Commuting to Boulder

dsc_0879
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.

dsc_0893
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.”

commuters-to-bo_843_b180e0231f2655962d90de8834f6405b7f0d650e

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.

DSC_0928.JPG
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.

 

The Cost of Living with Pets in Boulder

So you’re thinking of moving to Boulder, Colorado, and you want to bring your four-legged companion with you.  What are your options for housing?  How much will it cost?

According to the Denver Post, Colorado is now the second-fastest growing state in the U.S.  This growth can be seen in cities like Boulder, which is projected to see a 17% population increase over the next 26 years.  Combined with heavy development restrictions, the city has seen a sharp increase in housing costs across the board which is pricing out many residents.

However, pet owners face a unique challenge as many landlords and apartment complexes refuse to allow pets.  Even when pets are allowed, the associated costs can make it all the more expensive to live in Boulder.   Additional security deposits – often non-refundable – are frequently required for pets, forcing tenants to deposit anywhere from $200 to $500 per pet before they can even move in.  Additional “pet rent” may also be tacked on top of the regular rent, and can range between $10 to $30 or more per pet, per month.

Chelsea Daggett, an instructor and doctoral candidate at CU Boulder, faced a bit of sticker shock when she moved to Boulder from the Northeast with her two cats.  “I’ve never paid pet rent or pet insurance until I came to Boulder,” she says. “Here, I’ve spent at least $1,800 for pet rent,” paying $25 more per cat, per month.  Ms. Daggett also had to pay a $500 pet deposit on top of two months rent for the regular security, totalling  $2,500 upfront.

“As a grad student making less than a living wage for Boulder, alone, that much money is very difficult to save up front, which just adds more stress.”

Katy Canada, a graduate student at CU Boulder, recently adopted a dog and was lucky enough to not be forced to find a new place to live. “When I moved into my South Boulder basement apartment a year ago, there were already three cats and ten hamsters,” she says.  “When I approached my landlord about adopting a dog, she was totally supportive.” However, stories she’s heard from others has made wary of what comes next.  “I am nervous that a day will come when I have to move out and find another pet-friendly living situation,” she says.  “I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”

For dog owners, the hunt for housing can prove even more difficult.  The Humane Society of Boulder Valley (HSBV) offers a listing of pet-friendly housing in Boulder and surrounding areas on its website.  Of the 31 housing developments listed, many have a weight limit for dogs, and 11 only allow cats as pets.  Other common restrictions include a limit on the number of pets (usually two) and requiring pets to be altered/neutered.  For the Habitat Apartments at 6255 Habitat Drive in Boulder, “[a]ll pets must be preapproved by management,” and dogs are only allowed on the first floor and in townhomes.

The Harvard Park apartments at 505 Harvard Lane have a particularly interesting policy:  For older dogs, they require a $250 non-refundable deposit (which lasts for as long as you live there.)  However, living with a puppy requires a $500 refundable deposit along with a non-refundable $500 fee.  Thus, residents are more or less discouraged to adopt a puppy, presumably because of their penchant for destruction.

Infographic2.jpg

 

Restrictions on pets can often result in pet owners being forced to give up their animals – a problem acknowledged by the HSBV.

“The Humane Society of Boulder Valley commonly accepts surrendered animals due to their guardian’s housing situations,” says Nick Walsh, Development and Communications Coordinator at the HSBV.  “This is often due to landlord rules (not accepting pets), an animal guardian’s choice to move into a property that doesn’t allow pets, or not being able to afford housing that allows pets.”  To avoid situations like these, the Humane Society “recommends confirming pets are accepted by a rental property management company prior to signing a lease if you have pets, or are considering adopting a pet in the near future.”

Another possible solution includes attempting to rent from private landlords who appear willing to make separate arrangements with tenants – and ensuring that those arrangements are formalized in the lease.  When it comes to budgeting for housing, it appears to be good practice to account for the extra costs associated with pet deposits, pet rent, and the general costs of pet ownership.

People without pets may question why anyone would bother to go through this extra hassle and cost of living with a pet, but pet owners insist that it is worth it.  “I initially got my cats to help cope with my depression,” Ms. Daggett explains.  “They still help me feel less lonely living alone.”  Ms. Canada expresses a similar sentiment about why she got her dog.  “Since adopting him, my overall happiness has improved twofold.”

So, in the end, for most pet owners, the sacrifices they make to live with their beloved animals overcomes the burden of limited housing options and the extra cost.  For these Boulder residents, you just can’t put a price on living with a pet.

How we came to America

While the story for many immigrants from South Asia involves a search for opportunity and wealth in the West, for some it involved the very real matter of life and death.  This was the case of my parents, Jyoti and Purabi.  Their decision to come to the United States very literally saved their lives.

My parents are both from a nation that is now known as Bangladesh, a small country to the east of India, bordered on three sides by India and opening out to the Bay of Bengal in the south.  Growing up, their homeland was first known to them as the British Eastern Bengal until the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the Brits quit their claims in the region and divided the former colony into two countries along religious lines, secular India and Islamic Pakistan – with the latter state being comprised of two regions separated by a thousand miles.  East Bengal became East Pakistan, with little binding it to West Pakistan aside from religion.  East Pakistan had a different language (Bengali vs. Urdu), a higher population, a more advanced economy, and its own native culture.  These factors contributed to an increasingly hostile relationship with West Pakistan, which became dictatorial in its attempt to control the culture and politics in the East.

By the 60’s, unrest in East Pakistan was reaching a boiling point, with Bengali nationalism growing in fervor and millions of people engaging in acts of civil obedience in order to defend their culture and gain equal representation in the shared government, which was largely controlled by the West.  My parents were both from minority Hindu families, putting them at particular risk of persecution by the West if and when the Islamist government attempted to forcibly assert its influence in the East.  They were also brought up in relative poverty, having to essentially support and raise themselves and their siblings with nothing but their hard work and intelligence.  Education was the vehicle that carried them both out of poverty and political turmoil, and into the United States of America.

My parents got married in Bangladesh in 1967, meeting barely a month before and only seeing each other only three times.  My father came to the U.S. in 1969 on a F-1 student visa to study at Temple University in Philadelphia.  My mother arrived a year later on the same F-1 visa to study at the Medical College of Pennsylvania.  They intended to pursue their studies in peace and safety, away from the turmoil that was starting to engulf their homeland.  My father had been able to come to the U.S. primarily because of the logistical and financial support of his adoptive father, Govinda Chandra Dev, who was a prominent intellectual in Bangladesh and one of the leaders of the nationalist movement.

They had barely settled in as young married students in Philly, when war broke out in their homeland – a war which would forever affect their lives and shaped the people they became, and brought with it a grief and sorrow so profound that it has crossed generations, even influencing who I am and what I believe as a first-generation American and second-generation immigrant.

On the night of March 26, 1971, the Pakistani army launched a surprise military operation in East Pakistan in an attempt to obliterate the nationalist movement – a systematic extermination of Bengali political and military leaders, intellectuals, and academics in an attempt to crush the movement by removing its leaders and destroying their morale.  In the first few days they had assassinated hundreds of the nation’s most important and beloved leaders and thinkers… including Govinda Chandra Dev, the man who adopted my father, and gave him the means to move to the U.S. so he could have a chance at a better life.  The Pakistani army broke into his faculty residence in the dark of night, shot him dead, and threw his corpse into a mass grave with dozens of other professors and students – people who had yearned for the right to call themselves Bengali.

That night, East Pakistan died.  Bangladesh was born.

 

Pakistan’s military junta believed that “Operation Searchlight” would once and for all crush the nationalist movement, and did not anticipate any prolonged resistance.  Instead, Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan and a nine-month-long war of independence was fought, during which time the Pakistani military engaged in one of the worst genocides in the post-WWII era:

By the time Pakistan unconditionally surrendered to the joint Bangladesh-Indian alliance in December (and 13 days after India entered the war), it is estimated that around three million people had been killed, 10 million refugees were displaced, and a few hundred thousand Bengali women had been raped by the Pakistani military – bringing an even more grotesque and vicious dimension to the savage war.

Particularly hard hit were religious minorities, especially Hindus.  My father affirms the fact that had he not been allowed into the U.S., he would have been among those students killed in the first few days of the genocide.

Instead, he and my mother made the most of the gift of life, and settled in the United States, both getting PhDs and teaching across the country.  They raised two children as American citizens, never letting us forget their ancestral homeland and the fundamental aspects of our cultural identity.  They brought me to live in Bangladesh for seven years, off and on – an experience that has exposed me to a completely different world and brought me in touch with a people and culture that I cherish dearly.  Along the way my mother also provided support for three of her siblings to immigrate to the U.S., giving up an excellent career in Bangladesh and restarting it in the U.S. to sponsor her youngest brother when he wished to immigrate here.  They did these things while also becoming literary legends in their homeland where they have spent many years off and on working to improve the country they still feel fundamentally a part of.

America’s willingness to welcome the world’s best and brightest students to study within its borders saved many people like my parents from conflict and potential disaster, and in turn these immigrants have brought a wealth of intellectual capital to this country – increasingly to the detriment to their homelands with staggering ‘brain drain.’  The American ideal of a multicultural society – where all are free to practice (or not practice) any religion without fear of persecution – has also provided safe haven for persecuted minorities around the world who would otherwise be in fear of their lives.  My parents are proof positive of the benefit this country gains for keeping its gates open to those who deserve its opportunities, and I intend to preach that lesson for as long as I live as an American citizen of Bengali descent.

Motion graphic critique: 250,000,000 people

The motion graphic I chose to critique is from an investigative piece in the NY Times, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities.” The graphic itself can be seen here.

The piece and the graphic are about the Chinese government’s breathtakingly ambitious plan to migrate 250 million Chinese citizens from rural areas and farmlands into newly developed high rise cities over a span of 12-15 years.  The government’s reasoning seems to be based on trying to revitalize the Chinese economy by concentrating population areas and creating new mega-cities which will both be more productive, as well as creating new large consumer markets, as well as to wean farmers off from self-subsistence and the country off exports.  It is a massive and incredibly complex plan that is unprecedented.  While Western developed nations went through these migration changes to produce the economies they have today (going from rural, agrarian economies to industrialized efficient ones), those changes took place over centuries – not over the 12-15 years that China’s Communist Party is proposing.

The proposal is causing a lot of consternation among both economists and human rights watch groups, who are accusing the government of trying to “warehouse” its population into small easy to manage areas, as well as taking their homes and livelihoods away as farmlands are razed and converted into urban centers.

The graphic itself illustrates how large the migration is by showing how many major world cities would need to be counted to even reach 250 million people.  It passes over every major urban area in the United States and most of the major urban areas around the world – including New York, LA, London, and Tokyo.  It adds to the story by showing what a gargantuan undertaking a forced migration of 250 million people really is.  While China is known as the largest nation by population on the planet, and 250 million people wouldn’t seem too much in the scope of China’s population, once you compare it to how many major cities that equates to – and just how many people would be displaced under this policy – the scope is almost unbelievable.

I like graphics like this that gives a sense of size with comparison, as it visually tells a story that words are not as effective with at times.

Video Story Critique: How Wolves Change Rivers

The video story I am critiquing is called “How Wolves Change Rivers,” a video produced by Steve and Chris Agnos, brothers behind a environmental media group called “Sustainable Human,” which makes video stories that help educate and explain the role of humans in the environment.   The video itself is actually a mix of separate pieces edited into a single form.  It has been viewed over 21 million times on YouTube.

The narration is done by environmental writer and activist George Monbiot, who gave a TED talk about the ways humans have and can restore the environment restoring animals into the habitats they were once wiped out of.   Monbiot’s primary example (and what the video is about) is how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, where they went almost extinct, created a massive butterfly effect in Yellowstone’s ecosystem – eventually leading to a monumental physical change in the very way the rivers flowed.  The video is B-roll footage from different videos shot in Yellowstone, including time lapse videos and nature videos, with images and video synchronized with Monbiot’s narration.  The music is a creative commons ambient piece that ties it all in together and gives the whole video an ethereal feel.

The story starts off with how the introduction of wolves led to both a reduction and migration of deer away from river banks and other areas they once frequented, and nearly wiped vegetation out of.  This led to trees almost quintupling in height in some areas, and vegetation growing, which invited songbirds and small mammals, which also led to the influx of beavers, and other animals and carnivores that had been driven out.  The regrowth of trees also strengthened the banks of rivers and reduced soil erosion, leading to more established river and stream routes and tributaries, creating entire new ecosystems on their own.

It’s an amazing journey that the video takes us in a few short minutes.  The TED talk itself was not done justice without these visuals, and Sustainable Human, to their credit, added to the story rather than distracted from it as many mashups tend to do.  The only slight is that the audio echoes, as the TED talk was obviously done to a large theater, but aside from that it works as a narration.  The editing is top notch, with every sequence being relevant to what is being spoken.  The chill one feels when hearing the wolves howl add to the amazing effect the entire video and audio experience has.  It’s a hopeful, educational look at environmentalism that many videos in the same genre aren’t as effective at.  It also makes me want to get better at video editing and mixing so I could try producing something like it in the future.