A good chunk of my vacation was spent in Jasper and Banff National Parks, the jewels of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. It was an interesting trip, partly because it was the first family vacation in a while that didn’t involve any cars — and in a very rural location, to boot. There were certainly troubles, but it turns out that, like Los Angeles (a streetcar metropolis which no longer has streetcars), the entire infrastructure for mass tourism in Banff was set up by and around the railroad. Especially in and around Banff, the Canadian Pacific built an extensive network of railroads, trolleys, hotels, resorts, towns — even a vast network of hiking trails leading uphill to refreshing teahouses. The rails now just carry Chinese container-loads, the trolley lines are now bike-and-bridle trails, and the roads are now crammed with lookalike rental RVs, but the spirit of William Cornelius van Horne’s railroad settlement hangs over the place just the same as Henry Huntington’s spirit permeates Santa Monica.
Our society will need to re-learn these techniques of place-making, not only to respond to a post-car future but also to a growing population that doesn’t want to drive while on vacation — or at least needs an antidote to the mind-numbing stress of the suburban daily grind. The century-old remnants of railroad tourism around Banff, though, are not unusual: many of North America’s resort towns were carved out of the scenery by (not just around!) railroads looking to drum up passengers; CPR’s president was not alone in declaring, “if I can’t export the scenery, I’ll import the tourists.” Many resort towns in the northeast retain their compact, railroad-era fabric: Kennebunkport, Wildwood, Key West, Santa Fe, and Santa Barbara, to name a few. Countless other American resorts grew up entirely in the sprawl era, as well — Daytona, Gatlinburg, Hilton Head Island, Palm Springs, Scottsdale, Branson — and higher gas prices have socked many of them, with Branson attractions (for example) reporting 10% declines.
Ski resort towns are the big exception to the postwar era’s resort sprawl, but possibly only due to basic practicality: the same challenging terrain that skiiers demand makes servicing sprawling development (almost) prohibitively expensive. Similarly, a lot of yesteryear’s resort towns were built on environmentally sensitive lands, and their ability to sprawl has been limited by environmental regulations or land protection. However, the ski towns just might offer us a way out of the mess. I know of at least one new consulting firm started by people who cut their teeth building (immensely profitable) ski towns — and have now moved on to the bigger challenge of building real towns in the suburbs.
Some early initiatives to promote wide-scale car-free travel have appeared in progressive (and scenic) jurisdictions. Quebec recently debuted, to much fanfare, a province-wide Route Verte network of scenic bike routes — complete with a network of certified-bike-friendly B&Bs along the way. Switzerland has gone even farther, incorporating walking and boating routes into a new national route network.