Yellowstone stands apart in the national park system as the oldest and certainly one of the most popular. It also seems to be becoming a bit of a maverick in how it deals with growing numbers of visitors.
Park officials recently outlined their plans to meet future transportation needs. And unlike those for many other national parks, they don’t include shuttle buses to relieve traffic congestion.
Park officials say their transportation focus continues to be on roads. But they also acknowledge that 80 percent of the park’s 200-plus miles of road are deficient. Many of the roads were not built to stand up to today’s traffic loads and lack sufficient shoulders, making them dangerous to travel. And recent and planned efforts to upgrade park entrances so they can admit visitors more rapidly will only increase the traffic congestion within the park.
Many other national parks have either mandatory or voluntary shuttle services. The only way to tour Denali National Park in Alaska – other than on foot – is on a shuttle bus. But Yellowstone officials contend that this park is different. Because of its multiple entrances in all directions, they say, many tourists exit the park through a different gate than the one they entered. That may be true. But in Grand Canyon prior to the 2008 institution of a mandatory shuttle service, some 4.5 million visitors annually were using the shuttle there voluntarily. That took a lot of cars off the roads.
Yellowstone officials might be surprised at how many visitors take advantage of a voluntary shuttle service if it were offered there.
Some 3.4 million visitors have entered Yellowstone in each of the last couple of years. That’s an increase of some 600,000 over annual visits in 2000, and it’s safe to assume that number will increase in the future.
This much is clear: Yellowstone cannot sustain ever-growing numbers of automobiles within its borders forever. Park officials would be smart to start planning now for a voluntary shuttle system and set a visitor-count trigger point at which it will be offered.
We know it’s coming eventually. And planning for the inevitable is always a smart policy.