Research Explores Potential Roadblocks to Use of the Island Explorer Bus Service

Majority of First-Time Park Visitors are Unfamiliar with the Island Explorer


For nearly 25 years, the Island Explorer bus service has served Acadia’s visitors and surrounding communities by providing high-quality, fare-free public transportation around Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula.

Developed as a response to increasing traffic and parking congestion, the Island Explorer has played a key role in reducing air pollution, mitigating traffic congestion, and improving visitors’ overall experiences.

Since its launch in 1999, more than nine million visitors have relied on the Island Explorer to access the park leading to a record-high annual ridership of 647,000 in 2019.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent suspension of the bus service in 2020 interrupted this trend.

Ridership has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels even two years after the Island Explorer resumed its full service, and a greater proportion of park visitors are now driving their personal vehicles into the park instead.

Acadia wanted to better understand the decline in ridership and explore potential roadblocks to Island Explorer use.

Theresa and her daughter Mercy, of Virginia, ride the Island Explorer shuttle from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center to Sand Beach. (Photo by Lily LaRegina/Friends of Acadia)

Surveying Visitors Arriving in Cars

As Friends of Acadia’s Seasonal Recreation Technician, I designed and administered a survey to Acadia visitors arriving in vehicles at 10 locations throughout the park in August 2023. There were 119 total responses to the one-month study, and visitors were asked a variety of questions about their transportation decisionmaking and potential barriers to Island Explorer bus use.

The survey results revealed a considerable knowledge and usage gap, especially among first-time park visitors who learned about the bus service too late in their trips—or not at all. More than 80 percent of first-time park visitors rated themselves “unfamiliar” with the Island Explorer fare-free bus service, and 30 percent had never heard of the Island Explorer before taking the survey.

Island Explorer survey and research conducted by Recreation Technician Laurel Shanks during the 2023 season. Left : Shanks checks a trail counter. Top right: Shanks presents her findings at the Science Symposium. (Photos by Becca Stanley/Friends of Acadia)

The survey also found that familiarity with the Island Explorer was a significant factor in determining whether a visitor was likely to use the service in the future. Visitors frequently remarked that they did not feel confident enough to use the bus service on their trips.

To that end, several visitors surveyed reported being “stranded” in the park without transportation. This could indicate that better signage, wider publication of the bus schedule, and other user-focused tools might be necessary to boost comfort and trust with the bus service.

Many visitors lacked awareness of the park’s traffic congestion and consequently struggled to make informed transportation decisions. First-time visitors were both less likely to rate the park as “congested” and less likely to plan on using the Island Explorer bus service.

On the other hand, those visitors who viewed the park as more congested also stated that they have often used the bus to avoid that congestion.

Finally, several factors related to bus operations, such as long travel time and indirect routes, can prevent access to the Island Explorer, especially for families traveling with young children or the many visitors who generally feel pressured to make the most of their limited vacation time. Reducing the wait time associated with using the bus was the most highly valued factor amongst the surveyed population.

Overall, this research underlines the critical role of knowledge and experience in helping visitors make informed transportation choices. It offers a foundation to better understand Acadia’s visitors – and how the Island Explorer can best help them enjoy Acadia.

LAUREL SHANKS was a 2023 Recreation Technician with Friends of Acadia. Her study aimed to enhance knowledge of the public transportation behaviors of Acadia visitors, particularly in the context of constructing the Acadia Gateway Center, which is expected to open May 2025. The full report can be found at