Commuting to Boulder

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Union Station in Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Deepan Dutta

Lindsay Hahn spends a lot of time on the road these days. “I spend between one and a half to two hours in the car almost every day,” she says. “That means between nine and a half and 14 hours of my week are spent commuting.”

Hahn is a 26-year-old graduate student at CU Boulder who commutes from Arvada, and one of thousands of commuters who journey to work in Boulder every day. According to the U.S. Census, in 2014 over 54,000 people commuted to the City of Boulder from outlying suburbs and cities. They travel from all over the Front Range by car, bus and bike.  And with Colorado seeing a massive population boom, and the increased unaffordability of real estate in Boulder, the number of commuters is sure to rise.

For Hahn, cost is the primary reason she drives all those hours every week. “Commuting saves me a substantial amount of money every month,” she says. “As a student, I simply can’t afford to pay between $800 and $1500 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment.”

Gino Canella, a 33-year-old doctoral student at CU Boulder, bikes from his apartment in Capitol Hill in Denver to Union Station, and from there takes the newly-introduced Flatiron Flyer express bus route for his journey to campus.  In terms of cost, he estimates he saves about “$200 a month, just on rent,” by living in Denver.

Aside from cost, commuters also cite lifestyle choices as a reason they choose to live outside of Boulder. Canella is not a fan of the social atmosphere in Boulder. “Between college students and young families, I didn’t find a good social scene in Boulder,” he says. “Denver is more conducive to young, single people.”

Hahn also cites the “university town atmosphere” and “overwhelmingly liberal political leanings” of Boulder as a significant reason for not wanting to live there, and says the famously liberal city “does not give a true sense of what the rest of Colorado is like.”

“Arvada is located in Jefferson County which is much more representative of the state with its political parties split very evenly between Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated.”

Aside from cost and lifestyle, the convenience of public transport has led many to use the RTD system for their commuting needs. “I think Boulder is extremely commuter-friendly,” Canella says. “The public transportation system in Colorado is excellent in my opinion, and it’s another reason why moving to Denver wasn’t such a hard decision.” He also compliments the Flatiron Flyer, an express bus line between Boulder and Denver introduced this year which picks up passengers every 10 minutes during rush hour.

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Flatiron Flyer bus picking up passengers from Union Station bus terminal. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

“Getting to campus in 30 minutes on an express bus – where I can read, relax, not get stressed out in traffic, and save money on gas, tolls and parking – is so convenient.”

However, public transport isn’t always an option for Boulder’s commuters. Hahn considers public transport “extremely impractical” for her own schedule and occupation. “As a journalism student I have no idea what my schedule will be week to week,” she says, “and I’m often running around here, there and everywhere with lots of expensive gear. It makes me nervous to rely on someone or something else to make sure I’m where I need to be at the time I need to be there.”

While the current highway infrastructure and public transport system seems to work for many commuters, traffic continues to be a problem and the growth of Boulder and Colorado as a whole is leading to concerns about future congestion and pollution.

According to an August 2016 report by the CoPIRG Foundation and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), Colorado as a whole is not adequately prepared for the growth. The report states that, “[w]ithout significant investments in transit, biking and pedestrian services and infrastructure, Colorado will not be able to meet the demands and challenges of our shifting demographics and growing population, and will miss out on the many benefits transit, walking and biking provide.”

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The report also recommends a $1.05 billion per year increase in investment for transit, walking and biking statewide, “to ensure every Colorodan in our towns and cities experiences the multitude of benefits” that comes from a truly modern transportation system. The Flatiron Flyer bus service is the latest sign that the region is starting to take transportation needs seriously, and commuters have been utilizing it heavily. In its first three months, bus ridership along the U.S. 36 corridor increased 45 percent.

As popular as the Flyer has become, it is only meant to be a temporary measure to fill in for a commuter rail line from Denver to Longmont, part of the multibillion dollar FasTracks public transportation initiative. According to the RTD, the ambitious project intends to “build 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations, and enhance bus service for easy, convenient bus/rail connections across the eight-county district.” Four rail lines are planned to open this year, with two of them – the A line from Denver to the airport in the northeast and the B line to Westminster – already open for service.

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The A Line train pulls in to Union Station.  Photo Credit: Deepan Dutta

However, commuters to Boulder will need to wait quite awhile – decades, even – before they can experience the speed and convenience of a train. Current estimates project the Northwest Rail Corridor to be completed no earlier than 2042, if it even happens at all.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio back in April 2016, RTD spokesman Nate Currey attributed the decades long delay and possible cancellation to a funding shortage.

“RTD just doesn’t have the money at this point,” Currey explained. “These rail lines are funded by a sales tax increase that voters agreed to in ’04 but revenues came in way below what RTD forecast in the mid-2000s.” That left the agency “with a $2 billion funding gap.”

So while a train from Denver to Boulder may continue to be a pipe dream, commuters like Gino Canella and Lindsay Hahn will make do with the system as it is. Improvements to the system are coming incrementally, and commuters can only hope that they keep up with the population growth.