Boulder commuters drive less, bike a lot, feel more virtuous -- but should they?

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that barely half of Boulder's work force get to their jobs driving alone -- a significant reduction in the number of solo commuters that puts the green-minded community well ahead of traffic planners in Denver and other Front Range cities who are trying to get people out of their cars.

According to this report on the data in Boulder's Daily Camera, city officials are crediting the "alternative infrastructure" that's developed around public transit, bike paths and the like for the declining number of solo commuters.

Yet there's a flip side to the data. Adding bike paths and efficient, well-subsidized transit is one way to pry people from their cars. But powerful disincentives to driving, such as hideously congested roads, can also play a part. One conclusion that can be drawn from the census data, if it wasn't already obvious, is that traffic in Boulder sucks.

Its evolution as a highly desirable place to work, yet with steep housing costs that compel many workers to commute from more affordable burgs, has put Boulder in a long-term commuter quandary that isn't going to vanish overnight. As Spenser Havlick, a University of Colorado professor who's long been involved in the city's planning process, told the Camera, "We created more jobs in the city than housing."

That means tens of thousands of workers have to find a way into town from surrounding towns -- and many of them continue to drive. (Not surprisingly, the number of people driving alone to work in neighboring Longmont has gone up even while Boulder's numbers have gone down.)

Still, more than 75 percent of Boulder's workers actually live there, too. That's a strong basis for a transportation system built on something other than the solo automobile. In cities that depend more heavily on cars -- Colorado Springs, which has about 80 percent of its workers driving solo, comes to mind -- a well-established commuter mentality and the lack of extensive public transit present a much more intractable situation.

Boulder's planners hope to have just 25 percent of resident trips made by car in fifteen years. That may be so much pie in the stratosphere, given the typical Coloradan's love of his personal vehicle. But what about Boulder has ever been typical?

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast