Student research explores Sun Road traffic

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  • A long line of traffic heads up Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in this 2015 file photo. (Daily Inter Lake file)

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    This graphic shows parking lot congestion at key areas in Glacier National Park at 1 p.m. on a busy day in July 2017 — a record month for visitation. The circle size indicates the number of vehicles that attempted to park over the course of 15 minutes, but were unable to find spaces. The model was created by a team of students enrolled in the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at Carnegie Mellon University including: Alexander Corn, Camden Cornwell, Kyle Holmes, Prajakta Kemkar, Rohit Reddy Tippani, Yi “Jason” Zhu and Banu Prakash Nallani. (Graphic courtesy of Camden Cornwell)

  • A long line of traffic heads up Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in this 2015 file photo. (Daily Inter Lake file)

  • 1

    This graphic shows parking lot congestion at key areas in Glacier National Park at 1 p.m. on a busy day in July 2017 — a record month for visitation. The circle size indicates the number of vehicles that attempted to park over the course of 15 minutes, but were unable to find spaces. The model was created by a team of students enrolled in the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at Carnegie Mellon University including: Alexander Corn, Camden Cornwell, Kyle Holmes, Prajakta Kemkar, Rohit Reddy Tippani, Yi “Jason” Zhu and Banu Prakash Nallani. (Graphic courtesy of Camden Cornwell)

Project Sunbound has resulted in a new management tool for Glacier National Park to model visitor traffic and parking congestion along Going-to-the-Sun Road in its search for solutions in handling skyrocketing visitation.

Leading Project Sunbound were seven Carnegie Mellon University master of business administration and master of information system management students participating in the A.T. Kearney Student Lab. Through the lab, students are paired with companies to address business problems.

Over the course of a semester, the project team analyzed park data and designed models to recreate visitor traffic, which is one of many issues faced by increased visitation.

Eighty percent of visitation occurs within a 12-week window in the summer when the Sun Road has been cleared of snow and opened, according to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. Since 2000, visitation has grown by 70 percent.

This was the first time the park participated in the student lab, according to Glacier National Park Conservancy board member Margaret Notley. Notley and fellow conservancy board member Joe Raudabaugh assisted Glacier Park Acting Superintendent Eric Smith in meeting with the students on a weekly basis and providing them with extensive data and information.

Glacier was also the only national park among a host of traditional companies in technology, financial, pharmaceutical and food sectors, to name a few.

Raudabaugh — who started the A.T. Kearney Student Lab at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in 2007 — helped facilitate Glacier’s participation.

One of the Project Sunbound members was Camden Cornwell, who is in his second year completing a master of business administration degree at the university. Cornwell is an avid backpacker and ranked Glacier high in his preferences of clients to work with because it wasn’t a traditional business problem.

Unlike other companies, Glacier is not in the business of manufacturing products, selling or providing goods or services, but preserving and managing natural resources while making them accessible to the public. The park also has unique limitations on what infrastructure it can build and where — in addition to a budget dependent on federal funding.

“This entire task revolved around exponential growth and visitation since 2000,” Cornwell said about the project.

Data pulled from different sources such as previous University of Montana research or other groups and was limited to the Sun Road corridor, Smith said, in order to allow enough time for students to analyze it.

Key data used included the number of vehicles entering the park at west and east entrances in addition to time of day and duration of time visitors spent in some parking areas. Students were also given a full inventory of places to park and pertinent trail use.

June, July and August are peak visitation months, and 2017 was no different. Using mathematical models the team simulated the “park experience” on a busy day in July 2017. On such a day about 7,000 vehicles were in the Sun Road corridor. There are just 2,100 parking spaces on this corridor, according to Smith.

“On a heavy day in July, 7,000 cars passed through,” Cornwell said. “[That number] could increase by as much as 25 percent over the next two years.”

“The numbers are quite remarkable in the strain it’s putting on Going-to-the-Sun Road,” he said, noting the two-way winding road has remained virtually unchanged since its completion in the 1930s — save for rehabilitation.

The aim was not to provide a solution, but help frame discussions and help people visualize the problem. The Carnegie team modeled what it would look like if parking was added, regulating the time vehicles can park, if the number of shuttles were increased to ride sharing.

“We explored the different results of those things using mathematical computer simulated models to facilitate that discussion,” Cornwell said.

What if parking was increased is probably the top question.

“Our conclusions were that building more parking spots does not actually help accommodate more visitors in the park, even if you build quite a few more parking spots,” Cornwell said.

Increased parking would have minimal impact and an expensive price tag, he said.

“What really matters is how long people are there,” he said, not the number of parking spaces. “If someone is parking all day you are not getting a lot of bang for your buck.”

“The scale of the problem they have to deal with is incredible. We love our parks and want to conserve them, but we also want people to see them. It’s difficult to do both,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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