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Banff experienced 'mode shift magic' this summer: mayor

“Without transit the road system would have experienced gridlock for most of the summer.”

BANFF – Banff experienced fewer lengthy traffic delays this summer compared to the busy summer before the COVID-19 pandemic, driving home the Town of Banff’s message that transit and intercept parking appear to be paying off.

The municipality’s counters at the two entrances to town showed vehicle volumes were down six per cent from 2019 – the year before visitation tanked due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic – and other monitoring showed the number of days people were stuck in traffic for more than 15 minutes was fewer than in 2019.

“There were fewer delays, or at least not worse delays than 2019, primarily due to intercept parking and a shift to transit,” said Claudia Rustenburg, engineering services technician for the Town of Banff during an Oct. 11 presentation to council.

This summer, there were 56 days that exceeded Banff’s congestion threshold of 24,000 vehicles per day versus 66 days in summer 2019. This year, the busiest day was recorded on the Sunday of the August long weekend when there was a daily vehicle count of 31,526.

“That’s similar to 2016, but below the intervening years of 2017 to 2019,” said Rustenburg.

Visitation to Banff National Park has exploded to more than four million tourists a year – 30 per cent more than a decade ago.

The increasing visitation combined with a finite road capacity causes gridlock in town, particularly as drivers try to cross the Bow River bridge to and from tourist attractions on the south side of the river such as Bow Falls as well as the hot springs and gondola on Sulphur Mountain.

Too many vehicles and high train traffic across Norquay Road also cause delays at the west entrance to town, often resulting in traffic backed up onto the Trans-Canada Highway exit ramp and highway.

Rustenburg said vehicle volumes on Mountain Avenue were down 19 per cent compared to 2019 levels, while Mountain Avenue Route 1 Roam transit ridership was up 18 per cent compared to three years ago.

She said this indicated a mode shift from private vehicles to transit.

“This is the first summer that private vehicle occupants were less than 70 per cent of people crossings of the Bow River, ever since the counters were installed on the bridge,” she said.

“That’s a great news story and we see the corresponding increase in transit ridership.”

Local ridership on routes 1, 2, and 4 combined from June through September was 562,000, a six per cent increase from 527,000 in 2019 and the highest ever recorded.

“This ridership would be the equivalent of removing 2,200 vehicles per day from the road system,” said Rustenburg.

“Without transit, the road system would have experienced gridlock for most of the summer.”

According to traffic data released to council, the number of days that drivers got stuck in traffic for longer than 15 minutes while heading south from the west entrance of town to the Banff Avenue-Buffalo Street intersection by the CIBC was once versus nine in 2019.

From the east entrance of town to the Banff Avenue-Buffalo Street intersection, the number of days that travel times exceeded 15 minutes was 27 this summer versus 55 in 2019. There were only two days where drivers were caught in traffic for more than 30 minutes from the east entrance to downtown.

The number of days visitors and residents were caught in heavy traffic for more than 15 minutes from the Rimrock Resort Hotel to the CIBC was also dramatically down.

“Even though we had the pedestrian zone, this year we had nine days with travel times over 15 minutes versus 15 days in 2019,” said Rustenburg.

“This did come at the cost of having to run twice as many green overrides to keep traffic flowing,” she added, referring to traffic light signal timings to push vehicles through the busy intersection.

At the train station intercept parking lot, peak occupancy was 91 per cent this year compared to 65 per cent in 2019 – although the lot was not open for the entire summer back then.

Peak occupancy of 100 per cent of the 456-vehicle capacity of the paved lot was reached on two of 20 days audited.

“We estimate that approximately 2,000, or six per cent of incoming vehicles, were using the two lots,” said Rustenburg.

Some town councillors questioned the impacts of diverting traffic around the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone had on Beaver and Lynx Streets.

“I am going to flag that now, that I want to have a bigger discussion around that during service review,” said Coun. Grant Canning.

“Particularly as we discuss Banff Avenue's potential closure again, what can we do to get a better idea specifically around the congestion on those two streets? That’s a really important piece of the puzzle.”

Coun. Chip Olver said she agrees the data presented to council was an indication of success and some improvement in terms of delays.

“But we don’t have all the metrics because we aren’t measuring the impacts on Beaver, Muskrat, Otter, Lynx,” she said.

Mayor Corrie DiManno said she was thrilled with the results of traffic management this summer.

“With similar vehicle counts to 2019, we were able to move the needle on having fewer vehicles on Mountain Avenue, we were able to have fewer delays even with the pedestrian zone, we increased Roam ridership above 2019, including recording some of our highest ridership ever,” she said.

“It’s just an absolute success story… we made mode shift magic this summer.”

For Mayor DiManno, the municipality has done almost all it can to manage traffic.

“For me, a big takeaway when it comes to the future is we are coming to that place where the Town of Banff has pulled most levers that we have in our hands and we now need some of the bigger solutions to come into play,” she said.

“We will need more mass transit from Calgary, we will need more intercept parking, and I think those are discussions to come, particularly with the Moving People Sustainably expert panel recommendations. We are really just waiting for this to come out.”

In 2021, Parks Canada struck an expert panel to look at a fundamental top-to-bottom overhaul of the way people access, experience and move around Banff National Park to sustain the area’s reputation, environment and visitor experience.

Part of the expert panel’s mandate is to also think beyond transportation modes to demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed parking and paid parking in the park.

Parks Canada, however, has been clear and consistent over the decades that there is no new land for intercept parking lots near the Banff townsite.

The new 2022 management plan for Banff National Park indicates that building new parking generally requires use of undeveloped park lands, which may mean permanent loss of wildlife habitat and potential loss of cultural resources or places of cultural significance.

According to Parks Canada, research has shown that additional road and parking capacity can be quickly taken up, and can even encourage more personal car use, leading to more traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Sal Rasheed, superintendent of Banff National Park told the Outlook in August that the federal agency is not interested in opening up discussions with the Town of Banff on new intercept lots, adding that the townsite’s boundary is fixed in federal legislation.

“I think there are some hard lines… Parks Canada really isn’t interested to open those discussions up again because it would stray away from our core mandate,” said Rasheed. “We’ve been fairly consistent on that, that we’re not interested in talking about that.”