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Using ITS to Improve Traffic Conditions and Visitor Experiences in the National Parks

Date:
September 17, 2020
Topics:
ITS, Resources

In recent years, the National Park Service (NPS) has encouraged visitors to plan before visiting parks to minimize traffic congestion and conserve resources. The NPS developed a Congestion Management Toolkit in 2014 that includes recommendations for implementing ITS to address vehicle congestion at park entrances and along park roadways, entrance gate delays, and over capacity parking near attractions or trailheads.[i] The NPS has also become more involved in regional initiatives to mitigate traffic issues by coordinating with other federal partners, regional agencies, state departments of transportation, local governments in gateway communities, and chambers of commerce or visitor bureaus. ITS applications in the national park environment include DMS, visitor apps for parking and traffic updates, and use of Twitter for real-time traffic conditions. This case study focuses on use of national park ITS technology in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. A separate case study examines how ITS is used to provide visitor information at the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Project Purposes

In 2018, the National Park Service recorded over 318 million recreation visits, more than a 15 percent increase from the National Parks’ 275 million recreation visits in 2008.[ii] All park regions of the U.S. experienced increased visitation, with some individual parks having notable increases. For example, Glacier National Park had a 64 percent increase in visitors in the ten-year period from 2008 to 2018.[iii] Modest fee increases were approved in spring 2018 at the 117 parks that charge entrance fees to address $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance at all 417 NPS units.[iv] Fees are used to repair infrastructure and respond to increased stress and demand placed on the parks’ transportation network. As noted earlier, the National Park Service developed a Congestion Management Toolkit to formally prepare for growing congestion in the parks and to mitigate traffic’s effect on air quality and the natural environment. Sample tools recommended to manage congestion include DMS, parking information, expanding transit service, posting information on social media, and expanding bicycle and pedestrian options.

Arches National Park provides parking lot information its website. Image courtesy www.nps.gov/arch/

Dynamic Message Signs
National Parks have been using DMS in Colorado to convey information about road closures or traffic since a 2011 pilot between Estes Park, Colorado, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Dynamic message signs relay information at strategic locations to provide visitors the opportunity to enter a park or take the option of detouring or returning to a gateway town if traffic conditions are poor. Glacier National Park is using DMS during peak season at its Many Glacier entrance at the Blackfeet Reservation near Browning, Montana. The park also used DMS during the Going-to-the-Sun Road rehabilitation project from 2007 to 2019 during peak season. Montezuma Castle National Monument, located in Coconino National Forest in Arizona, has coordinated with a federal partner, the National Forest Service, to place a DMS on its entrance road to relay parking information. The National Park Service has leased or borrowed signs and place them in coordination with a state DOT, adjacent county, or as mentioned, with a non-Department of Interior federal agency. The NPS unit takes responsibility for updating sign messages.          

Apps and Websites
Western parks are taking visitor messaging a step further by providing real-time information to visitors as part of the NPS’s emphasis on visitors learning details before they arrive. Information is shared by traditional webpages or by customized apps. Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, uses webcams and parking status web pages to inform visitors of the current wait time at the park entrance. An NPS webcam provides a regularly updated visual of the Arches entrance gate, and a Utah DOT webcam posts real-time images of photos of U.S. 191 at the park entrance road. Arches National Park’s website parking pages, while static, do list lot names, number of spaces, open/closed status, and usage levels.[v]

Glacier National Park has launched a Recreation Access Display (RAD) application that is used during the park’s peak season. The app dashboard provides updates on parking, road closures, and vehicle access restriction, as well as information on campground status and weather.[vi] Another app example is Bryce Canyon’s Shuttle Tracker app, which allows visitors to view stops and the location of the park’s transit shuttles along the route network.[vii] 

At the current point in time, there is no standardized app in use by all national parks. Off-the-shelf apps are being used to provide NPS visitor and transportation information.  

Social Media
Individual national parks use social media accounts to provide transportation condition updates. Twitter is primarily used for immediate updates. Facebook is used for general information about expected travel conditions (e.g., holiday weekend travel).[viii] Erica Cole, National Park Service Transportation Planner, notes that visitors need to consider that cell phone coverage is not always available in order to access real-time information. Visitors are asked to allow time for unexpected events, pack their patience, and enter parks during off-peak periods (e.g., before 10:00 a.m. or after 2:00 p.m.). The types of information shared by Twitter include road closures, traffic volumes, and weather conditions.[ix] Social media is a form of intelligent transportation communication in and of itself, and posts provide a mechanism to highlight the different types of ITS used in the parks. Many parks enjoy very active Friends of the Park private organizations which help supplement the NPS staff with needed support on facility maintenance and traveler information on the Friends’ social media pages and accounts.

Rocky Mountain National Park uses Twitter to announce traffic conditions. Image courtesy @RockyNPS

Partnerships
When working on regional transportation issues, the National Park Service has traditionally participated in conversations about transportation improvements. For gateway communities such as Estes Park, Colorado; Tusayan, Arizona; or Springdale in Utah, local governments, regional agencies, visitor centers, and chambers of commerce are partners when it comes to discussing remedies for national park congestion and parking needs. Jurisdictions in the Grand Valley region of Colorado, home to Colorado National Monument, work together when transportation projects affect the monument and its surrounding communities. A recent Colorado National Monument roadway construction project involved the NPS, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), and local governments—Mesa County, City of Grand Junction, and the City of Fruita. These local jurisdictions’ roles change with each project; however, typical support includes providing detour routing, placing information signs, and managing traffic during construction. The partnership includes participating in each other’s public meetings and providing outreach. [x] (More examples of working partnerships between the NPS and neighboring towns are discussed in the Rocky Mountain National Park case study.)

Parks Projects and Regional Planning
NPS involvement in the regional planning process depends on each park’s transportation issue and relationship to surrounding jurisdictions. A recent example of community-level planning is an October 2019 public meeting held in Moab where local residents and other interested parties were invited to learn about efforts to address traffic congestion and improve the visitor experience at Arches National Park.[xi] NPS planning efforts have been bolstered through collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Federal land management agencies in Colorado have been engaging with CDOT to become more involved in regional planning.            

Grand Valley once again provides an example of how planning includes both federal and local partners. Federal land managers and federal recreation planners are included in Grand Valley’s continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive planning process, and each of the federal land management agencies (i.e., NPS, the BLM Grand Junction Field Office, and the USFS Grand Valley Ranger District) have a representative on the Grand Valley regional transportation plan steering committee.[xii]       

Outcomes

On an individual park basis, there have been impact and design plans and studies that focus on proposed ITS technologies or transportation projects that incorporate ITS components. ITS inventory reports for the NPS and federal public lands have likewise been produced every five or ten years since the early 2000s The National Park Service has not conducted a cumulative formal, quantitative evaluation of how intelligent transportation systems have affected travel patterns and user experiences in the parks. At this point in time, the impact of ITS and social media messaging is anecdotal. 

Resources

Funding for intelligent transportation system applications in the national parks comes from National Park Service operations funds (ONPS) and revenue from fees and pass sales authorized under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). Federal Lands Transportation Program (FLTP) funding has been used for transit in the parks and technology deployment. Another source of funds is the U.S. DOT Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) Program which funds transportation control measures such as intelligent transportation systems projects. Additional information about technology costs can be found in the National Park Service Congestion Management Toolkit.


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

[ii] National Park Service (2018, 2008). Annual Visitation Summary Reports, https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/National

[iii] National Park Service (2018, 2008). Annual Visitation by Park or Region, https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/National

[iv] National Park Service (2018). National Park Service Announces Plan to Address Infrastructure Needs & Improve Visitor Experience, https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/04-12-2018-entrance-fees.htm

[v] National Park Service, Arches National Park, https://www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/directions.htm

[vi] National Park Service, Glacier National Park, https://www.nps.gov/applications/glac/dashboard/

[vii] http://www.brycecanyonshuttle.com

[viii] National Park Service, Montezuma Castle National Monument Facebook account, https://www.facebook.com/MontezumaNPS/posts/2309650859086507

[ix] National Park Service, Rocky Mountain National Park Twitter account, https://twitter.com/RockyNPS?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

[x] Personal communication with Dean Bressler, November 2019

[xi] National Park Service, Arches National Park (2019). https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/news/news100119.htm

[xii] Personal communication with Dean Bressler, November 2019

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.