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Moving Traffic to the Trail: Boulder’s Multipurpose Greenway

Can a greenway park help a city solve its transportation problems? Definitely!

Boulder Greenway. Credit: City of Boulder

That’s the finding from Boulder, Colorado (pop. 100,000), the conservation-minded home of the University of Colorado and a national leader in combating auto traffic, energy waste and sprawl.

Back in 1990 Boulder rejected the concept of widening roads and constructing interchanges in order to “build its way out of congestion.” Instead, the city’s Transportation Master Plan promoted transit, bicycles, pedestrian facilities, and a greenway park. 

Now, 20 years later, the city has released a report on its progress, which has been remarkable. Residents commute by bike at 20 times the national average, and nearly one in 10 walk to work. As for the greenway, it has grown by an average of one mile of off-street path and two underpasses a year, even while maintaining the hallmarks of both an innovative transportation solution and an excellent city park.

The genesis of the 17-mile greenway system can be traced to the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who in 1910 warned of the dangers of channelizing Boulder Creek. Allowing the creek to occupy its natural floodplain was a “straightforward question of hydraulics and municipal common sense,” he said. A century later, the creek has developed into a downtown centerpiece: at once a popular route for commuters, a method for preserving cultural and environmental resources, and an area for outdoor recreation.

The greenway has a clear and comprehensive set of objectives, thereby fulfilling the first measure of an Excellent City Park System. Planners carved out niches for “passive recreation” so that in addition to rollerblading, cycling, and walking, it’s easy to find a place more suited to reading, observing wildlife, or wading in the stream. There are also adjacent areas for individual and team sports, outdoor programs, and general recreation.

The city enthusiastically promotes trail use through cycling events. Every June, Boulder celebrates Walk & Bike Month, consisting of 95 events and a Bike to Work Day attended by 5,000 cyclists this year. (Even Winter Bike to Work Day attracted 1,200 cyclists.) Two bike corrals recently replaced street parking in downtown, and a bike share program is in the works for 2011. Though spearheaded by the transportation department, these events increase the exposure and use of city parks. Similarly, the statistics tracked by the transportation department justify continued investment in park amenities along the greenway.

Perhaps more impressive than any single accomplishment is the way Boulder’s transportation planners, environmentalists, and park organizations work together for everyone. The budget is composed of equal contributions from lottery, flood control, and transit funds, and maintenance is performed by staff from the Parks, Forestry, Open Space, and Flood Utility departments. The bikeway even has a dedicated winter maintenance crew that can plow the entire network in 8 hours.   

Is Boulder with its college demographics a unique case? Evidently not. The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is another example of a hybrid trail-park which has successfully pursued transportation, recreation, and greening objectives in a dense and diverse area. The Midtown Greenway connects to parks via the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway (see Density Zoning / Midtown Greenway) and efforts are underway to add pocket parks and public performance spaces along the trail. Numerous other urban rail-trails, such as Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail and Washington, D.C.’s Capital Crescent Trail, serve similarly varied purposes and diverse populations.

Boulder’s greenway system can serve as a guide for those who seek to integrate form and function by creating attractive public spaces and minimizing car traffic simultaneously. Boulder demonstrates that a broad set of goals can spur productive cooperation, but it is apparent that clearly defined objectives and a commitment to measuring progress are a precondition for success.

One Response

  1. […] on the Network today: City Parks Blog outlines how Boulder, Colorado’s investment in bike-ped greenways, rather than road […]

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