Though peak commuting times in Aspen see more vehicles than the S-curves can handle, overall traffic is improving through the notorious entrance to Aspen segment of Highway 82.
John Krueger, the city’s director of transportation, credits city initiatives, public transportation and the community for making 2019 the lowest year on record for vehicular traffic in and out of Aspen.
“It’s interesting because most people feel that every year traffic is the worst it’s ever been and it's getting worse and worse,” Krueger said.
But, based on benchmarks taken from traffic counters situated by Cemetery Lane every year since 1993, 2019 saw the lowest average daily count, of 21,105 trips. The counter shows even lower numbers in 2018 due to the detours that kept vehicles off the highway near the Castle Creek Bridge, while a $4.6 million Hallam Street corridor improvement project was underway. Because of those construction impacts, which forced drivers to rethink their commutes, that year does not represent a fair comparison. Compared to 2017, 2019 traffic was down 4.4%.
While the annual average took a dip last year, July and August trips increased from 2018 (the Hallam corridor project was put on hold for those months). The maximum number of cars the S-curves can handle is 800 per hour before traffic begins to back up. Throughout July and August, either inbound or outbound traffic exceeded that number from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
“So you are 300 cars per hour over the free flow conditions, and you are going to get backups and delays and congestion. That’s a function of the infrastructure,” Krueger said.
The busiest day of the year was July 3 with 29,106 trips made in the corridor. Overall, more than 7 million vehicles came in and out of Aspen in 2019.
“It’s a lot for a little ski town having 7.5 million a year,” Krueger said.
And while it seems like a big number, 2019 traffic counts were down 10 percent from the 1993 levels that the community resolved to remain under through the development of the Aspen Area Community Plan.
“Avoiding the dilemma of more cars needing more highways and more highways attracting more cars means limiting vehicle trips into Aspen: implementing an efficient valley-wide mass transit system, altering land use patterns; and moving people within and around the city of Aspen without automobiles,” the document states.
The numbers are also lower than projected in a city report produced in 2007 using Colorado Department of Transportation data. The city at the time was taking strides to realign the roadway coming into Aspen.
“Looking at a future where no changes are made at all to the transportation system or roadway structure, traffic demand in 2030 at Cemetery Lane is expected to reach 44,800 vehicles per day during the summer,” the report reads. “Numbers such as these projections will further exceed capacity of the existing highway and will extend the time each day when the highway will operate at a ‘worst condition’ scenario.”
The study also highlighted the high accident rate at the entrance to Aspen, with the majority of accidents being rear-end crashes indicative of stop-and-go backed up traffic.
“This was 386% of the average rural Colorado rate and 149% of the average urban Colorado rate,” the 2007 report says. “The accident rate for State Highway 82 within the project corridor has been well above the state accident rate in the past, a trend that … is likely to worsen until appropriate improvements are made.”
In conclusion, the report supported a federal and state approved solution for the entrance to Aspen that bypassed the existing Castle Creek Bridge to build a highway linking the roundabout to Main Street through the Marolt Open Space.
“We hope that 2007 can be the year when community consensus can be reached and a definitive decision made,” a project team made up of city staffers wrote in the report.
Twelve years later, the community is no closer to a solution for redirecting Highway 82 into Aspen but Krueger said other city-supported programs have supplemented single-occupancy vehicles and achieved a steady reduction in traffic over time.
“If you draw a trend line from 1999 to 2019, that general trend is trending down.
Which I think shows the community commitment and the council commitment to putting programs and options in place for everybody,” Krueger said.
He cited programs that the city helps finance like the WeCycle bikeshare system and the Downtowner shuttle service, which has grown from 22,000 passengers in its pilot year of 2016 to 78,000 in 2019.
“I thought it might take away from the local transit numbers but it hasn't. It has just provided one more way to get into town,” Krueger said.
The biggest influence in reducing cars has been the continued growth of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s express buses running the entirety of Highway 82.
“RFTA has done a phenomenal job. We are lucky to have them in the valley,” Krueger said.
The buses are free to ride from the park and ride lot located at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82. Krueger said the paved lot and spillover gravel lot often fill up. Two hundred more paved spaces are being added to the lot this year.
Along with increased alternative transportation infrastructure, Aspen’s paid parking rates and limited residential zone parking have increased.
“Usually you've got to have both. People react best to incentives, but then also react to disincentives too,” Krueger said.
The combination of the two have ensured that as a community, Aspen’s residents, commuters and visitors have held the line on the 1993 goal.
“There have just been a lot of programs that have come to help keep it below the 1993 target,” Krueger said. “That's over 20 years of being below that number, which is pretty amazing because most communities throughout the country and in Colorado are seeing 10 to 20 percent increases in traffic.”
Krueger said he knows there is still frustration with long backups, and it is important to the city to maintain all the outlets that are available to keep people from sitting in traffic.
“There's always room for improvement. And the community and the town, they set a really high bar in terms of never being satisfied,” Krueger said.
But, there needs to be a balance. If every month had free flowing traffic, such as May 2019 which recorded 17,000 average daily trips, other parts of the culture would be at risk.
“If every month in Aspen is the month of May then we probably don't have a very good community because there is not much going on. So every month can’t be May,” Krueger said.
He thanked the community for their acceptance of the initiatives to keep traffic counts low, pointing out that the majority of vehicle alternatives are being made available through city subsidies.
“As a community we are pretty lucky. A lot of communities don’t or can’t commit the resources and the funding to do it,” Krueger said.