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Tourist town traffic ticking upwards

“The road system is finite and it’s beyond capacity…Beyond capacity means we can choose where to have a traffic jam, but we can’t choose not to have a traffic jam.”
20210828 Banff Traffic 0001
A long line of traffic along Mount Norquay Road at the end of August. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – The famed tourist town experienced higher vehicle volumes this summer compared to last year despite a continued lack of international travellers for most of the peak season.

Traffic data shows traffic volumes were up 15 per cent, but still 18 per cent below 2019 levels before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The busiest days this July and August saw a maximum daily volume of 30,053 vehicles.

Town of Banff officials say they anticipate increasing vehicle numbers next year, and along with that more traffic jams, particularly if the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue are closed to make way for the downtown pedestrian zone.

“I think with Banff Avenue closed, it’s going to be really hard to avoid traffic congestion,” said Adrian Field, the Town of Banff’s director of engineering. “There’s no way I can sugar coat that.”

But Field said congestion is inevitable with or without the pedestrian zone if visitation bumps back up to 2019 levels and there is no shift from private vehicles to transit or other sustainable modes of transportation like riding bikes and walking.

“The road system is finite and it’s beyond capacity,” he said.

“Beyond capacity means we can choose where to have a traffic jam, but we can’t choose not to have a traffic jam.”

Throughout July and August this year, there were 16 days that exceeded the so-called congestion threshold of 24,000 vehicles per day compared to one day in 2020 and all 62 days in 2019. Vehicles per day are measured at both entrances to town in both directions 24 hours a day.

When the congestion threshold is reached, traffic jams begin to happen, especially across the Bow River Bridge and for traffic coming down from Sulphur Mountain – the site of tourist hot spots like the gondola and upper hot springs. This then requires manual overrides of traffic light cycles to move more vehicles through the intersections.

However, Field said the effectiveness of the green overrides was curtailed by the downtown pedestrian zone this summer.

He said Banff Avenue closure requires blocking four out of the 14 available lanes and this, in turn, reduces the ability to effectively move large volumes of traffic north and south during the green override phase.

He said experience also showed that overrides had to be curtailed because, at higher volumes, they resulted in backups along Buffalo, Beaver and Lynx streets towards the Trans-Canada Highway.

“The closure of the four lanes really cuts back on our ability to be able to efficiently move traffic northbound and away from the bridge,” he said. “We couldn’t run them as we normally do. We saw backups across town and backups out to the highway in some cases.”

In 2021, there were six days with northbound delays greater than 15 minutes between the Rimrock and the Banff-Buffalo intersection compared to four in 2019 – despite the 25 per cent reduction in volume travelling over the Bow River bridge – a pinch point in the road system.

There were two days with southbound delays greater than 10 minutes between the Norquay Road railway crossing and the Banff-Buffalo intersection compared to one in 2020 and nine in 2019.

In both 2020 and 2021 summers, there were zero days exceeding the congestion threshold of 16,000 vehicles per day over the bridge compared to 55 days in summer 2019.

“Nevertheless, we had congestion,” said Field.

“I think we have to conclude that the closure of Banff Avenue does impact congestion over the bridge and no amount of flagging seems to help that problem.”

In addition, vehicle volume on Mountain Avenue was up 34 per cent from 2020, but still 32 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

Field said this could be because of fewer international travellers.

“Perhaps the regional market has already been to the destinations and are less likely to go again,” he said.

“It could be restrictions at the gondola, could be the closure of the hot springs. It could be a number of factors at play there.”

The use of Roam public transit and active modes of transit continue to climb back from the dramatic decline during the pandemic.

People walking or riding bikes or skateboards across the Bow River in summer 2021 were 20 per cent of total crossings versus 22 per cent in the previous three years.

Roam transit local ridership on all three local routes combined from June through September increased 133 per cent from 2020 – but is still down 58 per cent from 2019.

“Things are happening there,” said Field.

“Of course, transit ridership is down for other reasons as well. Folks want to feel safer before they want to get on a bus.”

The Town of Banff had success in diverting vehicles into the intercept parking lot at the train station.

“We did fill it up on numerous occasions this summer. We overfilled it actually on, I think, at least two days when we also occupied the gravel lot in front of the train station too,” said Field.

“Obviously, it would be great if we had another 500 stalls at the east entrance. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get any further on that.”

Councillor Hugh Pettigrew expressed concerns about traffic congestion next year.

“I don’t know where the solutions are,” he said.

“Hopefully we have some ideas to get us there if we do close Banff Avenue and we’re going to deal with traffic.”

Coun. Chip Olver was also worried, wanting to know what the streets would look like next summer if the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue are closed to make way for the pedestrian zone.

“What are our residents who want to come from the south side to the north side going to be experiencing, and our visitors experiencing?” she said.

“I really struggle with that idea in terms of closing Banff Avenue because that’s what seems to be the biggest challenge.”

Field said the hope is transit ridership will rebound, noting a single bus can move about 50 people versus a car with an average of 2.5 people.

“If there’s a rebound in visitation, it’s probably at least partly because there’s less of a concern over COVID, and if there’s less of a concern over COVID, then there should be an exponential – relative to this year anyway – increase in transit,” he said.

Field said the plan for next year is to have 15- and 20-minute bus frequency on routes 1 and 2.

“That starts to build and make a meaningful difference with congestion,” he said, noting he is confident businesses such as Pursuit will continue to offer transit to move people to the gondola.

In addition, Field said the Town of Banff would need to put as much effort as possible into marketing solutions other than driving – transit, walking, riding, choosing to travel at less busy times.

“I would have a hard time telling you there would not be congestion at peak times, particularly northbound over the bridge if Banff Avenue is closed and if visitation rebounds to 2019 volumes,” he said. “But there are ways that we can mitigate that and that’s really by moving people to sustainable modes.”

Banff council has directed administration to come up with a budget for a three-year downtown pedestrian zone from 2022-24 for consideration and debate in the upcoming service review, which kicks of Nov. 29.