At more parks, visitors leave the car behind
As millions of travelers set out for the wilds of America's national park system this summer, more urban denizens than ever will find the trappings of the morning commute awaiting them at the ranger's toll both.Skip to next paragraph
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Buses, shuttles, even green trains could transport them - not to steel-skyscraper canyons, but to stops at Half Dome and Kolob Arch, herds of moose and storied hiking trails. From Yosemite in California's High Sierra to Acadia on Maine's rugged coast, a revolutionary shift toward mass transit is taking place at some of the most popular crown jewels in the country, as the National Park Service makes a major - and somewhat controversial - push to shoehorn visitors out of their beloved cars.
"US national parks are on the brink of perhaps a whole new era in how visitors move through parks and interact with them," says Laura Loomis, a public-transit specialist with the National Parks Conservation Association.
Indeed, if proponents of propane-fueled buses, electric trains, and futuristic trams make their case successfully in Congress this summer, the car could soon head the way of the horse-and-buggy in many parks now overwhelmed by traffic congestion, smog, and vast swaths of asphalt.
Several ambitious mass-transit plans are already in the works:
* Yosemite (which saw 3.4 million visitors in 2000) is beginning a two-year demonstration program in which visitors have the option of leaving their vehicles outside the park and riding shuttles into the heart of Yosemite Valley. The goal is to eventually remove 1,100 parking spaces that presently cover an area the size of several football fields with asphalt.
* At Acadia on Maine's Mount Desert Island (2.4 million visitors), a fleet of 17 propane-powered buses transported nearly 200,000 passengers last year and reduced vehicle emissions by 2.7 tons of nitrous oxide, 5.4 tons of hydrocarbons, and 709 tons of carbon dioxide.
* At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the greater San Francisco area (14.4 million visits), an open-air electric tram formerly used at the Olympic Games in Atlanta is used for tours. Across the Bay, two trams carry visitors up the steep grade at Alcatraz Island to the prison's historic cellblock.
For the Park Service, the shift toward mass transit is full of irony. No other public-land agency in the US has done more to cement the cultural attitude that the best way to encounter the outdoors is from behind one's own windshield. But old habits aren't necessarily hard to break - particularly when the status quo is no longer an option, Ms. Loomis says.
Indeed, experts say the situation at some of the parks has gotten so dire they've been forced to consider alternatives. On the busiest days of the summer, some 6,000 cars typically jockey for 2,500 parking spaces along the Grand Canyon's South Rim. And at Acadia, the smog problem became so bad in recent years that it caused health concerns.
Forty national parks already have some kind of public transportation, typically as an adjunct to the dominant auto use. The revolution is transit plans that aim to replace cars altogether in the parks' most congested areas, where just getting to a campground can be more daunting than navigating rush hour.