If it seems like traffic has increased dramatically over the past few weeks compared to the early days of the pandemic, that’s no illusion. And there’s likely to be little relief in sight on the local roads heading into the Fourth of July if past history on holiday travel holds true.
According to vehicle counts provided by the city of Aspen’s transportation department, Monday and Tuesday of this week saw traffic figures that exceeded those of the same dates in 2019, though June 29-30 fell on Saturday and Sunday last year and not on weekdays as the dates did in 2020.
There were 24,056 vehicles that passed by the automatic, below-ground marker near the Castle Creek Bridge on June 29, compared to 23,625 vehicles on that date in 2019, which indicates a 2% increase. On June 30, 24,734 vehicles were counted going into and out of Aspen; last year on that date a total of 20,704 cars were counted near the measurement point at Highway 82 and Cemetery Lane.
June 2020 saw 601,312 vehicles pass over the Castle Creek Bridge; that’s 13% fewer than June 2019’s 697,766 total count, but “over the last several days we’ve been catching up pretty quickly,” said John Krueger, director of transportation for the city of Aspen.
It’s likely the upward trend will continue. As Krueger noted, “July is the busiest month of the year and [Fourth of July] is the busiest week of the year in terms of traffic.” In fact, the highest traffic count ever recorded in a single day by the city was on July 3, 2004, when about 33,000 vehicles drove in and out of town, Krueger said.
“The most intense summer traffic ever was in 2004 and 2005,” he added. Since then, a program of auto disincentives was successful in bringing down daily numbers, at least during nonholiday periods.
“While this week is bad, traffic is always high during the July 4 week. Always! But it’s not as bad as 2004-05” when each day of that holiday week saw counts in the 29-30,000 range, Krueger added.
Health orders made an impact
Before COVID-19 exploded in this valley during March, traffic numbers for the early part of 2020 were tracking close to the first few months of 2019. Then came the issuance of public health orders on March 13, 18 and 23.
“When all of the health orders started coming out and social distancing and group sizes went into effect, traffic dropped dramatically,” Krueger said this week.
Traffic counts were about half the previous year on, and surrounding, those three days in March 2020, according to the city’s data.
The bottom was hit on Sunday, April 12, 2020, which Krueger said may be the least number of vehicles to enter and exit Aspen — 4,346 — since records dating to 1993 were kept. By comparison, on April 12, 2019 (which was a Friday), a total of 21,313 vehicles were counted.
After the mid-April 2020 nadir, however, traffic counts taken at the Castle Creek Bridge began to edge back up. The county’s pivot into less stringent “safer at home” orders on April 27 also helped kick-start the increase in motoring as more businesses started to reopen.
The ascending vehicle counts represent a step back from some of the best practices at traffic reduction — car shares, carpools, bike sharing and mass transit — that have been implemented locally over the past quarter-century.
“The COVID virus was really hard on all that,” Krueger said, adding, “A lot of cities and communities are experiencing the same thing.”
The reduction in bus capacity to accommodate social distancing also was a possible contributor to the traffic increase. Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses are now limited to a maximum capacity of 15 (which in some cases is one-third of their total, pre-pandemic capacity). Free parking in the city’s residential areas also could be seen as an enticement to drive, though on-street spaces outside the downtown core are getting harder to find.
City data on transit versus traffic since the start of the pandemic show that transit numbers have been slower to bounce back than vehicular traffic.
The reintroduction this week of some suspended transit services including car shares and carpools, coupled with increased RFTA frequency within the city of Aspen and valleywide, could help counter the skyward trend of transit numbers. Krueger reminded that buses are still free to ride.
According to real-time data from July 1, 7 a.m. traffic counts at 1,284 already exceeded the “basic capacity” of the S-curves, which is between 700 and 800 vehicles per hour. The numbers in both directions stayed high throughout Wednesday morning.
That contributed to the sense among drivers that during summer high season, “even at 11 and noon, people say ‘I can’t get in and out of town,’” Krueger said.