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Pictured: Laurel Creek Road Traffic on Vehicle-Free Days. Photo: NPS.
The National Park Service announced it will be implementing ‘Vehicle-Free Wednesdays’ in Cades Cove this summer from June 17 through September 30th as part of a pilot study after seeing increased cycling and walking in the popular area over the last several years.
Instead of just the usual morning closure each Wednesday, the Cades Cove Loop will be closed to traffic all day allowing cyclists and pedestrians to safely enjoy extra daylight time without vehicles. In turn, the park will do away with the Saturday morning summer loop closures.
The proposed study is in response to congested parking areas and disruption of visitor services associated with the vehicle-free periods held during the summer months.
During the comment period, park officials received feedback from more than 2,000 people covering 37 states with 60% of individuals in favor of the trial change, 20% opposed, and around 15% wanting closures on Saturday mornings to continue while supporting full-day closures on Wednesday, as well.
The park has been collecting data on vehicle-free periods since 1995, and has noted a usage increase of up to 1,100 people a day cycling or walking along the roadway during the 3-hour closure periods.
During the Wednesday and Saturday closures, access to the area had to be blocked to accommodate parking for cyclists and pedestrians, which led to a line of motorists waiting for the Loop Road to reopen creating gridlock, according to the NPS. Park officials hope by spreading usage throughout the day, parking should be more available with fewer impacts to campground, picnic area, and concession operations. The elimination of the Saturday morning closures allows more motorists access to Cades Cove on what is traditionally the busiest day of the week for travel. Additionally, park staff and volunteers should be better equipped to support visitor operations on Wednesdays and Saturdays instead of devoting all personnel to traffic management and parking.
The park will assess the effectiveness of the change at the end of the 2020 season and make a decision on what they’ll do in 2021.