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Trip planning: How to ensure your mobility network is prepared for the return of tourism

August 13, 2020

By Jeremy Cohen

A lull in visitor volumes due to COVID-19 could give tourism hotspots the chance to plan their mobility strategies for the next busy season

Fresh air. Beautiful views. A sense of history. There’s nothing like working on projects for tourism-focused municipalities. We love visiting fascinating locales while developing transportation and transit strategies for clients. It’s rewarding to help a city or town implement a new plan that makes life better for their residents and visitors.

Of course, when it comes to travel, 2020 has been challenging, as some tourism-focused municipalities welcome fewer visitors because of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns. But perhaps there’s an opportunity here, as a lull in visitor volumes could give tourism hotspots the chance to plan.

As government agencies look to encourage tourism in the coming years, we predict a strong need for better mobility planning. It’s important that your planning enhances the visitor experience. Imagine rushing to load up the car with your family, driving a few hours while discussing your fun weekend ideas, and then encountering traffic snarls or full parking lots that take away from a destination’s local charm. 

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is a community that’s taking action by looking at its mobility plan to ensure a positive experience for visitors.

Making it easier to visit your town will encourage people to come back.

Communities can start by asking themselves questions like, “Where do we want to be in the future, in terms of our tourism? How can we support that plan and accommodate those people?” Beyond planning how cars can get around your community—for example, creating wider roads or building bigger parking lots—it’s wise to examine emerging mobility technology and solutions. Is there a way to leverage a bike share, shuttle service, or e-scooters to mitigate costly infrastructure expansion? Transit ridership data, traffic counts, and mobile app data can help municipalities examine their mobility needs and develop a plan.

If you’re a tourism-focused municipality that’s considering a new mobility plan, here are some points to contemplate.

Questions to consider when analysing your mobility

Recently, we’ve worked on some interesting projects within our home province of Ontario, Canada, including in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the picturesque community of Tobermory. Niagara-on-the-Lake provides visitors with beautiful vistas, celebrated wineries, cute bed-and breakfasts, a popular annual theatre festival, and a downtown Heritage District featuring fascinating architecture and charming shops. The Bruce Peninsula area in Tobermory—for which we’re working with Parks Canada—offers stunning beaches, clear waters, tall pines and cedars, the majestic cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, and many scuba diving opportunities to explore shipwrecks in the area. We’re helping both destinations take action by looking at their mobility plans to ensure a positive experience for visitors.

Tobermory, Ontario, is a popular vacation destination, offerings visitors stunning beaches, clear waters, tall pines and cedars, majestic cliffs, and scuba diving opportunities.

In general, when we work with tourism-focused clients on their plans, here are some questions that come up at the beginning:

  • How do people get to your area? It’s important to consider how most visitors arrive. If your town is far from a major urban center, are people required to drive? Is there a shuttle service that’s currently offered?
  • How do visitors move around once they arrive? When tourists are exploring the area, are they driving, walking, biking, taking transit, or jumping on a shuttle? We’ve noticed a reliance on cars and parking in some communities, where visitors drive between parking lots—which adds to the congestion in town—instead of parking once and walking or hopping on a bike or shuttle.
  • Are there jumps in parking demand? Here’s a related point we’ve observed: if driving is the only way to get to your area, there could be issues with parking demand. For example, if a provincial park sees a huge jump in interest because social media influencers are posting about the area, parking demand could jump threefold or more. Imagine 400 or 500 vehicles fighting for spots in a town that can only accommodate 200 cars. Things get crowded.
  • Do people leave when it’s busy? We’ve seen some areas where visitors will arrive on a busy weekend, but if there isn’t anywhere to park, they drive to another community instead of spending their time and money at that first destination. Can your mobility network support people coming into town, or does it limit the number of visitors that frequent the local businesses? If a place becomes difficult to visit, that’s detrimental for stores, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses in town.
It’s important that residents know that proposed solutions will likely enhance things for locals as well as tourists.

Future solutions and ways to improve efficiency and reduce overcrowding

Once you’ve asked questions and discussed the current conditions, you can think about the future. What issues are you hoping to address? If your town is a summer hotspot now, are you looking to pivot to a year-round destination or a retirement community? What impact will that have on your roads and transit system?

If you’re looking at ways to reduce the number of cars and limit overcrowding in parking lots, you can consider strategies like:

  • Online communication: Develop communication tactics to let potential visitors know what’s available, in terms of mobility, before they arrive. Perhaps you can list options on your website or via your social media, where you encourage carpooling, identify additional parking lots on the edges of town, or provide a recommendation for bike share, e-scooters, or a shuttle service that operates between parking lots. If you’re working for a national park, perhaps you can emphasize the environmental benefits of carpooling, biking, or shuttles—which all result in fewer cars on the road.
  • Demand pricing: In cases where parking is an issue, there could be opportunities to leverage dynamic parking pricing and communicate elevated costs on peak weekends or days. This way, visitors can be incentivized to visit your community on another day, rather than showing up and being turned back, which results in lost revenue for the local economy. This also may allow places to implement infrastructure that is not overbuilt for a single day of activity but can be smaller and more evenly utilized across a broader period, like a few weeks or months.
  • Wayfinding signage: Add good wayfinding signage to help demystify the process of getting around on foot for visitors. This signage may make people less apprehensive that destinations may be “too far.” Our colleague Liza Cohen writes that wayfinding helps people understand the procedure for getting from Point A to Point B: “Clear information provides comfort, reassurance, and a common language through the experience.”
  • Solid data: Take a closer look at what data your community is collecting. Many scenic tourist destinations are in rural communities that may not be actively collecting the type of data that would further empower municipal staff to make effective mobility decisions. Work with a consultant to see what data gaps you have and then develop a data collection strategy. There are emerging data collection methodologies, such as anonymized mobile app data, which can come in handy and help to answer questions. Do you have travel characteristic data that shows where and when people visit your community? Or have you collected trip purpose and local origin-destination data to inform you on internal travel trends within your community? This could answer questions such as whether the distances between local points of interest are suitable for cycling.
  • Bike rentals: To discourage visitors driving between parking lots at multiple attractions, a full-day bike rental may convince some travellers to leave their cars off the road and allow them to get a different perspective of the community that they may miss within the confines of a car. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, bike shares and bike tourism has been growing to cater to the growing winery industry as people are finding more creative and fun ways to hop around points of interest.
  • Shuttle system: Along with implementing a shuttle service that operates from multiple cities to a destination—with the stops identified via data that identifies where visitors are coming from—you could also develop an inner-region shuttle system.
  • Conversations with locals: It’s important that residents know that proposed solutions will likely enhance things for locals as well as tourists. Aside from spurring economic activity and providing more options for visitors to get to your area, you’ll be giving residents more ways to move around their community. It makes the network more equitable, as locals may not need a car for every trip around town. 

When starting to look at mobility plans, it’s key to look at existing conditions. For example, how far is it for people to walk from an external parking lot to a central destination, such as a visitor center? Here’s a walking travel time analysis from Tobermory.

Preparing for when tourists return

As tourist-focused municipalities look at attracting people again in the years following the current pandemic crisis, perhaps now is the time to start planning for increased visitor volumes. We’re looking forward to working on more projects in picturesque places as vacation destinations consider their ideal mobility futures. 

  • Jeremy Cohen

    Jeremy is a transit advisory analyst with our team in Toronto. There, he’s focused on transit technology, supports projects involving transit planning and operations and assists with the integrated mobility team’s transportation planning projects.

    Contact Jeremy
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