Boulder County officials are moving ahead with plans to build a bike path from North Boulder to Lyons along U.S. 36, one of the county’s most popular — and dangerous — highways for cyclists.
Cyclists 4 Community, a nonprofit cycling advocacy organization based in Boulder, presented the county with a $30,000 check last week to help pay for a feasibility study to determine what the bike path would look like and how much it would cost.
County officials said the money will help show support from the cycling community if it later applies for additional federal grant money to design and build the path.
“This $30,000 is really going to help us get this thing off the ground,” County Commissioner Claire Levy told the crowd gathered outside Amante Coffee in North Boulder on Wednesday, as dozens of cyclists returned from the weekly Wednesday Morning Velo group ride for coffee and muffins.
“It might seem like a small amount of money because it is going to be a huge project,” Levy added. “But what we are really good at doing in Boulder County, with your help, is taking this money and matching it with other money that we have and going to the state and federal government and saying, ‘look at this community support for this project, how about you guys give us some money too?’”
The idea is to build a hard-surfaced, multi-use path from Boulder to Lyons that runs parallel to the North Foothills Highway, mostly within the existing state right-of-way. County officials said the feasibility study could be completed in 2024. Planning and construction would take several more years. In the coming weeks, the county plans to put out a request for proposals for the study.
For years, the county has faced persistent pressure from Boulder cyclists — many of whom use the road to connect to Lefthand Canyon, another popular cycling route heading into the foothills of the Rockies — to create a path to help cyclists avoid one of the county’s most dangerous highways.
Since 2010, the county has recorded more than 120 crashes involving cyclists and drivers along the segment of U.S. 36 stretching from Baseline Road in Boulder north to Lyons, according to county data.
It’s also the deadliest. Between 2005 and 2016, seven cyclists died riding U.S. 36, mostly along the North Foothills Highway. No other county road had more fatal crashes involving cyclists and drivers during that time.
In October 2014, Adelaide Perr was training for a triathlon on U.S. 36 near Lyons when a driver pulled out in front of her. She struck the driver-side door, shattering the window.
“I didn’t have time to stop,” Perr said in an interview. “The only thing I remember is being lifted into an ambulance and hearing that my face was peeled off.”
She broke several bones in her face — including her jaw — lost teeth, and tore open the side of her face. She was in the intensive care unit for nearly two weeks. She has since returned to racing triathlons.
County data indicates one of the fatal accidents on U.S. 36 involved a driver falling asleep. Others involved drivers making left turns. One accident involved a person later charged for driving under the influence of alcohol. According to a 2021 county crash report, most serious cycling crashes are the result of drivers hitting them.
This is the primary reason Cyclists 4 Community started raising money for the separated bike path along the highway. It’s unusual for a nonprofit to provide money to a local government for such a project.
“People were getting hit and killed,” Matt Muir, the operations manager for Cyclists 4 Community, said during the announcement in North Boulder on Wednesday. “We’re gonna help because we want it so badly. We’ll essentially tax ourselves to incentivize the completion of this project.”
In September 2021, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), a regional planning agency governed by local elected officials, including Boulder Councilmember Nicole Speer, awarded the county a federal grant to help pay for a $400,0000 feasibility study. The federal grant totaled about $331,100. The $30,000 raised by Cyclists 4 Community will help cover the county’s share of the local match, about $69,000.
Despite following the highway corridor, the project is complicated. The county plans to map out the best path that follows the Colorado Department of Transportation right-of-way, avoiding private land and City of Boulder open space as much as possible. Given that the project is intended for recreational cyclists, county officials want it to be relatively straight and fast, without awkward intersections and stop signs.
“It looks like a straight line on the map. But the topography is very challenging and the right-of-way is not very large,” said Alexandra Phillips, a Boulder County bike planner working on the project.
Phillips said the more complicated the project is, the more time and money it will take to build.
‘It’s a big idea’
In Boulder County, a popular destination for recreational cyclists and bike commuters, U.S. 36 is just one of many busy roads with a high number of cycling crashes resulting in an injury.
Since 2010, the county has recorded 117 crashes between drivers and cyclists along State Highway 7, which includes Arapahoe Ave. from Boulder east to Lafayette. In June 2022, a 50-year-old cyclist was killed when he was struck by a driver along this road. The state is in the process of planning a redesign that could include making it safer. And in the coming weeks, the county is planning to publish a report making recommendations on how to improve the road for cyclists and pedestrians.
Highway 119, known as the Diagonal Highway, has had 61 cycling crashes since 2010. In October 2021, a 63-year-old cyclist crossing the highway was struck by a driver and killed. The county is planning to build a 12-foot-wide, concrete bikeway down the center of the highway from Boulder to Longmont. A final blueprint for the estimated $54 million bike path is expected in 2023.
Overall, the number of accidents along U.S. 36 have tapered off in recent years, likely due to a drop in ridership. According to state data, in 2013, nearly 800 cyclists would ride the highway on any given day in June, the peak riding month. In 2021, that number dropped to about 300 daily cyclists.
Many cyclists avoid the highway by wending their way through dirt roads to the east of the highway. Others drive their cars to Lefthand Canyon and park along the side of the road.
The county is trying to eliminate car commuting as part of its broader goal to reduce planet-warming and ozone-forming vehicle tailpipe emissions. The county is seeking to pass a ballot measure this November that would extend a .1% sales tax, which is slated to expire in 2024, to pay for several projects that would make it easier for people to walk, bike and take the bus around the county.
After the 2014 crash, Perr helped pass a 2019 driver accountability law and wrote a book about the incident. Despite her injuries and trauma, she said the greatest injustice was that the driver kept his license and she had to buy a car. She previously did not own a car and commuted by bike, she said.
“That, to me, is just insanity,” she said. “I think Boulder is in an unfortunate place where there have been a lot of these crashes and it has sent more people to their cars.”
She said she is not involved in advocating for the U.S. 36 bike path. While she would like the roads to feel safer to cyclists (rather than moving cyclists off the roads), she acknowledges it’s a losing battle. Apart from making cycling in Boulder safer, she hopes the Lyons-to-Boulder bike path prompts new ways of thinking about transportation infrastructure.
“It’s a big idea,” Perr said. “And those big ideas are sometimes the ones that culturally shift what’s possible.”