Aspen traffic sees steady increase over last 5 years |

Aspen traffic sees steady increase over last 5 years

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Traffic backs up on Main Street during the afternoon commute Thursday afternoon.

This month marked the most traffic the Roaring Fork Valley has seen in the past decade.

On July 1, 32,108 cars drove across Castle Creek Bridge – the second-largest number of vehicles on the road in a single day, falling short only to an all-time traffic record of more than 33,000 cars on July 3, 2005, according to city of Aspen traffic data.

“The traffic is the worst I have seen in a long time,” said local resident Cindy Carpenter, adding that it’s “very frustrating.”

What is expected to come may be of even greater frustration for some.

The city Transportation Department’s local traffic count does reveal a slight yet consistent increase in the number of cars on the road in the past five years, a trend city Transportation Director John Krueger anticipates will continue.

This is especially troubling news for the city, which set a community goal in 1993 not to exceed the average number of cars on the road that year (23,670). While traffic counts indicate that the community has remained below this goal on average, this won’t be the case for much longer based on the current trend.

“We are currently 4 or 5 percent below the 1993 average annual count,” Krueger said.

The number of cars on the road has increased at a rate of about 2 percent since 2010, he said, noting that the city will surpass its community goal in as few as two years if the current path continues.

However, it hasn’t all been bad in recent years, Krueger said. In fact, prior to 2010, the valley’s traffic count had been down since 2008 — a decline he attributed to the financial recession.

The economy and the weather are two key factors driving the number of cars on the road, and thus traffic, Krueger said.

Data-driven solutions?

Commuters and environmentalists may find relief in the city’s efforts to encourage people not to drive their cars. Paid parking, bike sharing and the public-transportation system are only a handful of measures the city has taken to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, combat global climate change and resolve the congestion issue.

Most recently, the Transportation and Parking departments partnered together to launch the “Drive Less” campaign, which offers participants various prizes as an additional incentive to get people out of their vehicles.

But it’s “clearly not enough,” Canary Initiative Director Ashley Perl said.

“We need to continue with current planning, but we need to do a lot more,” Perl said. “If you stop 10 people on the street and ask, ‘Why is traffic bad in Aspen?’ they will all give you a different answer. That, to me, tells me that as a community, we don’t have great data.”

This is one of the many reasons the Canary Initiative has worked to acquire a vehicles-miles-traveled count for Aspen, which Perl said is “a far more in-depth, detailed, informative measure of vehicle traffic.”

Perl said the Canary Initiative, a city program that promotes environmental stewardship and reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, is “very, very excited” to have just received its first vehicles-miles-traveled study, which she said it has wanted for 10 to 15 years.

“It will be an enormous benefit to the Transportation Department, along with a number of other sectors,” Perl said.

Boulder-based transportation planning firm Charlier Associates Inc. conducted the report, which the Canary Initiative was able to finance with the funds it saved conducting its greenhouse-gas inventory in house for the first time this year.

“We realized the VMT was going to help everyone, so it was a really worthwhile project,” Perl said. “It’s actually incredible for us to be able to get this for a community of our size.”

With this information — which Perl described as a data-heavy analysis combining real vehicle counts on the roads with surveys, local real-time data and state data — she said the city’s next plan is to target specific groups rather than merely implementing “blanket programs.”

“We want to figure out who it is that is still driving and understand their motive — ask these groups, ‘What is it that’s keeping you in your car, and how can we get you out of there?’” Perl said.

Meeting driver needs

Using the construction industry as a hypothetical example, Perl said the initiative knows there are “a lot of (people) that drive up here every day, carpooling, that need their trucks because they have to carry lots of tools.” If in fact this was something the vehicles-miles-traveled results showed, Perl would suggest that the city develop some sort of program where they can lock their tools on site, for example.

Perl also noted school traffic as a national issue and source of congestion, and she said many parents claim to drive their children to school as a way to spend more time with them. To this, Perl would ask parents if they could walk with their children to school, bike with them or walk them to the bus stop.

“Those are the conversations that we need to have — to target meeting their needs where they’re at and figure out what we can do to create an even better option than their current mode,” Perl said.

The city will first implement voluntary incentive programs as a way to encourage people, which could be followed by mandatory policy measures if necessary, she said.

Transportation also is one of Mayor Steve Skadron’s top concerns. He said he hopes to address this at today’s City Council meeting, but whether transportation and traffic are at the top of the city’s agenda, there is only so much the city alone can do to solve the issue, Perl said.

“We (the city) need to hear from the community that it’s a priority for them, as well. … Transportation and modes is something that’s so personal to people that we’re going to really have to hear from people and engage on a pretty deep level,” Perl said.

Traffic and quality of life

Some say traffic is “very much a real issue” in their lives, such as Chris Lane, CEO for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Lane said traffic has been “extraordinarily challenging lately — probably the worst I’ve seen in my 25-year experience here.”

Recent traffic has left Lane with little choice but to commute at odd hours, which doesn’t always help, he said.

“Peak hours are extended to all day,” he said.

Lane added that congestion is not only bad into and out of Aspen but also between Basalt and Blue Lake.

However, it seems it will take more than a few frustrated commuters to convince the city to make changes.

“I don’t think that until we hear that from the city that we’re going to take drastic measures,” Perl said. “To really deal with the congestion issue, everyone needs to buy in.”