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Traffic Jam in Gatineau Park
By:  Ottawa Citizen   (2002/10/16)


The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, October 16, 2002

They sat grim-faced, gripping the wheels of minivans, SUVs and ordinary cars, stuck in a long, long line-up trying to get into Gatineau Park on Thanksgiving Monday. There's got to be a better way to appreciate the natural splendour of the capital's spectacular parkland.

The scene in the Gatineau this past weekend was nature meeting a traffic jam. Thousands of people headed to Gatineau Park to see Fall Rhapsody over the holiday weekend, despite a very low-key promotional effort this year by the National Capital Commission.

With Monday being a beautiful, sunny fall day, cyclists, hikers and leaf tourists journeyed to the park, but most people arrived in their own vehicles. By mid-afternoon only the leaves were pretty. The traffic jam of people trying to get into the park stretched from the NCC's reception area at Gamelin Boulevard back to the edge of the park at Taché Boulevard.

At Champlain Lookout, one of the most spectacular vantage points from the Gatineau Hills, there was a traffic jam in the parking lot as motorists waited for a prime parking spot. Hundreds of motorists ignored the NCC's no-parking signs and parked their cars on parkway grassland.

This could not have been the placid, scenic picture prime minister Mackenzie King had in mind when he bequeathed his much-enjoyed Gatineau Park landholdings -- 231 hectares -- to the people on Canada as a nature reserve 52 years ago. (Mr. King had first seen Gatineau Park in 1900.)

We need to do something about the traffic jams in Gatineau Park, and this is a good time to start talking about it since the NCC has public meetings on a new master plan for Gatineau Park, to be held Nov. 26 and 27.

About 1.4 million people visit the 363-square-kilometre park each year, and roughly 250,000 of those visitors arrive for the Fall Rhapsody leaf-viewing, mostly during three weekends in October. These people, often from abroad, want the typical "Canadian snapshot," so they want to get into Gatineau Park. But maybe they don't need to get in using their own vehicles.

On weekends, when we know there's going to be a huge crowd, why not make a special effort to promote bus tours of the park? While care must be taken in selecting the routes for such tours (so that communities such as Chelsea aren't overrun by buses) it would be better for the Gatineau leaf tourists to go there by bus, foot or bike, rather than car.

To encourage this, the NCC could give tour buses preferential parking at the various sites in the park. The commission could also co-ordinate a park-and-ride centre so that visitors know that they can go to a parking lot and catch a tour bus at regular intervals. Some of the tour buses should be able to operate directly from downtown hotels.

Encouraging more visitors onto buses will reduce the amount of traffic congestion and make the Gatineau Park a lot more pleasant for all of us. The NCC should only consider more drastic measures -- blocking the park's parkways to car traffic or imposing a toll on park motorists -- if the effort to encourage tour buses, and reduce car traffic, fails.

Gatineau Park visitors can do their own bit to ease the congestion, not by avoiding the park, but by going at non-peak leaf-viewing times. On weekdays, and later in the fall, Gatineau Park is relatively empty. If we can find a way to get away and enjoy the park in those quiet times, we should.

Gatineau Park is a treasure, the capital city's nature escape. Let's keep it that way.

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