Hassles can’t keep valley residents out of their cars | AspenTimes.com

Hassles can’t keep valley residents out of their cars

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Roaring Fork Valley residents have proven they will endure traffic congestion, construction delays, HOV lanes and even paid parking to continue using their cars to get to work.

Although construction of Highway 82 and the sheer volume of vehicles created nightmares for commuters throughout much of the 1990s, the number of people who commuted to work alone in private vehicles continued to climb, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Data from 1990 and 2000 showed that as the population of the valley grew, so did the number of people driving alone in every town but Aspen, according to a comparison by The Aspen Times.

The data suggests that improved service by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority may have slowed the popularity of driving alone to work. The number of people who said they use the bus as their primary way of commuting grew at a faster rate than single-occupant vehicle use. However, private vehicle use was still much greater.

Dan Blankenship, general manager of RFTA, said transit research shows that people tend to choose the option that is quickest. Vehicles provide convenience, privacy and comfort. Transit systems have to spend a lot of money to try to compete, he said.

Even then, Blankenship said, bus ridership probably won’t increase without policies that provide disincentives to private vehicles.

Midvalley patterns

The growth of the midvalley in the 1990s produced a significant number of additional vehicles with one occupant on the roads.

The number of people from Basalt and the surrounding area who drove alone to work shot up from 398 in 1990 to 1,621 in the latest census. That’s an increase of 300 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of people from the Basalt zip code that used the bus as their primary mode of transportation to work went from 69 in 1990 to 448, an increase of 550 percent.

Carpooling also vaulted in popularity. In 1990 there were 141 people who shared rides to work. It nearly quadrupled to 665 in 2000.

The same trends played out in the El Jebel area. There were 747 people driving to work alone in 1990, according to the census. By 2000 the number swelled to 1,368, an increase of 83 percent.

The number of people taking the bus to work climbed from 163 to 410. That’s an increase of 150 percent.

Carpooling increased more modestly, from 449 people to 527.

RFTA beefed up service

The growing popularity of the bus system is tied to several factors, said Blankenship. First is a drastic increase in service.

“We nearly doubled service levels starting in April 1994,” he said. More frequent and direct routes were added between El Jebel and Aspen. Service between Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Aspen also grew steadily up to 2000, when hourly buses started running.

The Latino migration into the valley also played a role. Blankenship said a 2001 RFTA survey showed that Latinos comprise more than half of commuter customers.

The survey also showed that approximately 65 percent of respondents didn’t have a license or car available to them, according to Blankenship. Typically, Spanish-speaking respondents had fewer options, he said.

Fewer SOVs in Aspen

In Carbondale, the steady increases in bus service paid dividends. The bus was listed as the primary way of commuting to work by only 50 people in 1990. By 2000 the number soared to 327 people. Carpooling more than doubled from 309 to 713 people.

Still, driving alone to work increased by 40 percent. There were 1,031 SOV in 1990 and 1,443 a decade later. The census data was for workers who commuted to Aspen and further or within Carbondale.

Among the valley’s towns, Glenwood Springs by a wide margin had the most commuters using single-occupant vehicles. People who drive to work alone increased from 2,455 to 2,943 during the 1990s. Meanwhile, bus use only increased from 47 to 154.

In Aspen, single-occupant vehicle use declined. One explanation may be paid parking, which was implemented in 1995.

The number of people driving alone to work in Aspen dropped from 1,718 to 1,647, according to census data.

There was only a modest increase in people taking the bus. It went from 310 to 422, about 36 percent.

The number of people who walk to work also went down, according to the Census Bureau. In 1990, 817 people said they regularly walked to work. In 2000, only 785 people said they hoof it.

What’s next?

The answers in the next census are likely to be influenced by the completion of the widening of Highway 82 to four lanes. Snowmass Canyon is supposed to be completed this year.

That could make private vehicle use a more attractive option because the commute is quicker. However, the high-occupancy vehicle lane will still exist between Basalt and Buttermilk, and there will still be a “wormhole” where traffic is congested when two eastbound lanes narrow to one at Buttermilk.

Blankenship said the four-laning will help buses as well as private vehicles. Bus service will be more reliable and predictable because of less congestion. Buses can legally use the shoulder between Buttermilk and the roundabout outside of Aspen, although they must merge for the Maroon Creek bridge, he noted.

A defining characteristic for bus service in the next few years will be solving congestion while leaving Aspen on Main Street. “Our biggest delay is from Rubey Park to the S-curves,” he said.

Blankenship said RFTA must also concentrate on reducing trip times by making fewer stops with some buses, decreasing the time needed to load passengers and collect fares, and making parking available.

He predicted that congestion will become an issue again, despite the widening of the highway. Therefore, RFTA will urge the Colorado Department of Transportation to keep high-occupancy vehicle lanes between Basalt and Buttermilk.

“It’s not as important today as it will be 10 years from now,” he said of the lanes. “We’ll have to see if CDOT’s commitment to the bus lanes stands the test of time.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com