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Monday November 29th 2021

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Does Dense Make Sense? Part 2. Regional Transportation


Editor’s note:  PLAN-Boulder County has issued a report entitled Does Dense Make Sense? This is the second part in a six part series extracted from the report.

Transportation problems require transportation solutions.

The City of Boulder has been a regional employment hub in Boulder County for decades.  The University and the quality of life in Boulder have attracted high-tech industries, research labs, federal agencies, and natural living businesses.  As an employment rich community, the City of Boulder experiences a large number of commuters each day.  As of April this year, 52,900 people commute into Boulder each work day while 10,530 people commute out.

Table 1.  City of Boulder Commuters

Count Percent of Jobs
In-commuters 52,900 55%
Out-commuters 10,530 11%
Sources: City of Boulder 2009 Community Data Report and staff email

According to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan 2010 Trends Report, job growth is only expected to increase.  The report indicates that Boulder County is projected to add 10,059 jobs by 2018.  The City of Boulder could see 116,000 jobs by 2035.  The city is currently zoned for 160,800 jobs, a 1.6 fold increase over current employment levels.

Table 2.  City of Boulder Employment, Areas I & II

Existing 2010 Projected 2035 Current Zoning Capacity
Area I  (City Limits) 96,800 116,000 160,800
Area I & II 99,800 119,200 165,200
Projections assume an average annual growth rate of 0.8%. Sources: DRCOG and City of Boulder 2008 and 2009 Community Data Report

Currently, the vast majority of commuters drive in single occupant vehicles, presenting serious environmental, economic and social equity issues.  On an environmental level, there is little argument that this commuting leads to enormous greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  On an economic level, we have created a system that is completely reliant on cheap petroleum.  Recall the economic problems that occurred in the summer of 2008 when gas was $4.00 a gallon.  On an equity level, many people are too poor or too old (or too young) to own and operate a car.  The reliance on cars is only expected to continue.  The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) predicts the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in Boulder County will reach more than 18.7 million in 2015, a 22% increase over 2001 VMT.  By 2020, the VMT will be around 20 million and by 2030, VMT will be about 22.5 million.

Table 3.  Boulder County Transportation to Work, 2005 and 2008

Mode 2005 2008
Drove alone 69% 67%
Worked at home 10% 10%
Walked or biked 7% 9%
Carpooled 9% 9%
Used public transit 5% 6%
Source: Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan 2010 Trends Report

Housing Boulder’s Workers

One proposed solution to the commuting issue is to add additional housing stock inside the City of Boulder.  The rationale is that this would provide more housing opportunities for those with jobs in Boulder, thereby reducing the daily in-commuting.  While conceptually sound (bring workers’ houses closer to their jobs), in reality, transportation behaviors are extremely complicated and it is unlikely that adding housing around existing employment will reduce in-commuting patterns or volumes.

First, work trips only comprise 20% of the trips a person makes over the course of the week.  The reason that so much attention in transportation planning is spent on the commute trip is that these trips all happen at the same time leading to peak hour congestion, lost productivity, and inefficient use of roadway capacity.  The other types of trips – school, shopping, recreation, medical, personal business – make up 80% of all trips.  If we could somehow reduce 100% of the commute trips to zero VMT by bringing housing closer to jobs, we would only make a small dent in the transportation GHG footprint.

Second, we live in a regional economy with complex commute patterns.  Often persons living in the same household work in different cities making it impossible to eliminate all cross-jurisdictional commute trips.  Commuting by dual-worker households is further complicated by increased specialization in the workplace.  Today more than ever a couple may commute to jobs that simply don’t exist in the city in which they live.  As an example, although 52,000 employees commute into Boulder every day, approximately 10,000 Boulder residents commute out to surrounding communities.  In addition, changes in personal employment are more common now than ever before.  Most people hold several jobs across their careers, making it difficult to synchronize residential and employment locations over long periods.

Perhaps surprisingly, all municipalities in Boulder County experience heavy in and out-commuting.  In fact, only Longmont and Erie have higher percentages than Boulder of residents who both work and live in the same municipality.

Table 4.  Percent of Persons Who Live Where They Work

City 2006 2008
Longmont 44% 46%
Erie 35% 34%
Boulder 32% 29%
Louisville 18% 18%
Superior 12% 15%
Lafayette 10% 15%
Source: Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan 2010 Trends Report

In 2000, Louisville had a jobs-to-employee ratio of 1.3.  Of the 12,297 employees working in the city, 9,967 (81.1%) in-commuted from outside Louisville.

Table 5.  Louisville Jobs and Commuting in 2000

Count Percent
Jobs 16,166
Employees 12,297
Louisville Residents 2,330 18.9%
Commute In 9,967 81.1%
Sources: DRCOG,, Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Third, new residential development, and the people who will occupy it, will require (and support) additional services such as grocery stores, clothing stores, banks, restaurants, barber shops and other personal services.  The people who move into Boulder to follow their jobs will be creating new jobs.  This is especially true given that new residential developments will largely be in multi-unit, mixed-use developments.  Typical design for these developments is for retail on the first floor, offices on the second and residential on the third and forth floors.  Depending on the project, it is possible that attempts to increase housing stock in the City of Boulder might only lead to increased in-commuting to the new jobs.

Fourth, the City of Boulder is unique in that there are very few new single-family homes being built inside city limits, and the few that are built are not affordable to most families.  The new housing stock will almost entirely be in multi-family developments.  While this might work for some groups wanting to move into Boulder, questionnaires on housing stock suggest a preference for single-family homes (Giuliano, 1993; National Association of Realtors, 2002; Litman, 2010).  For many, long commutes are an acceptable trade-off for expanded residential buying power.  Favoritism for suburban and exurban housing is exacerbated by the fact that true costs of commuting are often poorly understood or completely ignored during the decision-making process for a new home.  The American Automobile Association estimates the average cost to operate a car is $0.55 per mile.  Given that the average commute distance in the Denver metropolitan area is 26 miles, car commuters spend about $14 each day just to get to and from work.

Even if true costs of commuting were better understood and factored into residential purchases, long-standing transportation policies have skewed decision-making toward increased automobility.  Drivers impose massive negative impacts on society yet pay for none of them.  Examples include reduced air quality, increased noise, decreased safety (especially for children and the elderly), increased need for emergency response services, increased local road maintenance, segregation of neighborhoods, and reduced property values of housing adjacent to arterials.  Developing new housing with reduced commuting costs will have limited traction because commuting is so artificially cheap.

Reducing VMT

In general, there is really no evidence suggesting that providing more housing inside the City of Boulder would do anything to reduce daily in-commuting.  Fortunately, there are other strategies that can address GHG generation from this source.  Of critical importance is to ensure alternatives to single occupant vehicles (SOV).  First is a high-quality transit system that is convenient, reliable, safe, dignified and affordable.  This means transit routes that run frequently and extend to times of the day that people want.  Perhaps more importantly, in-bound transit routes must access commuters’ final destinations.  Today, if you run a quarter-mile radius around all the regional transit stops – a reasonable walk distance – the encircled area would cover only a small percentage of the employment locations within the city.  We need programs that will connect people to their destinations and address this “Final Mile.”

The good news is that the commute trip is by far the easiest trip to get people into transit.  First, the times of day and routes are repetitive, allowing people to find a transit route that works and to stick with it.  Second, employment destinations tend to be of higher densities than retail or personal destinations, making transit more viable.  Third, the beginning and ending times tend to occur at the same time throughout the week, making daily transit scheduling more feasible.

The second opportunity to reduce commuting VMT is to increase the viability of ridesharing.  The empty seats inside cars are by far our largest untapped transportation resource.  If half of the single occupant drivers carpooled with just one other person half of the time, we would instantly reduce GHG emissions by 25%.  There are new online ridematching programs allowing commuters working at different proximate locations to find and link up with each other.

Finally, transportation planners know that the most efficient way to decrease SOV trips is to manage parking. Countless research studies have found that managing parking, either through time-limited parking, paid parking or reduced parking supply, is the best way to get people out of their cars.  Looking around the City of Boulder you find the highest alternative mode shares occur in downtown and on the CU campus – the two places with managed parking.  If commuters driving into Boulder had to pay the true costs of their parking rather than receiving it free, transit and ridesharing would suddenly look more attractive.  The City of Boulder could push toward parking management by establishing very low parking maximums for new development and redevelop-ment that would decrease the supply.

In summary, transportation-based problems are most effectively addressed through transportation-based solutions.

Stay tuned for Part 3.  Density and Carbon Footprint

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