Is it time to start talking about traffic free National Parks again?

14 March 2018

The mobility, transport and access world is in flux. Car dependency is looking a bit last century, being connected and smart phones are younger people’s equivalents of getting a driving license. New models of travelling and types of transport services are emerging. If we want to improve access to and around National Parks, is it time to look at unpeeling the layers of traffic to see what could lie beneath?

Let’s not start from 'traffic and transport is a problem'. This leads us to the same old dead ends of argument; most National Park Authority offices will contain at least one report with a summary of case studies of traffic-free tourism, but they will have been commissioned to “tackle traffic”. Let’s consider instead the opportunities of what becomes possible without traffic in terms of what the places can offer visitors, residents and business. The changing world is opening up new angles of approach to transport, so let’s try this for National Parks.

Take Paris. Closing one of its busiest urban roads for two summer months to create an urban ‘beach’ might sound bonkers, but it has been an established part of the visitor economy for over a decade. Instead of it being considered as ‘taking away traffic’, the approach has been to ask what becomes possible with the absence of traffic ‘…people strolling along the quays can sit on the lawns and wooden terraces to enjoy this unique and unusual setting, of palm trees and sun umbrellas… A mobile library, book lending, and misters enable children to have fun while keeping cool… Tai-chi classes, ballroom dancing, petanque and off-site exhibitions… canoeing, zip-line descents, loans of comics and science workshops’ plus three ‘pop-up’ swimming pools.

Let’s not pretend that this is a formula for National Parks, but the central idea of new opportunities applies to both. Empty car parks could become outdoor cinemas or local foodie events, beautiful winding lanes become family cycling and wheelchair routes punctuated with pop-up bike hire and cafes; ‘help herd the Herdwicks with the local farmers’. Just think of the fertile opportunities for marketing fantastic National Park experiences to visitors.

Cycling in Kentmere, Lake District. Photo credit: Go Lakes

But it’s not just for the visitors. People who live and work still need to travel, and – with some conditions - would be allowed to do so, but their journeys wouldn’t be stuck in traffic. The business case for shuttles and point-to-point bike hire would be transformed to the point where the whole economy for transport could be rethought. Apart from jobs in these new or expanded transport-related services, it opens a whole set of new opportunities for the ways that existing businesses could market themselves as well as triggering new components of the local economy  (baggage pick up, quiet weekends, linked local services etc) plus tie-ups with associated businesses (e.g. mainline rail, bus, taxi and grocery delivery companies).

This doesn’t all have to happen at once, everywhere or be permanent. Designated traffic-free weekends or access restrictions up dead-end valleys that contain no businesses might be a good start. These could be planned well in advance so that new opportunities could be maximised and really well publicised. Let’s face it, the weekend travel sections would lap it up, and I can see the posters on the billboards in the feeder cities already.

So is this bonkers? The point is that we just don’t know. Take a valley, consider what would be possible without traffic, do the sums, sort out the marketing and try it. Someone will, and the rest of us will look at it and think 'why didn’t we do that?'.

By Alistair Kirkbride, executive director of Carplus