Sunday, December 14, 2014

What happens when Wyoming tourists no longer want to drive?

Gas prices are lower and expected to go even lower. We may be in for $2.50 gas prices in early 2015.

Yellowstone had a record 4 million visitors in 2014.

All good news for Wyoming.

Or is it?

America's love affair with cars may be over. Hard to believe for us Baby Boomers. I've been driving for almost 50 years. I couldn't wait to get my license and a car and tear around Volusia County, Florida -- and possibly use my new motorized self to get a date.

I did get a date or two. And I've driven in hundreds of counties all over this country and had a pretty good time doing it.

But those days may be over, at least in urban centers where most of the population lives. Kids these days -- they don't dream so much about piloting their own car as they do about saving the planet. Public transportation and car-sharing and walking and biking are hip.

Teton County, the gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the cornerstone of Wyoming tourism, just opened a new terminal for its Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit (START) bus line. We have buses in Cheyenne and Casper and maybe a few other communities. But none of us has a transportation terminal that includes a "bus barn" for storing vehicles indoors away from the cruelties of Wyoming weather. The first phase of this transportation terminal was dedicated Friday. When it's completed, it will even include employee housing, a real concern for any middle class person hoping to make a living in one of the richest counties in the country.

The state has no plans to widen tourist-clogged Teton County roads. And many environmentally-conscious residents don't want those roads widened anyway. So the county plans for more rapid transit to get residents and visitors out of their cars. As it is now, visitors can fly into Jackson and spend a week without a car. In fact, they may prefer that.

The town of Jackson's web site had a link to this article written by Tim Henderson for the PEW Charitable Trusts. It talks about the drop in rates for commuting by car, not only in cities but here in the Great Wide Open:
Western areas known for wilderness and a car-loving culture are seeing big decreases. In Oregon, Washington and Colorado, the percentage of workers commuting by car dropped by either 3 or 4 percentage points. 
The car commuting rate in Teton County, Wyoming, with its breathtaking mountain views and world-renowned skiing at Jackson Hole, dropped from 79 percent to 70 percent. No other county saw a larger decline. 
“We took a number of actions between 2000 and 2010 with the intention of changing the mode of travel away from the auto, particularly for the work trip in our area,” said Michael Wackerly of Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit. Some of the steps included providing commuter buses to get workers from neighboring Idaho, bus passes for Teton Village employees and higher parking fees to encourage bus use. For Teton County, the motivation was largely environmental. 
“A transportation system oriented toward automobiles is inconsistent with our common values of ecosystem stewardship, growth management and quality of life,” said the county’s 2012 master plan.

The Western Greater Yellowstone Consortium, a four-county partnership in Wyoming and Idaho, cites the expectations of Eastern tourists, many of whom come from cities where driving is falling out of favor. “A growing percentage of those visiting our National Parks from the nation’s urban centers and other countries expect to have alternatives to driving a private vehicle,” the group said in laying out its transportation goals.
You can read the rest of the article at

Many tourists "expect to have alternatives for driving a vehicle." They may be prompted by an environmental ethic. They may not want to be bothered with the hassles getting around unfamiliar territory on their own. Or they may not want to endure a National Lampoon-style family summer vacation family trip from Des Moines to Yellowstone. Where's Aunt Edna?

Sure, Jackson may be filled with tree huggers (along with the occasional Dick Cheney). But what about tourists visiting other Wyoming destinations? It's hard to imagine Cheyenne Frontier Days without city streets clogged with coal rollers and RVs. But even at CFD, the city uses school buses to transport tourists from a big parking area off of I-25 to concerts and the rodeo. And the city offers a free downtown circulator bus each summer. Downtown is very walkable and there are more and more reasons to walk around in it. We have a superb bikepath system, although commuting by bike on roadways still can be a harrowing experience.

There is a huge difference between Jackson and Cheyenne, One of the first comments I heard after moving to Wyoming in 1991: "Too bad you live in the ugly part of the state." It's true -- Jackson Hole is gorgeous while you have to hunt for the beauty in the High Plains. It's there, but it's not staring you in the face as it is every day in The Hole. More and more, Teton County residents realize what a gift they have. It's reflected in transportation policies and planning and a strong "locals" movement and arts and cultural activities such as the summer's Wild Festival which has the goal of "deepening our connection to nature through the arts."

In Wyoming, tourism is as important as digging carbon out of the ground to incinerate in giant power plants that obscure our national park vistas and contribute to global warming. But changes in national attitudes and demographics may be the real key to the state's future.


larry kurtz said...

Hi Michael! What if there was passenger rail service?

Michael Shay said...


That's a great question. Passenger rail is on the rebound on the coasts and in cities. But how to make it economically viable in The Big Wide Open? We can't even make subsidized passenger air service work in most of our communities. What about S.D. and Mont.?