Construction equipment parked next to Bear Creek Park in Boulder, CO that will be used for the Lehigh Corridors project. Feb. 24, 2022. (Harry Fuller/The Boulder Reporting Lab)

In September 2020, Erika Vandenbrande took the helm of the city’s transportation department following a period of high staff turnover. She departs as a major shift in Boulder’s vision for transportation infrastructure gets underway. 

Earlier this month, the city announced Vandenbrande, who has nearly two decades of experience working in city government in Redmond, Washington, is leaving to take a job as the community development director for the City of Walnut Creek, California. She said she wants to be closer to her husband and her mother, whom she said needs her attention and care. Her last day is May 3. 

Vandenbrande is parting ways as the city gears up to make major investments in its cycling and pedestrian infrastructure along major thoroughfares like the Foothills Parkway, Broadway and 28th Street, where most of the city’s crashes happen, according to the city’s 2022 Safe Streets report. The emphasis on non-vehicle transportation is designed in part to slash planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from cars and reduce accidents involving drivers. 

The plan, known as the Core Arterial Network, was spearheaded by the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, a five-member volunteer board that advises the Boulder City Council on transportation issues and infrastructure investments. City Council this year appointed Triny Willerton, a cyclist who was almost killed in May 2018 when she was struck by a driver while training on Nelson Road and who has since founded the cycling safety advocacy group, It Could Be Me. It also appointed Rebecca Davies, the city ratings program director at the Boulder-based nonprofit cycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes

As the city prepares to implement its new vision for transportation infrastructure, the Boulder Reporting Lab spoke with Vandenbrande about her work for the city and her thoughts on where Boulder is heading. Her general message was that the city will need to make tradeoffs if it wants to follow through on its new transportation vision. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Erika Vandenbrande, the city’s director of transportation, is leaving her position on May 3 to take another city government job closer to her family in California. Credit: Erika Vandenbrande

It’s your last week on the job. How are you feeling? 

I think the word “bittersweet” is at the top of my mind. It’s exciting to be able to go to Walnut Creek and it’s exciting to be with my family. I’m going to miss my colleagues and I’ll miss the community and the council. It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my professional career. 

What was it like when you first stepped into the transportation department? The previous director left after six weeks. What was going on? 

I really can’t speak to others who came before me. I know that when I entered the city, there was a cultural shift and change that was being undertaken. And I had been a part of that change. There’s a whole new set of processes that we’ve put in place. We’ve increased efficiencies; we’ve also essentially leaned in on a very team-oriented approach to problem solving. And when I say “team,” it’s not just simply the internal city team, but our stakeholders and our partners. 

The city manager said you joined the department “at a time when this department was undergoing some cultural challenges” and that you are “leaving it with a much stronger foundation.” What changes did you make to the culture of the department? 

Traditionally, there has been a kind of top-down hierarchical approach. Both the city’s evolution — and certainly the department’s evolution — is to be more collaborative, to be more team-based, to focus on community engagement, and to really hone in on issues the community is facing. When I first arrived here at the City of Boulder, choices were often presented as either this or that. It couldn’t be something in between. People have expressed different wants and needs throughout the community. So it needs to become a choice of tradeoffs and priorities. 

What’s an example of a tradeoff the city has made?

There had been a significant effort to reduce speeds to 20 miles an hour [under the city’s 20 is Plenty program] as the base speed throughout the city unless otherwise posted. Resources had been identified to essentially do more neighborhood speed management projects. And we presented [ending that program] as the tradeoff that the council would need to make and the community would need to support if we were to go forward and make the investments in the CAN. Ultimately, that was the choice. And it was based on data where the majority of safety improvements are truly needed. 

[Editor’s note: This year, the city paused its program to install speed bumps on local streets in order to pay for investments in its high-traffic arterial streets. A March 2022 report found its 20 is Plenty program has not reduced speeding in a statistically significant way.]

Apart from the neighborhood speed management program, the idea behind CAN is to make the city’s streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. How do you feel about making these investments while also maintaining the city’s current roads and bridges, which were largely built with cars in mind? 

The community wants to be able to thrive as a bicycle-supportive and bicycle-oriented community. And I really appreciate that. That was one of the things that really attracted me to coming here to Boulder. But there is historic infrastructure we have to support — not only for the people who live in the city, but people who are traveling to the city, whether it is for work, recreation, shopping or coming here as a visitor. 

We’re at a pivot point. And anytime you are pivoting, there are tradeoffs. How many resources does the city commit to plowing roadways, repairing potholes and so forth, versus putting additional infrastructure out there that is both bicycle- and pedestrian-supportive? The reality is council sets the priority. It is the department’s responsibility to align toward that direction. Ultimately, it comes down to resources.

If your department had all the money you wanted, what would you like for Boulder’s transportation infrastructure? 

If we had all the money in the world, it wouldn’t just simply be for transportation, but housing — affordable housing. Stepping way back, Boulder is a highly desirable and a highly vibrant community. It takes a combination of having people who live, work, visit and go to school here. In the absence of being able to have affordable housing for people to be able to live here, we need to find ways to be able to ensure that people are able to access the community. 

It’s that holistic approach that allows us to thrive. And if people need to come in here [to work in] our restaurants, university, schools or the community, we need to recognize that those are needs also. The folks who plow our roadways in Boulder, the majority are not able to afford a home here. But they are core and critical to our quality of life and the quality of our roadways within the city. We need to ensure that they’re able to get here when we need them.

How do we do that? Is that an argument for keeping in place more car infrastructure? 

Quite simply, whenever we’re making these different tradeoffs, we need to make sure that we understand the implications. It may be a car, it may be a bus, it may be something else. But whatever that something else is, we need to recognize that if we solely make investments in a singular mode, it has ripple effects. If we were to invest solely in automobile infrastructure, that would be to the disadvantage of people wanting to take the bus, or bike, or walk. Conversely, if we do the opposite, it also has impacts. It’s not a judgment about whether things are good or bad. It’s just to recognize that there are tradeoffs. 

You’ve been outspoken about RTD’s proposed bus service cuts. What do you think about where things stand with our regional transit system? 

From a transit standpoint, with significant rollbacks that occurred within the RTD environment during Covid, we’re still in recovery mode. We’re going to be in that mode for many, many years to come. 

I have sympathy for the RTD and where their revenues are at, and their desire to be able to optimize services. But I also have even greater sympathy for our community. And so there’s the need to advocate for our service being brought back.

Some people have discussed finding alternatives to RTD. What ideas do you have about that? 

I honestly don’t know. And the reason why I say I don’t know is that there are all kinds of different models throughout the United States on how transit is or isn’t provided. One of the things the region is exploring is Front Range rail, and having Amtrak link up both Longmont and Boulder with the greater region. That’s an opportunity. 

What’s your parting message? 

I think people would benefit from realizing just how dedicated and how incredible the staff is at the City of Boulder, and how committed they are to the community. I think that goes unrecognized. The folks who help serve the community are part of the community. 

And the cost of contractor labor and materials have just skyrocketed during these past two years for a variety of different reasons. So, when people expect dramatic progress, the escalating cost of providing infrastructure improvements needs to be in the background. If I were to leave parting words for folks at the City of Boulder, it’s that this is a wonderful and great community. Working at the city has been an honor of a lifetime and it’s been one of my best professional experiences. And as we come out of Covid, I just really support the community caring for each other and being kind.

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.