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photo by Blazej Lyjak

Could bicycling to the places we need to go solve many of the county’s problems?

It did in Dorsten, Germany, which is comparable in size to our city.

By Kerstin Lieff

Some may say we’re dreamers. But a Boulder County without a brown cloud, traffic jams and car noise could be in our not-so-distant future. Other communities have attained that dream. There’s little reason we can’t do it here, too.

Boulder redesigned 95 percent of its streets to better accommodate cyclists since signing the sprawl-curbing Greenbelt Amendment in 1967. But cyclists say they still don’t feel safe on local roads. (photos by Adam Hodges)

In 1967, our forebears signed the Greenbelt Amendment, Boulder County’s first commitment to a greener lifestyle. Since then, we’ve redesigned 95 percent of our streets to accommodate bicyclists, and Boulder residents bicycle to work at a rate that’s 20 times higher than the national average, according to the city of Boulder. The city even received a 2016 Platinum Award from the League of American Bicyclists.

But the American Lung Association gave Boulder an ‘F’ grade, based on the city’s number of high-ozone days. With a population of roughly 100,000, Boulder collectively owns 143,000 cars and ushers in 50,000 commuters from outlying communities every day. Traffic congestion isn’t just at rush hour, and cyclists complain it’s not safe to ride local streets—or even pedestrian paths.

Plans are underway to widen many of Boulder’s multiuse paths to separate pedestrians and cyclists in the most congested sections. (Photo by Adam Hodges)

“Our multiuse paths are just too scary, with all the dogs on leashes, and strollers and skateboarders weaving in and out,” says Joan Gabriele, a Boulder city resident and CU employee. “I feel very fortunate to live here, but I’ll only ride during the week, and only in summer when the students are gone.”

The city of Boulder’s Dave Kemp responds, “Many of Boulder’s multiuse paths will be widened next year, and we plan to separate pedestrians from bicyclists in the most congested sections.”

That’s heartening, but what about intercity commuters? Lafayette resident Kerry Reilly, whose husband commutes by bicycle to Boulder, says he’s suffered “three terrible bike wrecks. One required surgery. It’s just not very safe.” To address intercity commutes, a new bikeway was recently completed that is completely separate from automobile traffic. It connects Denver and Boulder, and communities in between. Arapahoe Avenue and Colorado Highway 119 may receive similar additions.

Google plans to bring 1,500 new jobs to Boulder, which will add that many more commuters to the roads. Twitter is doubling its downtown space, though it plans to install underground parking with electric-charging stations. The city wants to keep traffic at 1994 levels, and so far it claims that is happening. But it still leaves an unrealized dream: a city with no brown cloud, no traffic congestion, and—wouldn’t this be wonderful?—no traffic noise.

The Little City That Could

Bicycle racks are almost on par with car-parking spaces in Germany (Photo by Nordhorner)

I visited a city in Germany where air pollution and traffic problems have virtually been eradicated. Dorsten borders the Ruhr district, an area with a population about equal to that of Boulder, Denver and the connecting counties. In the 1960s, air pollution was very visible in the Ruhr, as millions of tons of dust, ash and soot spewed into the district’s air annually, killing trees and acidifying the soil and water. In the same decade that we passed the Greenbelt Amendment, German Chancellor Willy Brandt declared, “The sky over the Ruhr will be blue again.” Today it is. The Ruhr district has reduced air pollution by 97 percent, and traffic congestion is more of a problem with bicycles than cars. The noticeable by-product is no traffic noise.

Today, bicycle routes, like this two-lane bridge path, keep cars off the roads and the skies blue in Dorsten, Germany, which has a slightly smaller population than Boulder and was once plagued by auto congestion and pollution. (Photo by Zinneke)

Dorsten’s population, though a little smaller than Boulder’s, has the same demographics when it comes to bicycles. Both cities own 710 bicycles per 1,000 residents. Both cities have roughly 62 miles of bicycle routes. Dorsten’s weather is comparable to ours, with one distinct difference: half its summer days are rainy. But inclement weather doesn’t deter the populace when it comes to biking.

When I visited Dorsten last January, the temperatures were well below freezing. But it felt natural to do as the locals do—bundle up and ride your bike everywhere. I rode to the market for groceries, to the tech shop for a phone cord, to the office-supply store for a notebook and to many other places. One of my hosts, Eike Dahlberg, says, “I started riding my bike to school when I was 10. I am 46 and still ride wherever I need to go. I’ve never owned a car.” Dahlberg’s parents do, but they explain, “We really only bring it out for summer excursions.” They showed me their BMW; it was up on blocks.
In response to bicycle-traffic congestion, Dorsten and other German cities have built Radschnellwege, or “bicycle freeways” fully segregated from cars and complete with streetlights and winter maintenance to connect numerous German cities.

In Germany the country’s bicycle freeways fully segregate cars from bikes, and allow cyclists to easily commute between cities (photo by Hauswirtshaft)

Germany is not the only country that takes cycling seriously. Norway has the Super-sykkelveier, or the “Super Cycle-Way,” and the Netherlands has gone a step further. “A bicycle highway alone is not enough,” says Dutch planner Henk Brink. “We want to offer an exceptional experience.” Art walls, rotating weather-protection screens, Wi-Fi and electric bike-charging stations are all on the Dutch planning table.

Boulder certainly needs safer bike roads, but it appears this issue is being addressed. As a community, though, we could also start to think differently. We could ride as a rule, not as an exception. Boulder currently has 30 B-Cycle stations that offer 300 rental bikes at low cost. We could install many more, and also include electric bikes. We could have parking stations with B-Cycle bikes that invite commuters and visitors to bike into the city from surrounding communities like Nederland, Jamestown, Gold Hill, Lafayette, Louisville, Longmont and Ward. The city of Boulder’s website advertises, “Discover Boulder the way the locals do—on a bike.” Wouldn’t it be a dream come true if we really had no brown cloud or traffic jams, and we bicycled more than drove?


Kerstin Lieff is the 2013 Colorado Book Award-winning author of Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship.