Banff sets transit records as visitors leave cars at home or in the town's parking lots

·4 min read
Banff has seen a four per cent drop in traffic coming into town but an 18 per cent jump in people using the Roam Transit service to get to attractions like Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Upper Hot Springs. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
Banff has seen a four per cent drop in traffic coming into town but an 18 per cent jump in people using the Roam Transit service to get to attractions like Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Upper Hot Springs. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

Traffic is an endless headache for those living in the resort town of Banff — and a frustrating reality for those who visit the mountains vying for parking near attractions like the hot springs or gondola.

This summer, the town tested a lane reversal over the Bow River Bridge leading up to Mountain Avenue, a known bottleneck, for the second time in eight years. Why? Because residents wanted to see if it would ease southbound traffic.

The town's director of engineering, Adrian Field, said it did, but it moved the jam to the north part of town.

"I'm keen to never do it again," Field said. "When we try to focus our efforts on moving vehicles, generally what we learn is that we can choose where to have a traffic jam. We cannot choose to not have a traffic jam."

He said what their repeat experiment proved was that the focus should continue to be about moving people — not cars.

The good news is it seems repeated messaging from Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, the Town of Banff and Parks Canada may be working.

This summer, Banff smashed transit ridership records established before the pandemic obliterated attendance over the past two years.

Calgarians and other visitors are catching on, and in some cases leaving their vehicles at home.

Compared to July 2019, the town has seen a four per cent drop in traffic coming into town but an 18 per cent jump in people using the Roam Transit service to get to attractions like Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Upper Hot Springs — resulting in a 17 per cent drop in traffic for that congested area.

"It has been incredibly rewarding that we are seeing these huge strides with transit ridership increasing," Field said. "The messaging is working."

Roam Transit links Banff, Canmore, and many of the big and busy park attractions like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon and Lake Minnewanka.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

The most popular route this summer is the bus taking visitors from Banff to Lake Louise.

With four weeks left in the park's busy season, Roam Transits routes have recovered.

Back in 2019, the transit service had a record year, transporting more than 1.5 million passengers around the picturesque park.

"At this point, it looks like we will surpass our 2019 numbers," Roam CEO Martin Bean said. "It feels great. I mean, we really didn't know what to expect … we're pretty excited that the numbers are up as high as they are."

Now, those who stay in hotels can keep their cars parked and take Roam for free. If you have a ticket to the Banff Gondola, a shuttle is included. Even if you're at a campsite, you can grab a free ride into town, or to a busy attraction and only pay the return while skipping traffic jams at full parking lots. Bean said 28,000 riders used that service this summer.

Some park visitors have skipped the drive from Calgary to Canmore or Banff altogether by taking On-it Regional Transit. The bus service that operates in the Calgary region has seen its Bow Valley routes routinely sell out or near capacity every weekend this summer.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

Back in 2019, On-it carried a total of 20,000 passengers to the park over its summer service. With weeks left in this season, Jonathan Weal, director of business development, expects the service will net a record 25,000 to 27,000 riders this year.

He attributes this jump to a few things: high fuel costs, difficulty securing rental vehicles and aversion to the existing congestion in Banff. Even tourists and out-of-town visitors have caught on.

"This year, we've been running at capacity probably since the first weekend in June … it's been constant."

On-it Regional Transit and Roam are looking at bolstering their service hours for summer 2023 in response to this demand.

While gas prices or the rental car market could change in that time, Weal thinks that once people try taking mass transit to the park, they are likely to become repeat customers.

"They can watch movies, they can use their phones and whatever they want to do to keep themselves occupied, sleep. They're not stuck in traffic," Weal said. "Once they've used the service, they keep coming back."