National Parks: Four big transport issues and how to fix them

National Parks attract millions of visitors each year. The visitor’s protected landscape experiences are all too often blighted by excessive traffic, residents’ lives are disrupted by not being able to get around, and the engine of tourism is responsible for significant emissions.

Alistair Kirkbride from Foundation for Integrated Transport explores four key issues and what could be done to fix them...

1. Visitor travel to and from National Parks emits a lot of CO2

What’s the problem?

41% of the Lake District’s (28% of Cumbria’s) total carbon emissions are explained by visitor travel to and from the National Park - compared to only 19% by travel within (see here). Nationally, 63% of personal miles travelled for journeys over 50 miles are for leisure purposes (see here).

This means that to tackle carbon emissions from transport relating to National Parks, we need to look at approach travel. This generally falls between the cracks of policy and organisational responsibility.

How to fix it

There are five main ways to fix things:

1. Work with the rail industry to increase capacity for peak visitor times, create visitor-focussed ticketing deals including onward travel, and reduce Sunday and Bank Holiday closures on rail lines to National Parks.

2. Work with coach and bus companies to create mainstream and market-specific services, such as for younger adults from cities, day-trip ramblers from local town & cities and services to specific events (fell races, shows etc).

3. Target marketing for ridesharing via social networks and for events; make any in-park charging for car use (road user charging, parking) inversely proportional to occupancy – so full cars pay less.

4. Ensure that safe cycle routes connect National Parks with their nearby areas.

5. Develop place and market-smart end-to-end journey integration deals – services and fares that allow people to link fast, efficient approach travel with gateway-to-in-destination onward travel.

2. Public transport is expensive and fragmented

What’s the problem?

a. Visitor travel around National Parks without a car is fragmented and expensive.

Whilst public transport is generally good along main corridors, fares are much more expensive than equivalent costs for car use (especially for groups), services fall away from the busy corridors and are seasonal, and there is little effective widespread integration across operators and modes. Not only does this discourage shifts from car use, but effectively excludes the 25% households with no access to a car and the increasing proportion of younger adults without driving licences.

b. Transport services generally do not serve residents well.

Many transport services in National Parks are designed primarily for visitor markets and their travel demands. This means seasonal services with limited early morning / late evening services, visitor-targeted ticketing and fare structures, routings serving the demands of visitors rather than residents, and transport deserts beyond the main hubs and corridors.

How to fix it

Create a different model for widespread, integrated public transport for the specific demands of national parks that provides a viable alternative to car use for visitors and works for the demands of residents. Services designed for these complementary demands coupled with demand management would fundamentally change the economic model for transport.

Demand responsive services would link more dispersed settlements and attractions to scheduled services along busier corridors - possibly as a development of - or in partnership with - existing community transport. Visitor car access to busy areas and at busy times (as a minimum) would be restricted so that levels of traffic and parking are appropriate to the locales; revenues from car use (parking, road pricing) would be redirected to sustainable, integrated visitor access services (bus, bike, boat etc). Fares and ticketing would be designed for different user groups.

Provide the ability for National Parks to create Bus Service Improvement Plans.

3. High traffic volumes and parking demand are inappropriate in protected landscapes.

What’s the problem?

The high volumes of visitors in high season coupled with smaller roads and available parking leads to congestion (often leading to disruption to public transport reliability and access by emergency services and residents), road danger and discouragement of active travel, poor quality visitor experience and landscape blight. Coupled with this is a demand for more car parking which further exacerbates the problems.

How to fix it

Provision and marketing of non-car transport services (buses, cycling, boats etc) alone has been shown not to be sufficient to tackle the problems related to free car access. Widespread, frequent, affordable (or free), flexible sustainable transport services should be provided with visitor car restraint; this would allow car access for residents, people with mobility issues, (probably) accommodation drop-off and other specific types of demands as appropriate. In the short term, this needs to be done for the busier areas at peak times; in the medium term the ambition should be free public transportiii funded by car access (road user charging outside the car-restricted areas and/or parking) and/or broader visitor levies.

There are sufficient examples of types of places and contexts where this is not only a norm but adds to better quality experiences – such as in various alpine valleysiv,v or closer to home in pedestrianised town and city centresvi. In the last two years, many places have had to trial more interventionist access management, generally to the acceptance or approval of visitorsvii. Indeed, such interventions invite progressive marketing that aligns well with many visitors’ stated values regarding a desire to protect the landscape.

4. How decisions are made on transport in National Parks doesn’t work.

What’s the problem?

The Glover Landscapes Review published in 2019 (which we're still awaiting a Government response on) specifically identified existing transport governance as a structural barrier to better access and transport services for National Parks. The visitor-focus of transport coupled relatively small travel demands compared to the wider scope of existing transport authorities leads to a lack of focussed, effective governance and decision-making for the specific needs and opportunities of National Parks.

How to fix it

The Glover proposal should be implemented through the development of formal transport partnerships for National Parks. These would take on the powers over bus service provision, control over transport integration and relevant aspects of highways (access restrictions, speed limits and highways design). They would have the abilities to have independent dialogue with the Department for Transport and other transport bodies; this would involve national parks having their own Local Transport Plan and Bus Service Improvement plans with associated funding, and allow them to bid for other transport funding.

The core partnerships would comprise members and staff of the National Park Authorities and relevant Transport Authorities, and work in liaison with a wider group of relevant bodies such as those representing the tourism industry, community sector and landscape protection.

These four areas need to be considered together, as there is a risk that focussing on one alone (such as just developing valley park and ride sites) leads to problems for the others (such as attracting more car-based visitor travel to the park and ride sites and hence increasing emissions).

Is this all pie in the sky?

Three years ago, suggestions to restrict car access or focus attention on reducing carbon emissions of approach travel to National Parks would have sounded somewhat left-field. However, lockdown has meant that people’s experiences of travel and being visitors has changed, and many National Parks around the world have tried – and generally succeeded – at implementing far more radical visitor access management than previously (see here); COP26 has shone a bright light on the imperative to reduce carbon emissions.

The Glover review has set out clearly and impartially the problems and needs for different approaches to how access and transport is governed in National Parks and the Bus Back Better (2021) strategy and associated Bus Service Improvement Plan mechanism provides a new funding structure that lends itself to the coherent units of National Parks.

What next?

These four areas try to cut through the detail and set out the headline needs, opportunities and ways forward. It is to help National Park authorities and their transport authorities to consider constructively how to finally unlock the potential for national park access and transport, and come together to articulate clearly a new case to DEFRA and DfT to make systems for how people travel to and around National Parks fit for the 21st century.

Campaign for National Parks is campaigning or improved transport in National Parks in England and Wales - join us in pushing for the changes needed and support us in this vital work by becoming a Friend today.