Located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 35 miles northwest of Denver, Boulder developed as a supply base for miners searching for gold and silver. With an influx of people after World War II, residents were compelled to preserve what they loved about the area. In 1967 thousands of acres of open space was purchased and that prompted the adoption of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan in 1970.
Residential growth management and infill and reuse was important then, and, after talking to Martha Roskowski, GO Boulder program manager, the community’s conviction toward community preservation is unmistakable.
“About 20 years ago, in the mid-80s, the Boulder city council decided it needed to do transportation differently,” explains Roskowski. “They looked at what it would cost financially in terms of the quality of life for the community, what it would take to just expand our roadway system indefinitely to accommodate the demands of single-occupancy vehicles, and they decided that was not the future that they wanted for Boulder.”
She emphasizes, “They realized that if you’re going to ask people not to drive, you have to provide them with transportation options.” That’s where GO Boulder comes in. The “GO” stands for “great options,” and it is this program in the city’s transportation division that establishes these options. “It’s morphed into being the alternative transportation and policy and planning and promotion wing of the transportation division,” Roskowski says.
This isn’t something the city came up with overnight; it is something Boulder has been working on for 20 years. Roskowski states, “Our transportation master plan calls for providing transportation choices, for making our streets work for all modes. It’s building a community that works well for transit, bicycling and walking.”
Roskowski’s start in transportation was with bicycles. The city of Boulder hired her in 1990 to coordinate Bike Week. From there she became a bicycle advocate and for seven years ran Bicycle Colorado, a statewide bicycle advocacy organization. Following that, a coalition called America Bikes hired her to head up the campaign in Washington, D.C., on the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill in 2002. “I spent 2-1/2 years lobbying on the federal transportation bill and then lobbying for bicycle and walking provisions,” she says.
Subsequently the city of Boulder had a manager position open and she applied. Regarding this position she says, “The job here is broader than just bicycling and walking and it includes transit — all modes of transportation.” Given her experience at the federal level, it was a good fit.
Offering a Variety of Options
Unlike the transit agencies we normally highlight, GO Boulder is a city program that focuses on all modes of transportation. The underlying goal is to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips to reduce congestion on the roadways, so it looks at the menu of transportation choices, more than just looking at how to move cars.
“It means we can look at things like, how does our bikeway system integrate with our transit service? How does it work for people using the system, rather than a more specific focus of we just do buses or we just do bicycles and walking,” says Roskowski. “It’s somewhat of a unique setup that we have within the city of Boulder, but it works.
“We do quite a bit around biking and walking, encouraging people to bike and walk,” she explains. “We have a really robust walk and bike month celebration every year. Now a community nonprofit, they’re taking the lead on it with funding from us.” She adds, “We had organized that internally for many years but we wanted to invigorate that more.”
A recently launched program is called Go Bike Boulder, similar to a “Mapquest” for bikes. Bikers can go online and type in the destination and starting point, on-street route or off-street route preference, and it will map it out. “It will provide you with your route with all of your instructions and show you a map and it will tell you how many calories you will burn on your route,” Roskowski explains.
She emphasizes, “Boulder tends to be a little further along the continuum in terms of how we look at transportation. We take a more holistic view; we’re more focused on providing the transportation choices than a lot of other communities in our region.”
She mentions that the other communities are all taking notice. “They realize that we don’t have the money and we don’t have the space to just endlessly accommodate more automobiles.” She adds, “Over the past several years we’ve seen more and more interest and focus in how do we provide the options? What can we do? How do we look at land use and transportation? How do we make transit work?”
Being ahead on the continuum has its own challenge. Because Boulder has been doing this for awhile, it is ahead on a lot of things and it’s a challenge to figure out where the next step should be. “Other communities look to Boulder and learn from what we’ve done, but we’re constantly looking for new ideas to figure out what’s next in Boulder,” says Roskowski. “There’s not a clear, not one community that we look to, to say, OK, we want to be like that community, that’s our goal.
“What we have found is, there are a lot of innovative and interesting things going on in other communities and so while there’s not one role model for us to look to, there is a lot we can learn from other places around the country because we do not have it all figured out.” She emphasizes, “We’ve been doing it for a while, we’ve learned how to do some things well, but there are other communities that are ahead of us in terms of some other things, like BRT.” She stresses that going to various conferences has helped them pick up ideas from others and bring them back to implement in Boulder.
The Transit Piece
The first transit product brought to life was the Hop, a high-frequency circulator that was a joint partnership between the city of Boulder and the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). “We jointly fund that with assistance from the University of Colorado and it is operated by a non-profit called Special Transit,” says Roskowski.
“Since then we have created Skip, Jump, Bound, Leap and the Dash. They’re all high-frequency services running every 10 minutes at peak hours,” she explains. She mentions the circulators are operated by RTD. “In some cases the city provides the additional sum of money to run, basically buying a transit service from RTD.” The city of Boulder started most of those with Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants.
She is anticipating future increases in RTD service. “RTD passed the ballot initiative in 2004. Boulder will be getting commuter rail in 2015 and significantly enhanced bus service, BRT-type service, somewhere in the same timeframe. That’s going to be fabulous in terms of improving our regional service, because one of the challenges, if you look at the mode split in Boulder, it’s significant.
“We have really made progress in terms of shifting trips out of single-occupancy vehicles into other modes,” she explains. “But regionally we’re pretty stuck at 80 percent single-occupancy vehicle trips, just because they can’t get there.” With Boulder being a desirable place to live, housing prices have gone up significantly. The city has become a job center with a lot of people who work in Boulder but live outside of Boulder. “That’s one of our new challenges,” she remarks. “Fastracks will help.
“Boulder wants really good, really robust transit service,” asserts Roskowski. “That is a challenge for any transit agency to provide, especially when you look at what your farebox recovery rate is.” She continues, “Transit agencies like RTD cannot just continue to provide more and more transit service; the numbers just don’t work out.
Just like many transit agencies, GO Boulder is trying to figure out how to continue to provide and expand options when there is little funding. “It’s a really challenging and interesting time for us because Boulder saw a pretty significant economic downturn in 2002 or so with the high-tech industry crash,” states Roskowski. “So while 10 years ago we had a lot of money to throw at new services and try new things, we don’t today.
“We’re looking at our local transportation funding scenario; it’s pretty bleak. She stresses the point, “At the very same time we’re seeing fuel prices go up significantly, which is making it harder to just hold the line of providing our transit services, that same spike in fuel prices is driving more and more people to transit.
“We just got our numbers from RTD that show our February was higher than ever.” She continues, “People are looking to transit as a way to save money and we’re finding it harder and harder to provide those options.”
She says, “We’re seeing this shift, people realizing for many reasons, whether it’s climate change or energy sustainability or just their own pocketbook, they’re rethinking do they really want to drive their car all the time everywhere at the very time when it’s harder and harder for us to provide those options.
“Right now I’m looking at my budget for ‘08 going, ‘Oh my God, fuel prices are up 30 percent in February 2008 more than where they were in February 2007.’” She stresses, “I don’t want it to come to be where we have to reduce transit services. We’re scratching our heads, we’re thinking hard about how we can do this.” Despite the challenges ahead, she remains optimistic. “I’m sure we will figure it out.”