Commutes in Northern Colorado are getting longer. Here’s why, and what it means for air quality.
In 2010, around 139,000 people drove to work in Larimer County, and around 109,000 did the same in Weld.
Of those, nearly 7% spent an hour or more commuting to work.
Less than a decade later, in 2019, there were 70,000 more people on the roads, and more of them were driving longer distances, according to data from the American Community Survey. The number of commuters driving an hour or more one way increased by more than 45%, and the consequence is more than just too much time in the car.
Scientists predict that if lengthy commuting continues to increase at the rate it has been, not only will the state of Colorado remain in violation of the Clean Air Act ozone standard and suffer other environmental consequences, but the air quality will continue to decrease, causing more people to suffer adverse health effects.
“The state is trying hard to get back under the Clean Air Act requirements, but they’re struggling because of the population growth and the conditions under which we’re living in Colorado,” said John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering and environmental health sciences at Colorado State University.
“It’s a complex, wicked problem,” he said. “It doesn’t have a simple solution.”
Economic development experts across Larimer and Weld counties said one of the main reasons for this increase is the fact that people are not living and working in the same places.
Census data showed that in 2018, 37.6% of workers lived and worked in Weld County, while 62.4% commuted out of the county. In Larimer County, 38.8% of workers commuted out.
And the commutes are increasingly longer.
In Grover and Keenesburg, around one in five people commute an hour or more each way. Other cities and towns with high percentages of commuters going 60 minutes or more are Lochbuie (16.4%), Nunn (14.4%), Berthoud (13.9%), Estes Park (13.7%) and Timnath (13.3%).
In just nine years, the percentage of cities and towns in Larimer and Weld counties with more than 10% of workers commuting at least an hour each way grew from 20% to 43%.
As commute times increase, air quality decreases
Vehicle emissions played no small role in the Denver metro and Front Range areas being in violation of the Clean Air Act ozone standards.
Jennifer Peel, an epidemiology professor at CSU who studies the health effects of air pollution, said many people don’t realize how serious the ozone problem is in the area.
“A lot of people think that we don’t have an air pollution problem in the region in the absence of wildfires, but we do,” she said. “And we have for a long time.”
In a 2020 report analyzing vehicle emissions and air quality, the state found “mixed results” and no significant improvement from past years. State documents cited the increasing population, noting “it is not surprising that the total mass of emissions increased.”
The report also found that statewide gasoline consumption increased, which is directly linked to an increase in emissions. The state said this can be explained by people driving more, people driving less-efficient cars or a combination of both.
A 2019 report on air quality from the city of Fort Collins found that transportation sources are the second largest contributor to “ozone causing pollutants” and the city’s greenhouse gas emission inventory.
“Our commuting problem is contributing to our ozone problem,” Volckens said.
In 2020, transportation became the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in Colorado, and nearly 60% of those emissions come from “light-duty vehicles,” meaning the everyday cars and trucks that Coloradans drive play a larger role in air quality and climate change than drivers may think.
When a gas-powered vehicle is driven an hour to work, fuel is burned to make the car travel. The burning fuel releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants — like particulate matter — into the environment, which negatively impacts air quality and contributes to climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns that breathing ozone pollutants like particulate matter, which can present as soot or black emissions from trucks, can be harmful to people with preexisting lung conditions and to children.
Peel said particulate matter, often tied to heart attacks, decreased lung function and premature death, is “one of the most harmful pollutants that we regulate in the US and worldwide.”
If lengthy commutes continue to increase, Volckens said the air pollution associated with vehicle emissions will worsen, as will the harmful impacts on human health and the climate.
“(Ozone and pollutants) are still causing people to die earlier than they should and impacting the health of our children, so if that’s not a good reason to make some change I’m not sure what is,” Peel said.
The Denver metro and Front Range areas have been deemed an ozone nonattainment area by the EPA on and off since 2007. The most recent deadline to improve and be reclassified as a lesser nonattainment area under the 2008 standard was on July 20, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website said it expects the area will be reclassified to a higher nonattainment area — “severe” — because of “high ozone levels recorded during July and August 2020.”
Peel said that while the country is doing much better with lowering ozone levels than it was decades ago, ozone in the Front Range “is pretty stubborn” and has not decreased much over the last 20 years.
The state health department maintains that air quality in Colorado is improving, “but not quickly enough to meet EPA’s lowering standards.”
Why are commutes getting longer?
Northern Colorado has seen rapid population growth over the past decade, and it’s not expected to stop anytime soon.
From 2010 to 2019, Larimer County saw its population increase by 19%, and Weld County saw an increase of nearly 30%. But as the population grows, communities are becoming more expensive.
In the past year, the median home price in Fort Collins increased by more than $66,000. These rising costs are quickly pricing people out of larger cities into smaller, more affordable towns benefiting from the growth.
Larry Kendall, founder of The Group Real Estate in Fort Collins, is known to have coined the term “drive until you qualify” back in the early 2000s.
Kendall said that in Northern Colorado, the farther people are willing to drive from where they want to be, the more they save. He estimated that people save between $5,000 and $10,000 for each minute they travel out of a larger city or hub.
“If they’re willing to drive 20 minutes, they can save $100,000 to $200,000, depending on which direction they drive,” said Kendall, who used the example of living in Wellington or Windsor rather than Fort Collins.
Kendall added that people may not be living in the same place they work as often now as in the past for another reason: a shift in priorities.
“Back in the day, people wanted to live as close as they could to work, probably number two was lifestyle … I think maybe that has flipped,” Kendall said. “Number one is lifestyle now and number two is proximity to work.”
Rich Warner, president of Upstate Colorado — an organization promoting economic development in Weld County — agreed that people sometimes take on long commutes as a trade-off for quality of life.
But he also said Northern Colorado’s growing population — combined with the housing options and costs — have kept the cycle Kendall described in operation.
Take Boulder and Longmont, for example, he said.
Many people who worked in Boulder couldn’t afford the average home price and began to move to Longmont but continued working in Boulder, Warner said, thus driving out of the city until they reached a place they could afford. Warner said this led to “amazing growth in Longmont,” which then caused those prices to rise and people to again be priced out, needing to drive farther into towns like Frederick and Firestone where they could afford to live, but often increasing a commute.
Warner said this cycle will likely continue as long as there are towns with the infrastructure and housing stock to handle the growth, but that it can’t go on forever.
“As Northern Colorado grows, we need to assess the need for additional infrastructure,” said Warner, specifically pointing to roads and different housing options.
Caryn Champine, the director of transportation, planning and development in Fort Collins, agreed that housing has played a role in the increased commute times. She said the biggest factor for more people commuting into Fort Collins is the city’s lack of access to housing choices and housing affordability.
“Maybe 20 to 30% of the household types are married families with children and there’s several other household types that may be looking for other housing options,” said Champine, who noted that the majority of Fort Collins’ current housing stock is single-family residential. The city is working to address this and provide more affordable housing and diverse housing options through its housing strategic plan, she said.
In addition to housing affordability and options, Champine said likely factors for the increase of commuters coming into Fort Collins is the growth of surrounding cities and there simply being more options and the rising cost of living in Fort Collins.
She said that while the city would “love to have more folks living and working within the community,” the Front Range is designed to promote commuting and the city is focused on encouraging people to shift how they commute rather than eliminating it completely.
“Being a regional hub for Northern Colorado, we expect to see commuting patterns the way that we do. We expect that people are going to commute in and probably some will continue to commute out, that’s all part of the dynamic of our city and where we’re located,” she said.
“But if we could commute smarter and do better for the climate and for the overall quality of life, then that’s the conversation we want to be in.”
Solutions require change at a levels
Experts agree that while making transportation a more environmentally friendly sector and combatting long commute times is no easy task, there are things that can and should be done at all levels.
In January, Colorado released its Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which included suggestions to reduce transportation emissions, including investing in electric vehicles when possible and offering incentives to local governments to provide access to housing near jobs, in turn reducing commute times.
The state also has a number of proposals that will soon be submitted to the Air Quality Control Commission, including implementing an emissions test with tighter requirements for motor vehicles. The proposed new program will be heard by the commission in August and would allow for earlier detection of vehicles that emit high amounts.
At the city and county levels, Warner said the best thing to reduce commute times is to provide diverse and affordable housing.
“Northern Colorado cannot survive on single-family residences alone, so there has to be a concentrated effort on housing affordability,” Warner said.
Champine said that, in addition to working on adding housing options, Fort Collins is in the process of transitioning its vehicle fleets to electric vehicles that will emit fewer greenhouse gases.
Currently, 12% of the city’s motor vehicles have been converted to either hybrid or electric vehicles.
When thinking of what people can do at the local and individual levels, it’s important to be realistic. Warner and Peel, the air quality scientist, agreed with Champine and said the Front Range is likely a place where commuting will continue to be necessary.
“How the Front Range is structured is you have to drive, you have to burn things either through industry, or through vehicles, they’re just part of our economy,” said Peel, adding the region’s setup is not “conducive to change.”
But there are smaller, reasonable ways individuals can make their commutes a bit greener while they wait for action at a higher level.
Peel, Volckens and Champine all encouraged people to shift their commutes in small ways at first as a way to break up the routine and test the waters of other, more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
“You don’t have to commit to changing your way of getting around every day for every trip, but just that subtle shift of, ‘maybe once a week I’ll take the bus to work’,” can be effective, Champine said.
She also recommended looking into regional buses and transportation methods that travel across the Front Range that the city is promoting in an effort to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles when commuting. In 2017, Champine said the city found between 70% and 80% of commuters were traveling alone.
Volckens and Peel also recommended electric cars, which have fewer emissions than cars that run on gasoline, but acknowledged electric vehicles alone won’t solve the problem. Volckens said that with an “aggressive push” toward electric vehicles, he believes they could become the norm in as little as 10 years.
Peel encouraged people to think twice before hopping in their cars for an errand a mile away and consider a different mode of transportation, or combining that trip with another.
“We only have so much control over the things around us and this is one of them,” said Peel. “Air pollution is the top environmental risk factor for disease and mortality worldwide.”
Here are some ways the EPA says you can help reduce air pollution:
Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This content was originally published here.