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Banff 'running out of runway' for summer traffic congestion solutions

“All the things the Town can do in what we can control, I think we’re nearing the limits of what we can really achieve,”

BANFF – The transition of people using active modes of transit compared to personal vehicles has led to less congestion in Banff, according to a Town staff report reviewing information from this past summer.

Though the switch has lowered traffic congestion compared to past years, a growing influx of people continuing to use personal vehicles to travel to the tourist hot spot has grown.

While data presented to Banff council Monday (Nov. 27) was a surprise to few, if anyone, the tone showed the readiness of Town council and staff to move forward when the What We Heard report for the Banff Bow Valley Sustainable People-Moving framework expert panel is released.

“The municipality is running out of runway when it comes to the tools at our disposal to enact solutions,” said Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno. “We continue to wait for the What We Heard report from the [expert panel]. The municipality is eager to substantially expand on our partnerships with Parks Canada on transportation and we continue to be highly supportive of a number of recommendations in the report, so we’d be thrilled to begin these conversations in earnest for implementation in 2024 because we know what the future holds.

“We don’t need a crystal ball to know what our traffic situation is going to look like next summer and right now we have time on our hands to strategically plan, but with every passing day the What We Heard report has not been released we lose that opportunity to plan thoughtfully and plan to continue to move the needle.”

The expert panel’s recommendations were released in December 2022 and public consultation ended last February, with a What We Heard report the next step prior to looking for on the ground options. The panel proposed the creation of mobility hubs, improving public transit and stressed getting away from personal vehicles.

The report gave eight recommendations for helping with travel in the national park from getting to the area, moving around and enabling change.

With roughly 8.3 million vehicles passing through Banff National Park each year – an estimated half stopping in the park – the federal agency and Town have struggled with increased tourism.

Lesley Matheson, a senior advisor for Parks Canada, said they are aiming to have the What We Heard report released to the public in mid-December.

“All the things the Town can do in what we can control, I think we’re nearing the limits of what we can really achieve,” said the Town’s director of engineering Adrian Field, noting Roam’s system is becoming full, increasing payment for visitor paid parking had little deterrent for people driving to Banff and available parking is largely full most summer days.

“Fundamentally, we either need to find more space to park vehicles coming from Calgary or prevent those vehicles coming from Calgary.”

Traffic statistics presented to council showed from July and August 2023, the main entrances volume was down by one per cent from 2019; Banff Avenue bridge volume was down 17 per cent from 2019 and Mountain Avenue volume was down 17 per cent from 2019.

There were also fewer days where traffic was greater than 15 minutes for northbound traffic over the Bow River Bridge compared to 2019, but traffic back-ups and delays continued to take place when there were busy afternoons.

Local and regional transit, however, saw an increase of 47 per cent from 2019 and pedestrian crossings across the Bow River surpassed a million compared to 730,000 in 2019.

Coun. Grant Canning noted with roughly 1.4 million people having taken Banff local public transit routes through 2023 – which he highlighted was more than the entire population of Calgary – that “it’s absolutely staggering to me how effective that transit system has been.”

Roam transit had the highest ridership on Banff routes 1, 2 and 4 in July or August with 440,875 riders, which was a 28 per cent increase of the previous high in 2022 with 343,000 riders. In 2019, it was 301,000 riders for a 47 per cent increase compared to 2023.

For the same two months in 2023, 75,102 Banff residents used fare-free transit compared to 26,445 in 2022. The townsite hit a million riders in August 2023 as opposed to December 2022.

However, 7.5 per cent of route 1 and six per cent of route 2 were overloaded, totalling 740 overload trips that led to riders being turned away.

Route 3 between Banff and Canmore had a record July and August ridership in 2023 with 56,000 people after having 42,000 in 2022. Southland Transportation's On-It regional transit had 20,420 people ride this past July and August after 14,185 took the service in 2022 and 11,129 in 2019.

At the October Bow Valley Regional Transit Services Commission meeting, statistics outlined the significant amount of people being left behind due to Roam buses being full.

The transit service is exploring ways to work with other partners such as Parks Canada and Pursuit Collection – which runs the Sulphur Mountain gondola – as well as messaging for people visiting, but no new buses are planned to come online in Banff until 2025.

Earlier in November, Roam CEO Martin Bean told the Outlook it would look at ways to inform people of best times to take transit when there’s more ridership capacity.

“We have lots of capacity in the morning and often in the early afternoon, so that’s one message we’ll be putting out for next summer,” he said. “We’ll be looking at other options to increase frequency during peak periods with our existing fleet. There are plans for fleet growth in future years, but not for next year.”

He noted the partnerships between all organizations involved were vital as visitation is likely only going to increase, leading more people to rely on transit.

With Roam having surpassed more than two million riders for the first time earlier this year, people have flocked to it as a means to getting around.

An additional option may be reviewing route options to see if more efficiencies can be found.

“We’ll be looking at our routing to make sure it’s the most efficient and that we’re having the frequency where needed at certain times of day,” Bean said earlier in November.

“For example, the overload bus may go up to the gondola to help out for an hour or so and then come down to [Banff] high school [transit hub] and help take people back up to Tunnel Mountain hotels or the campground. Each area tends to have their peak times.”

Stuart Back, chief operating officer of Pursuit, called the collaboration between all partners in moving people more sustainably in the town and national park a “success story”.

“If we went back a decade, there’d be many naysayers who would say you can’t get North Americans out of their vehicles,” he said. “The mode shift that’s been achieved through collaboration is proof that we can think differently in welcoming guests and moving them around the destination.”

He acknowledged that getting to this point has been an evolution and a key to the success has been the flexibility of mass transit solutions.

A vital part of having people switch from vehicles to transit has been the increase of bus frequency to Sulphur Mountain and doing so at a low price for visitors.

He said Pursuit will purchase tickets for Roam buses and provide them for guests to incentivize taking transit rather than vehicles.

“We’ve removed barriers, made it easy and made it flexible for them. … We’re going to need to be able to cater to vehicles coming to Banff and we’re going to need to make their experience as easy as possible in terms of arrival, parking and then utilizing transit,” he said.

Back said when there is peak demand at Sulphur Mountain, Pursuit will usually have three motorcoaches doing loops of about 15 to 20 minute frequencies from downtown to the Sulphur Mountain gondola. He said an additional two smaller buses will pick people up from the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum and Fairmont Banff Springs on the north side of the Bow River Bridge.

This past year, he said there’s been 190,000 roundtrip guests moved that way, with 60,000 of those coming on Roam buses.

“Last year the town was busier and Mountain Avenue was quieter than it was any time since 2015, so you can argue about all sorts of different statistical points but if you look at a high level something has happened that’s very positive and it’s come through a partnership, which is great,” Back said.

While the switch to other means than personal vehicles is important, he noted cars will continue to be a way for people to get to and from Banff as well as going to other nearby destinations.

“It’s a destination, but it’s not the end of the road,” he said. “People are going from here to other places, so there’s still going to be an element of car visitation in the destination.”

A Town of Banff staff report added Banff routes 1, 2 and 4, the Banff-Canmore regional route and Calgary On-It regional service led to 518,000 riders in July and August, which was an increase from 350,000 riders in 2019.

“This is the equivalent of removing 3,300 vehicles per day from Banff’s road system,” stated the report. “Without transit, we would have experienced gridlock for most of the summer.”

The vehicle congestion threshold in Banff is 24,000 and was hit 60 times in July and August 2023 compared to 62 times in 2019. When the threshold target is hit, it leads to traffic back-ups and delays on one or more of the town’s main streets, such as Mountain Avenue, Norquay Road, Bear Street and Spray Avenue.

Though there are multiple mitigations in place, back-ups and delays across the townsite regularly occur in the summer with large numbers of people visiting Banff.

“In terms of road capacity, we’ve already hit it. We hit it years ago … We were beyond capacity for July and August. What keeps us able to control the traffic volume is people moving around in a different way,” said Field.

On Mountain and Spray avenues, a staff report stated back-ups begin to take place when northbound volume is more than 200 vehicles per hour, but heavy congestion occurs when it coincides with congestion of vehicles crossing the Bow River Bridge.

At the Sulphur Mountain roundabout, Town staff performed 10 one-hour audits on Saturdays and Sundays of vehicles per hour arriving and being turned away. The percentage of vehicles being turned around was between 20 and 47 per cent.

At 2023 service review, Banff council approved the building of a dedicated express transit lane and separated multi-use trail on Mountain Avenue between Spray Avenue and Middle Springs in an attempt to further reduce congestion. The construction will take place in 2024.

Back said an aspect of vehicles being marked as returning down the roundabout is due to drivers having to circle the roundabout to come back and park at the Rimrock Hotel if the two upper lots – which are co-managed by Pursuit and Parks Canada – are fully utilized.

With the majority of people buying gondola tickets in advance and there being several staff who manage each individual vehicle as it comes to the gondola, Back said it’s become a “fairly clinical way of dealing with this.”

“We’ve been doing this for years and got better and better at honing our approach,” he said.

“We actually believe we have very high parking utilization up on Sulphur Mountain and very little traffic that’s moving up there unnecessarily at this stage, having done this for years very collaboratively with Parks Canada.”

When it comes to crossing the Bow River, the majority of people continue to use personal vehicles. According to Town statistics, 2.135 million people (62 per cent) travelled in personal vehicles followed by 439,000 pedestrians (13 per cent) over the Bow River bridge and 301,500 (nine per cent) with Roam. A further 294,800 (nine per cent) and 277,500 (eight per cent) used the Pauw and Muskrat Street pedestrian bridges, respectively.

Compared to 2019, those numbers highlighted the switch to multi-modal methods with 2.599 million (74 per cent) people crossing the river in vehicles, 446,000 (13 per cent) pedestrians using the Bow River bridge and 180,000 (five per cent) taking Roam. The Muskrat Street pedestrian bridge had 284,500 (eight per cent) people cross.

The Nancy Pauw pedestrian bridge, which in 2022, had 29 per cent of pedestrian traffic across the Bow River for 294,800 people using it. Pedestrian crossings of the Bow River in 2023 were 1.011 million compared to 730,441 in 2019 for a 38 per cent increase.

“If we’re building more things for cars, we’re going to get more cars just in the same way if we build more for pedestrians, transit users, cyclists … substantially more people will move around town in a sustainable way,” said Field.

A staff report noted visitation to Banff has increased by 33 per cent from 2008-23, meaning while people have shifted to using public transit it hasn’t led to impacting the number of vehicles entering Banff National Park.

It also found people who come to Banff for the day are mainly from Calgary, but also nearby Cochrane and Airdrie, taking up relatively few available parking spots in the mountain town.

It added people from the Calgary area are less likely to plan ahead than those coming from further away, are more used to driving to their destinations and if people from that area were to shift to public transit it would have the biggest transit conversion rate.

The train station lot reached peak occupancy every weekend in July and August and most weekdays, according to the report. The paved lot can hold 456 vehicles and the gravel lot has a capacity of 105 vehicles.

The train station area redevelopment plan is set to come to Banff council Dec. 11 for first reading. However, the plan has an aerial gondola from the train station to Mount Norquay – which is owned by Liricon Capital – as part of the proposal, which Parks Canada has consistently said no to.

It also outlines a plan for more intercept parking, commercial and residential use and the restoration of historical buildings. In addition, it would potentially lead to the return of passenger rail between Calgary and Banff.

The Bear Street parkade and Bow Avenue parking lots also increased to 99 per cent full compared to 68 per cent in 2019.

“One negative consequence is that when the intercept lot, downtown and peripheral parking spaces are full then options for visitor parking to be accommodated are more limited,” the report stated. “To accommodate future visitor volumes then initiatives such as a continued shift to mass transit from Calgary, more intercept parking, increased driving disincentives, increased mass transit options and/or quotas and reservation systems will be required.”

Banff council previously voted to have a consultant prepare a study for an intercept lot at the east entrance that would see the Town attempt a land trade or swap with Parks Canada.

However, Parks Canada has been adamant no swap would take place and there would be no intercept lots outside the townsite’s boundaries due to environmental, policy and legislative challenges.

Overcrowding and congestion across Banff National Park has continued to grow. On July 22, the Minnewanka Loop was shut down for two hours due to parking being full and significant backups throughout the loop.

A plan and strategic environmental assessment for Lake Minnewanka is underway to look at how to manage human use and the hope is to have it finished in 2024.

On Aug. 6 and Sept. 2, Lake Louise was shut off to non-residents and guests not staying at hotels due to significant overcrowding that put the ability of emergency vehicles travelling though the village at risk.

An attempt by the Outlook to get more information on similar potential thresholds by Parks Canada’s Banff field unit was unsuccessful.

This year was the first that Parks Canada shut down the road to Moraine Lake to personal vehicles, allowing only buses and vehicles with disability placards access to the popular lake.

James Eastham, a public relations and communications officer with the Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit, said at the end of the season in October there were 114 commercial operators licenced to drive buses on Moraine Lake Road.

He said an average of 108 commercial vehicles carrying about 1,900 people went to Moraine Lake each day between May 19 and Oct. 9.

In that time frame, there were 340,621 unique riders taking a total number of 969,090 trips. The Parks Canada shuttle buses averaged 2,650 a day, while Roam was 370 a day, commercial buses 1,900 a day and hiking and cycling was 30 a day, Eastham said.

He added in 2023, there were about 5,300 people a day who visited Moraine Lake. In 2022, there were 5,500 a day and in 2021 there were 4,700 per day.

Visitor pay parking was introduced in Banff in July 2021, with the goal of pushing people towards active modes of transit and public transit, having people use the train station intercept lot and earning income for sustainable transit initiatives.

The report noted when rates were increased from $3 an hour to $5 an hour in 2023 for May to October, the number of vehicles slightly decreased by only 0.6 per. cent and extended transactions also fell by 0.6 per cent. The average time spent in paid parking went from 121 minutes in 2022 to 118 in 2023.

It also found the resident parking permit program had fewer visitors using residential streets to park compared to 2019 and 2023.

“The (main) line for this whole (staff) report is transit and investments in sustainable transportation have been incredibly successful – incredibly successful – in changing the way people move around Banff,” said Field. “That is the single most important success that we’re seeing in dealing with transportation downtown. Those investments must continue if to be successful in moving more people around town.”

Main entrances

  • July, August 2023 had 1.665 million vehicles compared to 1.684 million in 2019
  • July, August 2023 maximum vehicles per day was 32,342 versus 32,423 in 2019
  • The average vehicles per day in July, August 2023 was 26,862 compared to 27,176 in 2019

Banff Avenue Bridge

  • July, August 2023 had 14,900 vehicles per day compared to 19,022 in 2019
  • Roam transit ridership increased 67 per cent from 2019

Mountain Avenue

  • July, August 2023 had 5,629 vehicles per day compared to 7,259 in 2019

Roam Banff routes 1, 2 and 4 in July and August

  • 2019: 300,851
  • 2022: 343,326
  • 2023: 440,875

About the Author: Greg Colgan

Greg is the editor for the Outlook.
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