I started researching alternative transportation at Acadia National Park in 1999. My research followed a general management plan the park created in looking at solutions to its congestion at popular destinations within the park and associated parking problems.
The park staff decided the Island Explorer bus system could alleviate some of the congestion and parking not only in the park, but also within the surrounding communities like Bar Harbor.
My research started looking at whether visitors would ride the bus and what experiences they would have using alternative transportation. The first study assessed the visitor experience using the bus. Where did they go when they used the bus? Was it easier to get to where they wanted to go? And did it improve their visitor experience?
Based on that work — when it was a much smaller system — it really showed promise in terms of increasing bus service and being a possible tool in managing visitors inside the park.
Acadia is not unlike other national parks with increasing use and people coming mostly by private vehicle and then relying on their vehicle to move around inside the park. However, Acadia is a little different from other parks because it is intermixed with a lot of coastal towns on the island. That created opportunities to utilize the bus system to connect visitors from their hotels to the park more easily than in other national parks.
Being one of the first bus systems in the park service in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Acadia was chosen among all the national parks as a test site for intelligent transportation systems (ITS). ITS is essentially new technology that gives more real-time information to riders such as when buses are arriving and their bus stop location. Since many visitors to national parks haven’t used mass transit, ITS was thought of as a way to ease concerns and increase ridership.
In 2001, ITS technologies were tested at Acadia as a model that might be used in other national parks. ITS assessed included real-time parking conditions at popular destinations such as Sand Beach and Jordan Pond House where parking was difficult, as well as automated destination announcements to approaching stops in and outside the park. Again we looked at feasibility studies to determine if visitors would use this information because it is an investment to incorporate that technology. Based on that study, we found there was a desire for that information and providing it would increase the likelihood visitors would use the buses.
So investments were made and ITS were incorporated into the Island Explorer bus system in the early 2000s. Subsequent ridership numbers supported increased bus routes and number of buses. Finally, a state-of-the-art bus facility has been built off MDI in Trenton, near a future planned Acadia visitor center.
After the technologies were integrated, we did another study in 2001 and 2002 to assess how successful it was. Did it reduce congestion that was occurring at parking areas inside the park? And also assessing again the visitor experience; how did they like those technologies? Did it improve the visitor experience when they were here in the park? It has made a huge difference in terms of ridership with more people using the bus system with that technology.
Also important to this ITS study was looking at the desires of the local communities because just like inside the park, people sometimes have a hard time parking in the towns where they want to shop and have dinner.
The ITS were integrated with the buses and local hotels so visitors could ride from the hotel into towns like Bar Harbor to have dinner and shop before being brought back to their hotel. The bus system not only services the park, but it also services the local communities and the airport in Trenton.
The results of that study were very positive. It’s a huge investment, so if there wasn’t a positive reaction and increase in users, other parks would probably not want to integrate ITS, so it was a very important study in that sense.
Based on our study, it really did improve the visitor experience. It increased ridership on the bus, and made it a better and more successful system for visitors and park management in terms of reducing congestion and having high-quality visitor experiences.
With the work that we’ve done, it has generated more research in other national parks in making systems better in terms of implementing alternative transportation.
ITS has been used as a model at other parks in the national park system, such as Rocky Mountain National Park where I’ve done similar research, also the Grand Canyon National Park, where they’ve integrated more bus systems within the local communities. It is a model that seems to work in certain settings where you do have high visitor use. The Island Explorer bus system also has been adopted at a smaller scale in other areas within Maine, such as ski areas.
I think this research is important for Maine residents because initially, and this is especially true in the local communities, they didn’t think visitors and local residents would want to use alternative transportation systems to access the park. Once they started to see the benefits of that to their community — having more business that was going to be able to come through the door — it really started to change people’s attitudes toward alternative transportation systems and has been positive for the Mount Desert Island communities.
Other than business, part of the reason they were behind an alternative transportation system was the quality of life in terms of getting around easier and reducing pollution that’s caused by all the vehicles that are being used on the island. At a larger scale, I think if it helps the environment, then it helps the people of Maine.
Another area the University of Maine has contributed research has been using remote sensing technologies to look at vegetation changes over time. In 2004, an opportunity came up to look at management of environmental impacts caused by people walking off trail at Cadillac Mountain — a very popular location.
They implemented a strategy a few years prior called “Leave No Trace,” and other signs to try to have people be more cognizant of the effects of walking off trail. We were able to go back and use remote sensing data to look at changes in vegetation conditions. Through several years of data collection and analysis, we were able to document some improvements based on the management they employed on top of Cadillac Mountain.
This was really cutting-edge research looking at remote sensing and managing national park settings. The graduate student that worked on that project, Min-Kook Kim, now is an assistant professor at another university, so the skills people are gaining through the graduate program are really applicable to management issues and of interest to other academic programs. The research he did appeared in several peer-review publications.
It’s really a joy to be able to do this research in such a beautiful setting. I started my career as a park ranger after graduating from the University of Maine and worked in park settings for years previously and before going on to graduate school. Being able to see things that I dealt with as a park ranger and then seeing the value of research improving the visitor experience and management is very rewarding.
John Daigle is a professor of forest recreation management in the School of Forest Resources