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May long weekend caused traffic chaos in Banff

“Every day – Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – had more vehicles coming into Banff than in the pre-pandemic May long weekend,” said Jason Darrah, the communications director for the Town of Banff.
Tourists are flocking back to Banff. RMO file photo

BANFF – Visitation returned to pre-COVID-19 levels on the May long weekend, with back-to-back traffic forcing delays of about 90 minutes as vehicles tried to get across the Bow River from tourist attractions on Sulphur Mountain.

According to the Town of Banff, the tourist town saw 175 per cent of the traffic compared to the May long weekend last year, although that was during a COVID-19 spike, but also 108 per cent of the traffic when compared to the 2019 May long weekend.

“Every day – Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – had more vehicles coming into Banff than in the pre-pandemic May long weekend,” said Jason Darrah, the communications director for the Town of Banff.

“We had very high volumes of vehicle traffic every day, resulting in congestion and delays in several areas.”

The Town of Banff confirmed there were delays of 90 minutes at a few periods for traffic coming down from the gondola and Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain, heading back into town and to the north side of the Bow River.

“We can fully understand the frustration of drivers caught in the traffic congestion in several periods over the weekend. Even a 30-minute drive down Mountain Avenue to the bridge would seem like hours,” said Darrah.

“I personally heard of delays affecting people caught in traffic missing their dinner reservation at a downtown restaurant, and people trying to use more sustainable transportation like the Airporter being stuck in traffic.”

With warm weather and the first long weekend of the year, Darrah said the municipality anticipated the reports of pent-up travel demand in the region to produce high visitation for campers, hotel stays and day visitors.

Although the Town knew the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone would contribute to traffic delays on the May 20-23 long weekend, Darrah said the traffic congestion on the south side of the river was much worse than expected.

He said there were many more so-called green overrides – when longer green sequences are created on traffic light signals to move more backed-up traffic through the intersection – this year compared to the August long weekend last year when the pedestrian zone was also operational.

“We have determined that we had some errors in the automated traffic detection and signalling, not allowing enough vehicles through on Banff Avenue intersections,” said Darrah.

“We are fixing this timing to help move more vehicles, and we are adding resources on the ground.”

Darrah said there were also more tour buses in Banff than in the COVID-19 years of 2020 and 2021, and sometimes these may have contributed to a few delays in clearing intersections.

But he said the biggest contributor seemed to be extremely high volumes of vehicles coming into town and heading across the bridge, condensed into a short time period on Saturday and especially Sunday afternoons.

“We had a few one-hour periods with more than 700 vehicles coming in at once,” he said.

“This is unusually high. With already saturated roads, the high influx in the afternoon caused traffic movement to slow down.”

The Town of Banff is exploring options to mitigate traffic moving forward, but Darrah said the bottom line is there are finite roads and limited parking in town.

“This summer when we have too many personal vehicles coming in from the highway and many re-entering town from Sulphur Mountain attractions, those vehicles cause congestion and traffic delays,” he said.

In preparation for the long weekend, signage was added at the entrance to town directing drivers to the train station parking lot and the overflow parking at the west side of the train station.

The municipality also deployed flaggers at six key intersections to manage traffic and maintain flow safely.

“We have invested in transit and the operation of the intercept parking to try to reduce traffic coming into town,” said Darrah.

“The transit offering even includes free transit from campgrounds and many hotels offer guests free transit passes, because it is a better experience.”

Earlier this year, council stopped short of expanding visitor paid parking to areas on the south side of the Bow River such as Bow Falls. Instead, administration was told to monitor parking volumes this summer and assess whether parking lots could benefit from the turnover incentive that paid parking provides.

Parks Canada informed the Town of Banff and provided the same statement to the Rocky Mountain Outlook that paid parking at the Cave & Basin and lots at the Upper Hot Springs and gondola are not under consideration at this time.

Parks Canada struck an expert panel to make recommendations on a long-term framework for how visitors will get around the Bow Valley and experience Banff National Park, including consideration of new technologies and best practices from around the world.

In addition, the nine-member panel has been tasked with thinking beyond transportation modes to demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed and paid parking.

Ahead of the May long weekend, a joint communications campaign between the Town of Banff, Parks Canada and Banff and Lake Louise Tourism that primarily targeted the Calgary region urged people to take On-It transit from Calgary and for people who drove to park at their hotels or the train station and take transit.

“In some ways, we were successful. On-It had its busiest May long weekend ever. Our expanded intercept parking lot at the train station was effectively full most of the weekend. We had good transit ridership,” said Darrah.

“But we still had too many vehicles in town. Banff is only four square kilometres in area, with finite road space and parking. We cannot add intercept parking within the town.”