A Car-Free Yellowstone

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Yellowstone National Park.  We drove a lot outside the park, unavoidably.  From the airport in Bozeman to the town of West Yellowstone, and to the park entrance every day.  We also drove many miles daily in the park.  There, we might be able to do better for our visitors (and it is our park) and the park itself.

When we talk about public transit locally, a perennial question is of ridership volume: when do we cross the tipping point where the transit service becomes financially viable and practical for users, even preferential to riding in a car?  Yellowstone may be there.  Its crowds and traffic are the cost of its success, but a bus system could mitigate these, opening the park to more people while preserving its navigability.  And a car-free Yellowstone would be better for the flora and fauna as well.

That letting people drive into the park may not be working anymore became clear one day as we went home, north past Fountain Paint Pots.  Southbound traffic was backed up from the Paint Pots parking lot.  The lot had filled and cars were lined up on the road, waiting for others to vacate spots.  This meant that all traffic on this road stopped, even though most vehicles were likely continuing down the road to Old Faithful and beyond.  There is no alternative road, and passing was impossible as it was a curve with 45 mph traffic in the oncoming lane and no way to dodge it.  Imagine this but with a long line of cars:

The traffic backed up to here – parking lot ahead, people hiking on the right

Those visitors had no choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.  Eliminating cars would resolve parking-related backups like this, making the trip more efficient, less frustrating, and safer.

It would also be safer for people as it would rein in the other cause of backups: stopping to admire megafauna like bison and bears.  While many visitors followed park guidelines, a significant number obstructed roadways to gawk, and a decent number got too close to wildlife.  We saw two dozen people photographing a bear from the side of the road, then backing up and scattering as it approached them.

And a few bad actors actively harassed the animals.  One pickup truck zoomed around a line of cars stopped for a bison in the road, coming withing a few feet of it as it passed.  The truck honked at the bison who belatedly tried to charge the vehicle.

The park would be even quieter, too, with cleaner air.  At some places, cars zoom right next to walkways and attractions, say at Gibbon Falls, distracting from the natural beauty.

A car-free Yellowstone: a more relaxing visit for people and healthier for the park and its animals.

How would people explore the park?

What would replace the cars?  A transit expert could do better here, but I’ll take a layman’s stab.  People would park at the park’s entrances, where frequent shuttle buses would pick them up.  These buses would have glass walls like an Amtrak observation car, and maybe an open-air upper deck, making them superior to a car for photography.   A bathroom on board and perhaps satellite Wi-Fi would also provide better amenities than cars.

They’d take advantage of Yellowstone’s clustering of attractions on main ring roads to offer near-constant service to those, plus occasional detours down roads like Firehole Lake Drive.

Other possibilities include rangers on board to answer questions and provide history.  Maybe even mounted telescopes?  Buses could make stops to view fauna close to the road.  With the view from atop a bus, it might no longer be necessary to scramble out of a vehicle to get a better photo – though if this was determined to be worthwhile, such quick stops would not back up traffic as they do now.

Such buses should be electric vehicles from the beginning, given the imperative of immediate and drastic climate action.  The current paradigm of vehicles swarming the park burns a tremendous amount of gasoline, which could be fully mitigate by this approach.  (Though there’s still the issue of getting to the park.  Aside from reopening train service to Yellowstone, perhaps the necessary climate position is in fact to plan for a decrease in the number of visitors, as people like me flying and driving from Michigan – much less the tourists I saw from Europe and Asia – is not compatible with a habitable world).

All in all, the park visitation experience would be smoother and more relaxed than it is now.  A more drastic step would be to ban all motorized vehicles in Yellowstone, allowing only bikes, horses, and foot traffic.  This would be a tough pill to swallow, as only a minuscule fraction of current visitors could still make it to sights like Old Faithful.  But perhaps that will be the eventual end-state of the park, whether because we make the necessary reductions in fossil fuel usage or we simply burn it until we run out, it gets too expensive, or global supply chains collapse.

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