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No more driving to work? That's what Colorado's top air quality experts are suggesting

State aims to cut single-occupancy car trips
Colorado skyline
Posted at 5:19 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-11 08:26:47-04

DENVER — We all remember what Colorado roads were like before the pandemic.

“A lot of traffic,” said commuter Kerry McClain. “My commute is always total gridlock.”

It’s one thing we collectively don’t miss about our pre-pandemic world.

“Coming in late because they got in an accident or because there’s a traffic jam,” said Sara Jackson Shumate.

What we’ve learned about work since the pandemic began is perhaps the silver-lining of COVID-19.

“In some jobs, you can work from anywhere,” said commuter Curtis Pedersen.

Now the state of Colorado’s top air quality leaders are hoping to capitalize on the work-from-anywhere trend.

“To improve air quality by reducing emissions associated with commuter transportation,” said Clay Clark, supervisor of the climate change unit with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“It’s a beautiful state. I’d hate to ruin it with emissions,” said Colin, who works multiple jobs in the service industry.

The state’s bold, new and controversial plan is called the Employee Traffic Reduction Program or ETRP, which would require employers with more than 100 employees to come up with alternatives on how to get to work.

“It could be van-pooling, shuttles, passes for public transportation,” Clark said. “Get the workers out of their single occupancy vehicles, hopefully.”

We’re taking ETRP for a 360 spin with a growth and geography expert who’s approaching it with caution, a county commissioner who’s pumping the brakes, a Colorado company that sees momentum behind the movement and we start with more from the state’s top air quality guy.

Clark believes companies could offer their employees incentives like ride-sharing services, bus and train passes, as well as showers and lockers for those who bike, run or walk to work.

“We intend to be flexible and versatile in what really works best for those employers, organizations and companies,” Clark said.

ETRP would make it mandatory for companies to come up with a plan, but not mandatory for employees to follow it.

“If the employees choose not to utilize those options, the employer is not penalized for that,” Clark said.

Colorado believes it could have a huge impact.

“We could achieve 750,000 tons per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025,” Clark said.

That’s the equivalent of taking 187,000 cars off Colorado roads.

“We’ve learned that you can be remote at least some of the time,” said Brent Smith, vice president of marketing for Nutrien, an agricultural solutions company with 700 employees in Loveland.

Smith says they are willing to give ETRP a go.

“First of all, I don’t feel like we’re being told to do anything,” Smith said. “I feel like this is a collaboration.”

The company has more than 25,000 employees worldwide.

“We’ll sell crop protection, fertilizer, seed,” Smith said. “So, all the inputs to grow a crop.”

One challenge of the ETRP program for Nutrien would be location. Most of their employees work at their Loveland campus.

“Public transportation here isn’t what it is in Denver,” Smith said.

Yet, he says, the attitude here is – it’s worth a shot.

“Seems like a pretty darn good place to start,” Smith said. “We should be challenging governments and governments should be challenging companies on what we’re going to do to impact our environment and our climate, positively.”

The company has already committed to a 30% reduction in its own greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2030.

“We’re supportive of anything that’s helping to improve the environment and climate,” Smith said.

Weld County commissioner Scott James isn’t as revved up about it.

“I understand what they’re trying to do,” James said. “There’s a couple problems I have with it.”

James says why not start with a voluntary program and work from there?

“Why are we immediately going to the stick when we can first try the carrots?” James said. “They’re immediately going with a mandated and a forced program. Let’s first try to incentivize businesses”

James says what works for Denver doesn’t always work well for others.

“There’s not always transit available in northern Colorado,” James said. “To me – it shows one of those urban/rural disconnects – a problem that I think plagues the state of Colorado right now. Agricultural processing is not a work-from-home type situation. To run a JBS plant, to run a produce plant – you need a centralized factory that accommodates a lot of workers who drive to work.”

And James says this could widen the equity gap.

“If they truly had equity in mind, it seems to me there will be an equity punishment if there is the implementation of a mandatory ETRP program,” James said.

Some experts agree it might be a bridge too far when it comes to equity and underserved communities.

“You don’t want them to have the burden of any costs,” said Dr. Jackson Shumate who teaches geography at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Jackson Shumate says although ETRP is a good idea in theory, it could further disadvantage those working multiple jobs.

“You may need a car depending on where your jobs are and where school is and where your family is,” Jackson Shumate said. “That’s not really realistic in our layout of the city - that urban pattern doesn’t support that kind of movement. We build our cities for cars and not for people.”

Jackson Shumate says it’s a difficult thing to change, especially in cities with more sprawl.

“We’ve been building highways here since the 1950’s at least,” she said. “And so – we have this infrastructure that’s really hard to change.”

Massive construction projects like the Central 70 expansion are adding even more lanes.

Jackson Shumate says if we really want to be bold, perhaps we should consider long-term city planning and wage inequality.

“Actually tackling wage inequality and socioeconomic inequalities would have a huge impact,” Jackson Shumate said.

Others have tried programs similar to ETRP, including Washington state, Oregon, Boston, Massachusetts and Durham, N.C.

“If you look at other cities that have introduced these kinds of employer-based measures, it’s been pretty mixed,” Jackson Shumate said.

“So, there’s a lot of success stories out there with these types of programs,” Clark said.

Whether ETRP can break up the gridlock in politics and on Colorado roads remains debatable.

“I think it’s unrealistic,” Jackson Shumate said.

“You have to start somewhere,” Smith said.

“It’s not just ETRP, it’s the continual mandate,” James said.

“We all deserve to breathe clean air and this is a strategy to help us get there,” Clark said.

if you want to hear more about the ETRP program and get more in-depth on this story with reporter Russell Haythorn, you can listen to his interview with Traffic Anchor Jayson Luber on his Driving You Crazy podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.