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Being Car-free and Carefree in our National Parks

By: Lisa Lin, Bayou Land Conservancy Board Chair, TDM Manager at Rice University

Last month, I heard an interesting NPR story that resonated with me on multiple levels. The reporter discussed the challenges Acadia National Park was facing due to the high volume of visitors during their peak season. Traffic congestion and a shortage of parking spaces were starting to pose a safety problem for park officials. Listening to this story reminded me of how my work in transportation demand management (TDM) has a direct impact with my interest in conservation work. TDM is a niche field in the world of transportation that focuses on one thing: shifting travel behavior away from the single-occupancy vehicle to sustainable forms of mobility and thereby reducing the need for parking. Often TDM targets weekday commuting, but at its core, it is reducing our dependence on our personal vehicle 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including when visiting our favorite parks.

We are often reminded about the sad state of traffic congestion in our city. The Houston Chronicle reported in August on the Texas Transportation Institute’s new study finding that Houstonians spend 75 hours a year in traffic. With nearly 2 weeks of vacation time wasted on our highways, it is to no one’s surprise that many of us escape to the mountains to get away from this concrete jungle. Unfortunately, the driving behaviors that we, and many Americans, have grown accustom to in our day-to-day lives are starting to affect the natural places that we seek for retreat.

To counteract these trends, the National Park Service has instituted TDM measures to help alleviate these problems. For example, in Zion National Park, parts of the park are only open to shuttle buses during their peak season. To deal with the issues in the aforementioned Acadia National Park, officials will be implementing a policy in 2021 restricting the number of vehicles in popular areas during certain times of the year. Another showcase transportation service that is a personal favorite are the Red Jammers in Glacier National Park. Riding in these historic buses are not only a great way to see the majestic, panoramic vistas along Going-to-the-Sun Road without having to drive yourself but also offers a glimpse into how visitors would have experienced the park back in the 1930s. Glacier National Park does offer a traditional shuttle system with modern buses, but visitors appreciate the nostalgia of these vintage roll-back top red buses that is unique to this destination.

In fact, my husband, Sam, and I liked these red buses so much on our first trip to Glacier that we incorporated them into our wedding there back in July of this year. We opted for the historic bus tour of East Glacier instead of a traditional wedding reception. Our family and friends got to experience our favorite national park without having to engage in any white-knuckle driving on the windy, narrow roads. It was a wonderful, memorable way to begin our marriage. It was also a great reminder of our dedication to land conservation and the importance of high-quality transportation services, no matter how urban or rural the context.

When you’re planning your next escape to the wilderness, either to the Spring Creek Nature Trail in Montgomery County or to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, consider how you get there. If you need to use a personal vehicle, bring friends and share the ride. Remember that it’s not a good idea to go hiking alone. The same goes for driving.

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