Since the National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP) was established, one of the overarching goals for the America's Byways® collection has been the development of a high-quality brand recognized nationwide for excellence in visitor experience and resource protection. All aspects of the byways community, from the NSBP's direction and staff, to national byway conferences and local initiatives, are directly or indirectly geared to enhancing the quality of the America's Byways® collection.
While there is much discussion surrounding maintaining and managing the quality of byways, these conversations are ultimately limited without a clear definition of what comprises quality. Maintaining and managing quality byways can only occur when the desired components of quality are clearly defined and understood. Given the regional and geographic diversity of the collection, the inherent assessment needs determining the quality of the six intrinsic qualities, and local valuation of the resources, establishing "quality" goals for the NSBP is not an easy task.
Most discussions of quality regarding the NSBP tend to focus on the quality of the designated intrinsic qualities, not on the quality of the subsequent byway experience; few address the change in quality over time. There has been a tendency within the byway community to define quality as the quality of the intrinsic resources that merited and achieved national designation. For example, for byways focused on land resources the question is often how to evaluate the scenic quality of one byway over another.
This focus on intrinsic qualities tends to overshadow additional quality aspects of a byway route. Exceptional interpretation facilities, an absence of traffic, or even excellent restaurants or lodging facilities may make a route that scores lower in a quantitative scenic inventory, for example, more appealing to the byway visitor. Long stretches of suburban or commercial development may not be an issue of concern for the byway traveler intent on following a historic route—the opportunity of saying, "I drove all of Route 66," for example, far overshadowing a few minor interruptions from the byway traveler's perspective.
Both of these scenarios suggest values other than the primacy of the intrinsic qualities when evaluating quality. Consider for example the interpretation provided at Mount St. Helens—the story of the complete destruction of an intrinsic quality has become a new visitor amenity. The refocus of the interpretive program for the Creole Nature Trail, AAR, in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina suggests new possibilities for devastated intrinsic qualities along one of America's Byways® . By overly focusing on the core intrinsic qualities, many byways are overlooking the creative possibilities for enhancing the quality of the visitors' byway experiences after designation.
Lastly, even for corridors such as Route 66, or dramatically altered corridors such as the Creole Nature Trail, is there a point where too much change destroys the byway experience or the goals of the Program? Few byways are actively planning for the long-term protection of intrinsic qualities over time—the San Juan Skyway, AAR, in Colorado is a notable exception for its acquisition of historic and scenic easements to protect intrinsic qualities.
Many State scenic byway programs still focus heavily on scenic quality when evaluating potential routes, some requiring a quantitative analysis to determine baseline scenic qualities (the New Jersey State Scenic Byway Program uses a numeric rating system to determine scenic quality regardless of intrinsic quality focus, for example). Typically scenic evaluation methods are used in an attempt to take what is a very subjective experience and attempt to scientifically justify the determination. Yet how many State or Indian tribe scenic byway programs require a quantitative analysis to justify recreational or cultural resources, or use a numeric scale to rate traditional agricultural practices or folk dancing?
The experience of driving a byway is a combination of what one sees, what one does, the types of services one encounters, the interactions with people along the byway, and a number of other individual or personal factors. For scenic byways, protecting the views without managing the other elements of the experience will not result in a highly satisfying trip. For byways focused on heritage, protected sites devoid of meaningful interpretation to the traveler may offer less of a satisfying visit than a conversation with an old-timer at a local café. There are few examples of byways that are sublime and satisfying solely because of the vistas. For most, the quality of the road, the availability of clean public restrooms, unique experiences, the quality of directional signage, and a good affordable meal are factors that will impact the perception of quality.
If the national program and local byways define success as providing a quality visitor experience then this will be a paradigm that integrates all aspects of travel. It does not lessen the importance of protecting and managing the core intrinsic qualities of the byway, but it does elevate the importance of all the other factors that comprise a high-quality trip.
The NSBP should define the elements that make up a quality byway experience. Once the elements of quality are defined, then byway organizations can manage them and the Program can assess whether quality is improving or fading. If all byways clearly defined the degree to which the significance of their route falls within one or more of the following categories, and clearly defined how the quality of their overall byway experience is linked to each of these categories, local groups, State and Indian tribe byway coordinators, and the NSBP would be better able to determine how the qualities are being managed.
The following elements make up the range of typical experiences one has along a byway:
Intrinsic Quality considerations for quality:
Visitor considerations for quality:
Long-range considerations for quality:
If all corridor management plans were more explicit in the status of the various components of quality along their byway at the time of designation, and were explicit in the types of strategies that should be used to enhance those qualities, corridor management plans would be much more measurable.
Two definitions of quality should be used—intrinsic quality and visitor amenities. Byways must demonstrate that their intrinsic resources are significant and of high quality, and demonstrate how the existing visitor experience supports the intrinsic quality. For both intrinsic quality assessment and visitor experience, long range plans to protect and enhance the byway should be presented.
These reports should ask byways to look at each relevant component of quality and assess how they are doing. Clear definitions of the components of quality would lend themselves to analysis. This would allow the Program to more clearly communicate how it is improving quality for both communities and for travelers.
In addition to encouraging high-quality byways based on existing Program guidance, consider raising Program quality expectations as successful byway programs raise visitor expectations for the collection. The Program can define the ways in which byways across the country are enhancing the various components of quality over time—establishing new standards of excellence for the nation's byways. For example, it may become a minimum standard of excellence that a byway offers podcasts and audio tours in the future. If this becomes a minimum standard, and the Program can assess the degree to which byways throughout the collection are pursuing this technology and their commitment to meeting new goals for visitor experience.
Consider a stronger program focus to direct byways with significant identified physical intrinsic qualities (scenic views, agricultural lands, historic communities and structures, for example) to demonstrate a commitment to the protection of resources that are not held by a public agency or advocacy agency (conservation easement, land trust). Significant byway features that may be vulnerable to loss from immediate or future development pressure should be identified. Encourage byways to prepare an assessment of intrinsic qualities that are publicly owned or protected and a list of intrinsic qualities that are privately owned. For byways with significant scenic, historic, natural and archaeological features that are not protected, consider directing technical assistance or target grants to secure the continued contribution of such features to the byway experience. Programs may include conservation easements, agricultural easements, land swaps, transfer or purchase of development rights, historic site stabilization, historic district designation, façade easements, adaptive reuse programs and design guidance for new development.