[iv]

Planning Partnership Between RMNP and Town of Estes Park

RMNP’s technology decision making isn’t done in a silo. Visitor messaging and transportation service are shared responsibilities of the park and its gateway neighbor, the Town of Estes Park. It’s a long-standing partnership that’s bolstered by a mutual interest in the preservation and success of the region. RMNP representatives attend the monthly Town of Estes Park Transportation Advisory Board and economic development meetings. In addition, there is close interaction with the Estes Park Visitor Center and Visit Estes Park website https://www.visitestespark.com. The park has been working closely with the town for decades, and current staff were also on board when RMNP first discussed implementing shuttle service based on models used at Acadia National Park and Zion National Park.  

Outcomes

RMNP has not conducted a formal evaluation of how the DMS, shuttle service, and social media and web applications are affecting traveler planning and behavior. Park staff has noticed that technology use and awareness is tied to overall changes in behavior as people have gotten used to changes within the park system such as vehicle restrictions. Frequent visitors know they may need to arrive before or after the hours of the restrictions or plan to use the park’s shuttle. Visitors’ knowledge of the restrictions and a few years to absorb the travel and traffic changes have made a difference in in the patterns of the park.[v]

Resources

RMNP can use funds from National Park Service operations funds (ONPS) and revenue from fees and pass sales authorized under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). In addition, other federal transportation resources are available depending on project eligibility. Rocky Mountain is one of 17 parks allowed to collect transportation fees for administration. RMNP is looking at funding for permanent DMS down the road. The Fall River entrance will be rebuilt in the next five years with related roadwork in the next few years, so message sign installation is dependent on the timing of the reconstruction.[vi] In the Town of Estes Park, sales tax is used to fund shuttle service, and a lodging tax is used for marketing. The town is exploring paid parking in its downtown core to encourage drivers to use the town’s free garages, reducing congestion in its inner core.     

According to a 2018 Estes Park News article on DMS installation, the new permanent signs near U.S. 34 and U.S. 36 the Town of Estes Park, Colorado, received $136,000 in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding as part of the Upper Front Range Regional Planning Commission and CDOT improvement program.[vii] The town government provided local match of $98,000. The funding was used to purchase four permanent signs. According to National Park Service’s Congestion Management Toolkit, the estimated capital costs for portable DMS range from $50,000 to $250,000 depending on the number of signs and whether the signs are purchased or leased. Operations and maintenance costs are estimated at $500 to $1,600 per year for a portable sign.[viii] For additional information, view the Rocky Mountain National Park Intelligent Transportation System Pilot Deployment/Evaluation (2011) at https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/research_projects/rocky-mountain-national-park-intelligent-transportation-system-pilot-deploymentevaluation.


[i] Personal communication with Kyle Patterson and John Hannon, November 2019

[ii] Rocky Mountain National Park (2019). Shuttle Bus Routes, https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/shuttle_bus_route.htm

[iii] Personal communication with Kyle Patterson and John Hannon, November 2019

[iv] Personal communication with Kyle Patterson and John Hannon, November 2019

[v] Personal communication with Kyle Patterson and John Hannon, November 2019

[vi] Rocky Mountain National Park (2018). Decision Reached on Fall River Entrance Improvements in Rocky Mountain National Park, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/news/decision-reached-on-fall-river-entrance-improvements-in-rocky-mountain-national-park.htm

[vii] Town and contractors begin installation of Dynamic Message Signs (2018). Estes Park News,  http://www.estesparknews.com/featured_articles/article_f9ffc188-52d9-11e8-bced-8b255674d0b1.html

[viii] National Park Service (2014). Congestion Management Toolkit, https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1548/upload/NPS-CMS_Toolkit.pdf

This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.