Yosemite Enforces Its Bus-Only Lanes, But How Can the Park Better Manage Car Traffic?

Yosemite ranger ticketing scofflaw drivers in the bus-only lane. Photo by Carrie Lincourt/Streetsblog L.A.
Yosemite ranger ticketing scofflaw drivers in the bus-only lane. Photo by Carrie Lincourt/Streetsblog L.A.

I can’t claim to be an expert on how Yosemite National Park can best manage its frustrating car traffic congestion. I visited there last week, and figured I’d try to facilitate some discussion of Yosemite Valley traffic issues.

Up front, let me say that “too much traffic” is in many ways a good problem to have. Yosemite’s car congestion is a sign that the park is wonderful, popular, and accessible to lots of people. My family had a great time – thanks to the natural beauty of the place, and to the hard work of the people working there.

As Louis Sahagun wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times, tourists who expect “serene walks along trails where pine trees threw shadows across streams and picturesque meadows teem[ing] with wildlife” are shocked to find “diesel smoke, honking horns and miles-long processions of buses and cars.”

The National Park Service website’s page dedicated to Yosemite car traffic encourages visitors to expect “extended traffic delays” including “delays of an hour or more at entrance stations and up to two to three hours in Yosemite Valley.” The NPS recommendations include: arrive before 9 a.m., park once, and take the bus within the park.

NPS runs valley circulators and even bus service into the park. A round-trip bus trip from Fresno costs $30 per person, which, for a family or even a couple, really can’t compete with the $35 price for a carload of people. It seems to me that if a bus is going to be anything near competitive with driving, it would need to very inexpensive (perhaps a tenth of that cost – $3) or maybe free.

Car parking is free.

Yosemite’s in-Valley circulator bus is free. Unfortunately, it is so well-used (or under-capacity) to the point that, at the main popular trailhead (Happy Isles), people line up and have to wait for multiple full buses before being able to board.

To its credit, Yosemite has made some efforts to not just cater to cars.

There are bike paths and bike rental. Parking is limited, and, once you’re there, it is generally more convenient to walk. There are a couple of well-placed roundabouts that manage traffic fairly well.

Just this summer, Yosemite re-opened the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoia trees. Visitors cannot drive to Mariposa Grove, but must park outside and ride a free shuttle.

A few years ago, the park retooled two-way roads in the valley to be a one-way loop with one lane for cars and one lane for buses.

While my family and I were in our car, undergoing our hour-long wait to drive out of the Yosemite Valley, I was heartened to see that the park is at least enforcing its bus-only lanes. Los Angeles, where we live, has bus-only lanes, but, for the most part, they are less than wholly effective, in part because police do not enforce them against scofflaw drivers.

We watched two cars whiz past in the bus-only lane. They stopped, seemingly for no reason. As we inched forward, we saw a law enforcement bicycle parked in front of the scofflaws, the park ranger writing tickets (photo above). I was happy to see this, though it still caused delay for the circulator bus behind the scofflaws. Due to one person in one car blocking the bus-only lane, 40+persons in the bus had to wait as it slowly merged into the barely-moving car lane that we were in.

What can be done to better manage Yosemite’s five million plus annual visitors?

Again, I haven’t studied this – but I have a few ideas.

  • Parking: The Shoupista in me says to start by charging something for parking. It probably wouldn’t need to be prohibitively expensive to make an impact. A modest increase to the cost of accessing by car would start to incentivize other modes. Charging a few dollars a day would also mean millions of dollars in annual revenue. As Shoup recommends, parking revenue could be used to fund/subsidize improvements such as bus service, Amtrak/Greyhound connections, bike facilities, bike-share, even parking meters. Charging more would make the park further out of reach to low-income folks, so some parking meter revenue should be used to foster equity, such as funding transit-to-trails programs for Central Valley families.
  • Congestion Pricing: Some sort of congestion pricing might be in order. Park management costs are higher (and visitor’s negative experiences with congestion are worse) at certain peak times – i.e.: Summer weekends. Charging more at these peaks could manage demand and could generate funds for the programs noted above.

Maybe, over time, investing in alternatives can get the park to place where car access would be limited to certain areas. This has been proposed for the Yosemite Valley, but met with a great deal of resistance.

Other National Parks – ZionDenali – restrict private vehicle access, keeping cars out of specific areas. These parks are not quite as popular as Yosemite, but they are very popular – and they are success stories that show transit/shuttles can serve popular sites very efficiently. These circulation changes improved the visitor experience, and preserved wonderful wilderness areas. Initially these car limitations were resisted, but, managed well, people have come to accept them and even to welcome their efficiency.

The balance is not easy to strike. Popular National Parks need to serve lots of people – including low-income folks. They need to preserve the environment. Charging more for cars can be seen as limiting and possibly interpreted as elitist, though, when managed well, transit and bicycling can improve access for all – by using space more efficiently. Getting beyond private car access has the potential to serve more people at the same or overall lower costs.

Readers – what do you think? How can Yosemite manage its soul-crushing car congestion?

  • Susan Wright

    I would love to see bike share in Yosemite Valley! The terrain and path system make it a perfect solution. Do you know if bike share has been considered there?

  • crazyvag

    It’s rare that I would go car camping and not have the trunk filled to the grills plus things in the back seat.

    I’ve gone camping where you take a bus – or a truck towing a trailer – where upon loading it, you then load items into a carts. It’s extremely time consuming, but is needed where the limitation is in space for tents.

    Also consider that there are <1000 campsites and a road can carry 2000 cars per hour, so you could fill them all in an hour. With nearly 10000 vehicles, it's easiest to focus on the 80% of vehicles that are not packed to the brim with equipment.

    Yes, you could do a bus that could do 3 trips of non-camping visitors in time 1 camping bus could meander its way through.

  • KJ

    Different buses can drop people off at different locations; people can just board their ‘destination camp’ bus.

  • KJ

    Free or very cheap ($2) bus, but heavier fee for driving in during summer…

  • SMG

    That’s not how road wear works. If you drive 1 bus over a spot once per 50 minutes, it will wear the area less than 1 car per minute going over it for 50 minutes

  • zach

    Free bus from Merced. Paid for by a small daily parking fee for those who choose to drive in.

  • crazyvag

    Well, what if we only allow cars for people who have a campsite reservation. The park can definitely handle that traffic, plus these cars probably drive around the park much less than day visitors.

    For day visitors, we offer either a free shuttle with offsite parking – like a ski resort – or a fee significant enough to to encourage remote parking even for a group of 4.

  • Kevin Withers

    Ah, the self-appointed ‘hall monitor’ shows up.

    Your suggestions also remain elusive.

  • Frank Kotter

    I was therefore looking through this thread for your thoughts on improvement. I was left wanting, sadly…

    If you don’t like the exchange of ideas, then please just read the articles and keep your non-constructive criticism to yourself. Life is short.

  • idop

    have you hiked in yosemite? People start some of those hikes at 3am.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    Is that a Lexus SUV getting a ticket in the picture?? Maybe open the bus lane to people who pay a toll ??

  • sworddance

    I am a biker. My family owns one car. We are a transit-optional family. What kills us using transit solutions so, so much is the delays and the cost.

    Yes, there may be an “hour delay” with the car. What was the delay for people using the bus?

    * 5-15 min parking (lining up to park; dealing with getting random stuff out of car; paying for parking; hiding everything that may be valuable; going back to car because something was forgotten)
    * 10 min waiting for bus
    * 10 min total delay at stops before ours. ( I am assuming bollards in the future to keep drivers out of bus-only lanes)

    So a set of reasonable delays evaporates half of the time savings and then they charge $30pp ?

    Clearly I am not the target market for the bus service as it stands. I am glad that it is heavily used by others that clearly are the target market.

    I wonder if Yosemite could do something like timed entry. A visitor buys a ticket that gives you a time that represents the earliest time the park can be entered. Maybe a ticket that also specifies a specific parking lot? This way the parking lot hunting would not add to traffic.

  • AndreL

    The wear on pavement is a power function of axle weight. It’s not a linear nor cumulative relationship.

    Easy analogy: a pedestrian wooden bridge over a creek might withstand 1000 people crossing within an hours. doesn’t mean it is a good idea to put one loaded semi over it even if there is space…

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    Poor Traffic management to have an empty lane and cars sitting and idling for hours! And even worse have police not managing the poor traffic issue in that park! Other then make Revenue from a bad road management!

  • City Resident

    There still is the same good bus connection from Merced, as well as from Fresno and a few other gateway cities. https://yarts.com

  • City Resident

    Grand Canyon N.P. has a hiker’s express shuttle bus that is well used by backpackers and overnight (rim to river) hikers. In the hotter months, these shuttles start very early in the morning. Such a shuttle service could likely well be introduced in Yosemite, too.

  • p_chazz

    50 cars may weigh more than a loaded bus, but the bus still puts more wear and tear on the road. The weight of the 50 car is distributed among 50 cars that do not exert all of their weight in the same place all at one like the bus does.

  • Joe Linton

    Both cause some wear-and-tear – but the bus takes a lot less parking real estate, and causes less congestion, pollution.

  • SMG

    This is absolutely false. A loaded bus does not weight 50x what a car does.

  • Joe Linton

    Backpackers and bike tour folks do this – carry one’s tent, food, etc. There may be a way to encourage/incentivize this, without completely excluding car camping. Perhaps car camping could be focused on sites further from the congested parts of the park (we stayed in Wawona) – then it would be great if it was easy and convenient for those car-camping folks could easily board a circulator, instead of driving, to get to other parts of the park. This is sometimes called a “park once” approach.

  • Joe Linton

    I like the idea of tying pricing to specific usage. On your last point: there’s a fair amount of research that shows that congestion pricing would be more equitable than our current systems where taxes from everyone (including the poor who can’t afford a car) subsidize car facilities https://citylimits.org/2017/09/07/debate-fact-check-is-congestion-pricing-regressive/

  • Flatlander

    Yes the wear and tear of the bus is greater as it goes by the 4th power of weight. And I say this as a big transit supporter.

  • spragmatic

    A large parking structure in El Portal and Big Oak Flat would be ideal. Make the cost of parking there include the cost of entrance to the park for everyone in the car and then expedite the bus service into the park. BOOM. Less cars. Then restrict the use of cars in the park to get to 1) the lodge or Awhanee 2) your camp site 3) your handicap parking spot. Increase the number of circulars and their frequency and hours. Problem. Solved.

  • spragmatic

    It’s not a question of weight. By the way, an empty bus weighs about 10 times that of an empty car. It’s a question of distributed load and which causes more damage?

    Is the cumulative damage of 50-4000 lb cars with one 200 lb person greater than that of one 40,000 lb bus with 50-200 lb passengers?

    Calling all engineers for a real answer.

  • p_chazz

    A bus carrying 50 people puts a lot more wear and tear on the road because it is much heavier than 50 cars.

  • crazyvag

    Maybe ti’s time to separate park usage. For example, if you have a camp-site, you get drive to your campsite. If you’ve got a half-dome pass, you can take a half-dome bus.

    Congestion pricing stops being effective as income inequality grows.

  • crazyvag

    I’m not exactly sure how that would when you have a tent, cooler, food, clothes and other things. There’s limited ability to carry it, so even if you packed it on a bus, the bus would take an hour dropping people off at different campsites.

  • crazyvag

    Cars require significantly less maintenance these days. For a car that’s paid off, it’s really just insurance and gas unless you count the $40 oil change.

  • SMG

    They should ban all private cars. Probably not realistic in the short (or likely medium) term, but that’s where it needs to get to. Eventually having some centralized parking well outside the park and shuttling people in on electric buses.

  • Who pays for road maintenance? If it is out of the general fund, a bus carrying 50 people is using a lot less road than 50 cars. The latter should be charged accordingly. Also, there used to be a bus that met up with Amtrak trains in, I believe, Merced – no car required all the way from San Francisco. I took that once and it worked very well.

  • eugene

    Are the National Parks allowed to charge for parking? The national labs run by DOE are prohibited from charging their employees for parking by some federal statue.

  • Flatlander

    Parking pricing-as-demand-management seems to run into a few issues here that make it distinct from your average congested CBD. Most importantly, it’s that the success of most demand management tools depends on repeat visitors (i.e. commuters) who gradually get a sense of the landscape and act accordingly. If you put a $30 price tag on parking in the Valley, most visitors wouldn’t know much less think about it until they actually arrived at the park. So then it has an appearance more of nickel-and-diming than actually managing congestion.

    Another thing that’s important to keep in mind when thinking about demand management on recreational facilities is how different the types of users are. Most circulators and shuttle systems cater only to the day-user who starts visiting sites around 9 AM or so and who are generally participating in non-committing activities. These are useless to climbers and some backpackers who often need to start at odd hours. For example on the other side of the park, serious climbers are advised to make sure to beat the Red’s Meadow Shuttle because getting delayed due to a long line or inefficient boarding process can be the difference between making your objective and not.

  • p_chazz

    Years ago there was a radical plan to move most cars and overnight campsites out of Yosemite Valley and make it day use only. The NPS was looking at putting most visitor services at El Portal and at Ackerson Meadow near the Big Oak Flat Entrance to the park. Like most grand plans, it went nowhere. Maybe it’s time to revisit that plan.

  • Christopher Childs

    But very rarely do people do that math. And, even if they do, they typically are OK with it: obtaining maximum utilization of their vehicle for its monthly payment/insurance/maintenance gives you the feeling of getting your money’s worth. You also don’t have to wait for a bus.

  • City Resident

    Thanks for this post. Your suggestions sound good. In addition, carpool rates (lower park entrance fees for carpools) may be helpful as a way to help incentivize solo travelers or small groups (ie. groups of 2 or 3) to ride YARTS to and from the park. (As an aside, a few years ago our family traveled to Yosemite Valley via YARTS, from the Merced Amtrak station. One advantage of this mode of travel is the bus operator was a very willing tour guide, pointing out interesting facts and sites along the way.) Traffic enforcement cameras, to catch bus lane violations, would help as well.

  • eastmb

    “NPS runs valley circulators and even bus service into the park. A round-trip bus trip from Fresno costs $30 per person, which, for a family or even a couple, really can’t compete with the $35 price for a carload of people. ”

    You underestimated the cost of driving here. It’s about 60 miles from Fresno to Yosemite, so multiplying by 2 gives 120 miles…. cost of driving is 50 to 80 cents per mile putting the cost of simply driving (not the entrance fee) up to $60 assuming you drive a very small car like a Honda Civic. Plus entrance fee that is almost $100… so it really costs $100 minimum and more like $150 if you drive a big suv or minivan.

  • Kevin Withers

    Because I care about infrastructure. Because I don’t live or form opinions from within a bubble.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Why are you reading this blog?

  • Kevin Withers

    “How can Yosemite manage its soul-crushing car congestion?”

    All by itself, without any amateur streetsblog interjection of its agenda…

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