Navigating nature's beauty: Michigan's innovative mobility solution for national parks

Imagine a picturesque scene in Michigan's national park system — a family of enthusiastic hikers stands at the entrance of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, eagerly ready to embark on an adventure. But as they survey the sprawling sand dunes and breathtaking landscapes ahead, they're confronted with a dilemma – how to navigate these natural wonders without harming themselves, harming the environment or contributing to traffic congestion. 

For many who visit the state's National Parks, beauty and accessibility often collide. Fortunately, a groundbreaking solution is now on the horizon with the National Park Michigan Mobility Challenge (NPMMC).

Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Facebook Page

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in collaboration with the National Park Service (NPS), has unveiled the NPMMC, which aims to tackle the pressing issues of transportation accessibility and sustainability in four of Michigan's National Parks — Keweenaw National Historical Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, River Raisin National Battlefield Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This initiative marks a critical step forward in redefining how visitors experience these natural treasures.

The motivation behind the NPMMC is clear – Michigan's National Parks receive a staggering 2.7 million visitors annually, generating an economic benefit of $380 million. However, this influx of tourists often leads to traffic congestion, limited parking and negative environmental impacts. Gov. Whitmer emphasizes that this program is about leveraging the state's expertise in mobility and its stunning natural landscapes to create safer, cleaner and more accessible transportation solutions.
Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Facebook Page

Charlie Tyson, technology activation director within the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), elaborates on the essence of the program. 

"We're really excited about this first-of-its-kind partnership between the National Park Service and the state of Michigan,” Tyson says. “We're soliciting industry and community stakeholders to propose projects that can begin addressing some of these transportation issues." 

Tyson explains that the solutions, once implemented, are not about overnight transformation, but rather a step-by-step approach that involves community engagement and visitor feedback.

The approach to identifying the transportation challenges involved close collaboration with NPS staff, regional entities and local communities. Meetings were held with each national park unit and their stakeholders to understand their specific challenges. As a result, three key themes emerged — introducing electric shuttles and automated systems, developing charging infrastructure and expanding shared micromobility services. These themes lay the foundation for the proposed innovations, and the NPMMC invites mobility companies and public agencies to propose innovative solutions in these areas:

Small-scale electric shuttles and Automated Driving Systems (ADS): This involves introducing multi-passenger electric shuttles, either human-operated or automated, to enhance transportation options for visitors. These shuttles would navigate within the parks, alleviating parking and congestion issues while providing improved accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
Multimodal electric charging hubs: With the rise of electric mobility, the creation of integrated charging hubs in and around park gateway communities is vital. This infrastructure will enable visitors and fleet operators to charge their electric vehicles while exploring Michigan's natural beauty.
Micromobility solutions: Shared micromobility services, like bikes and e-scooters, will offer visitors dynamic alternatives to traditional motor vehicle trips. These services can cater to short trips within the parks or allow visitors to experience the trails more intimately.
Applications and proposals are accepted through the Michigan Mobility Funding Platform until Sept. 29 and a selection process will follow. The chosen projects will receive funding support and resources for pilot implementation within the park service. The ultimate goal is not only to address transportation issues but also to validate these solutions for wider deployment in Michigan and potentially in national parks across the country.
Courtesy of Keweenaw National Historical Park Facebook page
The NPMMC aligns with Michigan's commitment to sustainability, aligning with the MI Healthy Climate Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the MI Future Mobility Plan, which envisions safer, greener and more accessible transportation infrastructure. 

"It's really all about the people, places and projects that make Michigan the place that we believe is the best state to live, work and play,” Tyson says. 

By focusing on visitor experience, environmental conservation and industry growth, this initiative is poised to revolutionize transportation access in Michigan’s national parks while setting an inspiring precedent for the rest of the nation.

Matthew Russell is a writer, maker and farmer living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in books about Grand Rapids history, and is building a sustainable microfarm in West Michigan.

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