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City parks looks at shuttles to deal with growing attendance at local attractions

Working the crowd

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Good luck finding a spot near Balanced Rock, a popular spot in the Garden. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Good luck finding a spot near Balanced Rock, a popular spot in the Garden.
Angela Roberts regularly hikes through Garden of the Gods, where sandstone rock formations heave 300 feet into the sky against a backdrop of Pikes Peak. But Roberts knows when to go there and when not to.

“I avoid coming here in the summer and on weekends, for sure,” she says during a recent weekday stroll. Summer brings swarms of tourists, she says, and good-weather weekends attract flocks of locals.

In fact, Garden of the Gods is the region’s top tourist destination, with 6 million visitors last year. On a typical summer day, vehicles chug bumper to bumper through the 1,335-acre park, many snaking along roads in search of a parking space.

The park’s visitors center saw visitation increase by 82 percent, to 1 million people, from 2013 to 2016, a trend seen across the region, including on Pikes Peak, where visits increased by 20 percent per year from 2013 to 2015. Crowds, too, have invaded North Cheyenne Cañon, and hikers crowd the Manitou Incline extreme recreational trail.

Those masses of people, and vehicles, have led the city of Colorado Springs to consider shuttles in some areas as a way to improve the visitor experience, just as other attractions have done, including Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Rocky Mountain National Park, and San Diego Zoo.

Sites for possible shuttle programs include Garden of the Gods and North Cheyenne Cañon. Pikes Peak could also host a shuttle, at least while a new Summit House is being built. (Manitou Springs, by the way, already runs a shuttle to the base of the Incline that’s credited with easing traffic problems, if not crowding.)

“We truly have a significant increase of visitation to our community, and we’ve seen that at all of our sites,” says city Parks Director Karen Palus. “We as a community want the visitation, right? It helps the hotels and restaurants and what have you. We’re Olympic City USA. We have these amazing assets, so it’s really important for us to steward them properly.”

The trick, she adds, is balancing tourists’ and local residents’ needs.

Garden of the Gods was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1971 and has been designated by TripAdvisor as America’s favorite city park.

After the numbers of visitors, and their vehicles, climbed in recent years, the city ordered a $70,000 study by Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, funded in part by the Garden of the Gods Foundation.

The study will be presented to residents at a March 12 open house at Westside Community Center, 1628 W. Bijou St., from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The Volpe study reports that, based on car counters at the Garden’s four entrances, up to 8,000 vehicles pass through the Garden per day during peak season, or about 650 per hour. Besides causing congestion that mars the visitor experience, the study reported heavy vehicle traffic creates “a strain on the park’s unique ecology.”

Moreover, public safety is an issue when ambulances can’t navigate clogged roads, visitors stop illegally to snap pictures, and cyclists and pedestrians are forced to compete with vehicles on Gateway Road, the main entrance. “Multiple users on heavily trafficked roads can be dangerous, and with visitation increasing, solutions to increase public safety is a priority for the city,” the study says.

The park has 15 parking areas with a total of 335 spaces. Additional slots are at the visitors center (208), Rock Ledge Ranch (60) and the privately owned Trading Post (125). That totals 728 spaces. Visitors, on average, spend 2.5 hours at the park, meaning that 2.5 hours’ worth of vehicles are in the park at any given time, which the study quantified at up to 1,200 vehicles, leaving a gap of about 450 parking spaces.

While a survey of 350 visitors in August 2017 drew praise for the Garden, responses also included:

  • “More parking!”
  • “Traffic is terrible & there are so many people in the park.”
  • Better parking.”
  • “More pulloffs for people to view and take pictures.”

Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said they were likely to use a shuttle, and 60 percent said they’d be willing to pay up to $5.

The study proposes three shuttle routes ranging from 10 to 50 minutes. It also suggests a fee to park inside the Garden, and expansion of parking at the Trading Post to 205 spaces and at Rock Ledge Ranch to 400 spaces.

Though the study doesn’t call for shuttle fares, it’s a possibility, depending on who runs the service and how it’s funded, Palus says. She explains that parking and shuttle charges don’t violate a promise the city made in 1909 when the children of railroad magnate Charles Elliott Perkins gifted the Garden to the city with the stipulation “that it be kept forever open and free to the public.”

That’s because there are alternate free ways to access the park — on foot, Segway or bicycle, she says. Those who visit by vehicle but don’t park won’t pay a fee, Palus says, but adds, “There’s still lots of conversations and nothing has been determined.”

Parks officials hope to launch a pilot program in May, but can’t say which routes it will follow, if fees will be charged and who will run it, though Palus says the city usually uses vendors.

Besides getting citizens’ feedback, the city will consult with stakeholders, such as the Trading Post, Adventures Out West (which runs tours through the park), Glen Eyrie and others.

“Like so many other Colorado gems that are seeing hugely increased usage,” says Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Tourism Bureau, “sustainability of the park itself, and the visitor experience, are the largest concerns all involved are trying to address and we are eager to be part of the conversation and process.”

Keith and Kathy Johnson, frequent Garden visitors, aren’t opposed to shuttles. On a recent walk with their two dogs, Chip and Mac, Kathy Johnson said, “That makes perfect sense.” But Keith Johnson suggested the city consider giving local residents discounted rates.

The Parks Advisory Board this spring will consider a proposal, which Palus says doesn’t require City Council approval.

Shuttles also could come into play in North Cheyenne Cañon. A draft master plan is due for public release on March 6 and could rely on shuttles, as well as adding parking spaces or reducing pullouts. Some residents have expressed concern about environmental damage from unlimited vehicles in the canyon, saying shuttles would cut down on emissions and hazards to hikers.

The Pikes Peak Highway, a 19-mile paved two-lane road, has gotten busier in recent years with the drop in gas prices and a growing local population, a study ordered by the U.S. Forest Service found. Also conducted by Volpe, the 2016 study developed two shuttle scenarios — a mandatory system during construction of a new Summit House, and a voluntary system thereafter.

Sandy Elliott, parks operations administrator for Pikes Peak, says in an email that shuttles will depart from Devil’s Playground 8 miles from the summit with 350 parking spaces during construction. Visitors won’t be charged, she says. It’s unclear when that program begins, because, as Elliott says, the city is currently finishing the environmental assessment process and doesn’t have an official start date for construction.

Whether the shuttle program becomes permanent after construction hasn’t been decided, she says. Volpe estimated the one-year cost at $1.7 million, which will be funded through the Pikes Peak Enterprise — fee money for the road — she says.

Bill Beaudin, who fishes regularly on the Peak, says shuttles are needed, considering how cars back up onto Highway 24. Some have been turned back, he says. “Can you imagine the frustration and anger of anyone who was driving (perhaps with visitors in their car) to go up the Peak,” he says, “or to Santa’s Workshop and then told to head back to the Springs?”

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