I have a new favorite example about designing places for people, and how much human nature can complicate that process.
Mont Saint-Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just over ⅓ of a square mile in size, and visited by 2.5M tourists per year.
With just a few exceptions, it’s not possible to drive right up to the walls. Visitors are directed to park two miles away in expansive, well-landscaped parking lots and take a free shuttle. Or, if you want to avoid the common rabble, you can walk or take a paid shuttle.
After a 6+ hour day of travel from London, involving three transportation modes already, none of us were particularly excited about the shuttle during our visit. But we did it anyway, and it was fine. Once you get inside the walls, your transportation options shrink down even more: everyone walks.
From the higher vantage points on the island, you appreciate the inverse of the spectacular views from the mainland. You can see how unified the surroundings are – the water, the tidal flats, and the bridge are all the same palette of muted colors. It’s sublime. You can see the mainland, but you do not see the parking lot.
As I took in the view from the Abbey, I appreciated being forced to park relatively far away in retrospect because I did the very rough math on the alternative. 2,500,000 tourists/year, that’s ~6,850/day. If all drive, and the average group size is 2 people, that’s 3,425 cars. At 150 parking spaces per acre, that would be 23 acres of surface parking lot on tidal flats outside Mont Saint-Michel. Imagine, travelling all that way to visit a global cultural treasure – renowned for how dramatically it’s set out in the sea – and looking out at a sea of parked cars and RVs.
Of course, if you’ve visited Mont Saint-Michel earlier than 2014, or you’ve read recent news coverage about it, you know where this is going – that’s exactly how it used to be.
Before the new bridge and shuttle service was completed four years ago, this was the status quo. A recipe for traffic congestion. Some people would get better parking spots, most worse. As ever, many would drive all the way up to see if they might get extra lucky, then retreat reluctantly further back. When the tide was low, people improvised parking out on the tidal flats (!) with predictable results (video of cars being claimed by the sea with a counter-intuitively peppy early-MJ soundtrack here). People walked across the tidal flats and got caught in pools of quicksand. Quicksand! Mon Dieu! The causeway itself was causing silt to build up between the island and the mainland, gradually displacing the water separating them with more sheep pasture. And when the tide was highest and the views were the most spectacular, the level of demand to visit was also at its highest, just when the parking was underwater.
If you’re France, this was a bad state of affairs for your fifth most popular tourist attraction. And if people have a frustrating experience visiting Mont Saint-Michel (i.e. traffic congestion, frustrating parking experience, losing your rental car in the bay), the view from it is marred by a big-box-store-like parking lot, and the islet is becoming plain old land, less tourism happens and everyone makes less money. So they decided to invest in addressing those problems. Did everyone agree with the proposed changes? Absolutely not. Was it expensive? Spectacularly. This article in Smithsonian Magazine tells the story very entertainingly. But I have to assume that most current and future visitors will be blissfully unaware of that backstory, and they’ll just have a smoother, less frustrating, more beautiful experience because of the investments that were made.
Why do I think this matters? Coming from a place like Minnesota, I know that being able to park immediately outside your destination is often treated as a de facto right, and we’ve designed the transportation systems that serve those places accordingly. This is often politically easy, but it can also create really bad, frustrating user experiences to the detriment of people’s enjoyment of those destinations. The particulars of this example at Mont Saint-Michel prove nothing about any specific place elsewhere, but I see it as a cautionary tale and a case study that the political will to improve transportation options by tailoring them can be found.
PS: One final local angle for any Minnesotan readers, or anyone who comes from a smaller place like us who might be tempted to think we’re not in the same league as the French (someone might think that!), Minnesota has seven tourism destinations with higher annual attendance figures than Mont Saint-Michel.