Heavy commuting into Boulder drives challenges for city

As temperatures creep upward, Rana Gheissari will spend more mornings zipping between her home in Louisville and her job in Boulder on a bicycle.

After the birth of their second child and a failed bid for a South Boulder home, Gheissari and her husband relocated their growing family to a home in Louisville, where she said they found more affordable options. She commutes to Boulder; he commutes to Denver.

Gheissari prefers to use an EcoPass bus pass or the U.S. 36 bikeway to get to work so she doesn‘t have to pay attention to the traffic.

“I‘ll be biking by, and cars are stuck in traffic,” she said. “It‘s a great experience, and I‘m so grateful it‘s available.”

Gheissari is emblematic of the $427 million improvements made to U.S. 36 in the name of regional mobility, including managed lanes, bus rapid transit and a bikeway that hugs the highway into the city.

But more needs to be done to improve the corridors that funnel some 46,000 vehicles into the city on a given weekday morning, said city officials and local transportation experts, as the number of commuters continues to grow, along with the distances they travel to work in Boulder.

The commuting patterns challenge the city‘s aggressive climate change goals and illustrate the ways in which Boulder, as a regional jobs center, employs people who can‘t afford or otherwise choose not to live here.

What in-commuting means for Boulder, workers

Of the approximately 104,000 jobs in Boulder, people who live outside city limits fill more than half, or 56 percent, according to data provided by the city.

Gheissari‘s travel methods make her the exception, rather than the rule, among those traveling into the city. Of the people who commute into Boulder, 77 percent of their trips in 2017 were in single-occupancy vehicles, according to data provided by the city.

Although in-town traffic has not increased significantly, and the city has made significant improvements in the ways people travel in Boulder, the same is not true of people who travel from outside Boulder and who generally have fewer options for travel.

Between 1994 and 2018, in-town vehicular traffic increased one percent. By contrast, during the same timeframe, traffic entering and exiting the city increased 35 percent, according to data provided by the city.

And the vast majority of people who commute into the city do so in single-occupancy vehicles.

“Because it‘s been more or less 80 percent of our employees coming into town in single-occupant vehicles, we haven‘t moved the needle on that (in) the way mode shift has occurred by Boulder residents, and those trips are getting longer, and we have more employees,” said senior transportation planner Randall Rutsch.

Rana Gheissari pumps up her tires before riding her bike to take her daughter, Anna, to school in Louisville, and then to her job in Boulder on March 21. ()

This matters for a number of reasons.

About 28 percent of the city‘s emissions are attributed to transportation, according to data provided by the city. The city late last year met its 15 percent goal in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but officials are aiming for an 80 percent reduction by 2050, which means they still have a long way to go, commuters are a piece of that puzzle.

The city simply cannot meet its climate commitments around emissions without tackling transportation, said Bill Rigler, Transportation Advisory Board member.

Beyond that, long and congested commutes are posing a challenge to businesses and their employees.

“There‘s no question that the longer commutes and more traffic-congested commutes that our employees are facing are creating a challenge for recruitment and retention for employers,” Chamber of Commerce president John Tayer said. “It‘s one of those red flag issues that we‘re starting to notice as a challenge, and we want to make sure we‘re out in front addressing it.”

Why they commute

People who live in the region and commute to Boulder for work gave a variety of reasons why they do so.

Take, for instance, Carla Colin. She and her husband live in Lafayette, where she worked a variety of jobs but didn‘t feel they offered room for growth. She sought out Boulder Organic Foods, where she began as the leader of the soup manufacturing company‘s prep team. She‘s now the production coordinator.

She took the bus when the company was located in Boulder, but she now drives to its Niwot location because there isn‘t an efficient way to make the commute by bus, and she doesn‘t envision moving closer to work, because of real estate prices in the area and because her husband‘s job is in Commerce City and they‘re trying to split the difference.

“We‘re thinking about buying a home, but definitely not in Boulder County,” she said.

And she knows of employees who commute from even further away — places like Loveland, Fort Collins and even Greeley — especially during the company‘s busy winter months when there‘s more opportunity for overtime pay.

Kate Brown, the company‘s founder and president, estimates that 90 percent of its employees live at least five miles from the facility.

The company is working with Commuting Solutions, a nonprofit coalition and advocacy organization, to develop carpool options for employees, as well as advocating for improved transit options. Brown is also on the Chamber of Commerce board, where efforts are underway to address workforce mobility and housing.

“This is a big economic issue for employees,” Brown said. “It‘s a big quality of life issue. A lot of our employees work two jobs, and they need to be close to their kids to pick their kids up from school. It‘s a lot of time in the car for people who are commuting from Denver or Loveland. It‘s a lot of time in the car.”

Kevin Owocki lives in Louisville and works at a tech startup in Boulder. He and his then-girlfriend, now wife, rented in Boulder between 2013 and 2015 but left as their relationship became more serious and they looked to buy. They ultimately bought a 2,000 square foot tri-level on Coal Creek Path, close to Louisville‘s walkable downtown and with room for their child to play.

They‘re able to remain a one-car household because Owocki takes the bus into Boulder, and they likely won‘t move back.

“I think the middle class is certainly being squeezed in Boulder,” Owocki said. “I work in startups, and I work in venture capital, and I think if we ever hit the startup lottery it‘s possible that we‘ll move to Boulder, but I think that the houses are appreciating faster than my compensation is, so absent hitting the startup lottery I don‘t think we‘ll ever be able to move back to Boulder.”

Felix Leditzky, meanwhile, works at the University of Colorado but chose to live in Denver because he and his girlfriend prefer to live in bigger cities. The bus routes between their Capitol Hill home and the Boulder campus eased their decision to live outside Boulder

“I would not be able to put up with that,” he said of the idea of driving U.S. 36 every day.

Solutions lie in regional cooperation

Solutions to commuting and congestion lie in a variety of strategies — including addressing affordable housing and providing more travel options for people.

“I think it‘s essential that we look at housing and transportation together, and look at it in terms of affordable living,” Mayor Suzanne Jones said.

Regional leaders recognize the need for both affordable housing and convenient travel options, she said.

“We (city council members) also recognize that we will not be able to house everybody that currently commutes in, and so as a regional jobs center we also need to work on that affordable, accessible transportation piece as well, recognizing we‘ll always have the in-commuters,” Jones said. “Even while we try to increase the amount of housing, we‘re never going to not be a regional jobs center, so we need to work on both strategies simultaneously.”

Tayer said his position, and that of the Chamber of Commerce, is to support and advocate for better regional transportation, as well as in-fill development that includes not only permanently affordable housing but also housing for the full spectrum of the workforce and middle-income households to make Boulder a more accessible place for people to work and live.

“We don‘t want to be a community of a single character type of wealthy, retired folks,” he said. “We want to be a community that has a diversity of individuals that contribute to the vitality of our character, as well as our economy.”

In Boulder, various strategies have helped to give people more options for travel and to reduce the number of people traveling in single-occupancy vehicles.

City officials pointed to things like the EcoPass program, the multi-use path system and the community transit network as successful alternatives to people driving alone.

The solutions become more complicated outside the city, though.

“A lot of the solutions to our problems lie outside of our city limits,” senior transportation planner Chris Hagelin said. “We depend on partnerships with Boulder County, with the other municipalities around us that are in the travel shed for our workforce. We have to have those partnerships.”

Local, regional and state leaders recently gathered for a transportation panel in Boulder, where they lamented the failure of Proposition 110, a state sales tax increase that would have raised up to $767 million in its first year and funded transportation projects, but extolled the virtues of regional cooperation in addressing transportation issues like commuting.

The U.S. 36 project provides a template to improve corridors that run through the region and into Boulder, like U.S. 119 and Colo. 7, city officials and transportation experts said.

“Other than the U.S. 36 corridor, most of the roadways or corridors going into Boulder are built for cars,” Commuting Solutions Executive Director Audrey DeBarros said. “… It was really engineered to favor cars.”

However, she said, funding challenges will make addressing those corridors slower.

“Without significant new funding in Colorado, these major issues will not be addressed for a very long time,” DeBarros said. “We‘re going to have to do it corridor by corridor, which we experienced on U.S. 36. It took about 15 years to get funded and actually constructed.”

RTD is slated to select a preferred alternative for bus rapid transit and other improvements on Colo. 119 next month, with construction to begin in 2023.

“If we have infrastructure, services and programs that really encourage people to use these other options safely and conveniently, they will start using it,” DeBarros said. “That‘s what we‘ve experienced on U.S. 36.”

The Transportation Advisory Board, as well as Boulder officials, are focusing a lot of energy on examining ways to decrease the number of cars coming into Boulder, primarily through bus rapid transit, Rigler said. He said it‘s probably the best option that they have at their disposal right now.

They‘re also examining various first and last mile solutions, meaning that people have viable options to complete their whole commute, such as ways to get to their workplace from their final bus stop without needing to walk long distances.

Boulder is also pursuing two parallel efforts regarding transit: the city‘s renewed vision for Boulder transit, essentially doubling transit service in Boulder, and examining different governance and funding options for transit.

Staff in October told council that seceding from RTD, in the wake of service cuts and price hikes, would be too costly and time-consuming, but they encouraged the city to explore ways to take over more transit, such as a possible county-wide transit agency.

“I would say that‘s one of our most significant challenges,” Hagelin said of RTD‘s cutbacks.

The city is also in the midst of updating its transportation master plan. Rigler described the mix of city and regional strategies as the “kitchen soup” approach.

DeBarros summed it up this way: “We can‘t pave our way out of congestion.

“Time and again, the more auto lanes that you build, the more it draws people to continue to drive. By implementing viable options, like Bus Rapid Transit or bikeways, we are building infrastructure that moves more people than cars. What we‘re focused on is really thinking about how we can move more people with the same infrastructure that we have in order to address traffic congestion.”