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End of the Road: Solving Colorado’s Climate Threats by Leaving Cars Behind


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by Garrett Looker

Two years ago, as the world began to change and the COVID-19 pandemic circled the globe, Heidi Leathwood began to change her personal world. With the ideas of sustainability, environmental protection, and a greener future, Leathwood found herself altering what many consider to be a vital part of life. She stopped driving—completely. 

In those two years, Leathwood has continued to put down miles behind her, whether by foot or by bike. For further stretches, such as visiting her mother, Leathwood has been unshaken, relying on public transportation for longer distances. 

Leathwood, a climate policy analyst with 350 Colorado, and others know the concept of transportation is inherently intertwined with renewable energy and sustainability, and it is one that is specifically outlined in the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, a plan created following HB19-1261, the climate action plan to reduce pollution. As dictated in that bill, the Colorado General Assembly put into motion plans to reduce 2025 greenhouse gas pollution by at least 26% compared to 2005 levels. The bill also states that levels must be lowered 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. 

Political action such as this suggests Colorado presents itself as a forward-thinking state that values supporting and safeguarding vital ecosystems. However, the latest 2020 Eco-Cycle and Colorado Public Interest Research Group report found Colorado is not meeting its recycling and composting goals and “remains one of the 20 most wasteful states.” Moreover, Colorado has continuously endorsed and funded environmentally integrated bicycle and pedestrian greenways but continues to allocate major portions of transportation funding to highway renewal and expansion. Colorado is adept at cultivating ecological literacy and promoting eco-friendly lifestyles overall, but the Centennial State merely models the skills to be environmentally conscious. Contributing to the comprehensive reduction of climate change is an area in which the state of Colorado falls short.

In a 2021 study, Colorado ranked No. 9 in eco-friendly behaviors but No. 25 as a climate-change contributor (Wallet Hub).

This begs the question, how can Colorado effect measurable change and significantly decrease its overall contribution to climate change? While Boulder and Denver are examples in creating greenways and bike paths, both cities lack a number of walkable neighborhoods—Boulder maintains a median Walk Score of 56, and Denver has an average Walk Score of 61. Walk Score is an online website that rates and scores neighborhoods and cities across America on walkability. These two cities are ranked in the middle tier of scoring at “somewhat walkable.” Compared to a car-dependent community, a walkable neighborhood diminishes greenhouse gas emissions by four tons yearly. Colorado’s environmental goals could be met by generating walkable neighborhoods throughout its more sizable cities, yet it has largely failed to do so. Solutions to create more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods may be on the horizon.

The issue of climate change is rooted in the very idea of who American citizens are and specifically, what they drive, Molly McKinley, policy director of Denver Streets Partnership claims. 

“It’s something I think about all the time,” McKinley said. “We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t make the critical change that we need to. We really need to make a fundamental shift in how we move around our communities if we’re going to meet these goals.”

The fight against climate change and achieving the goals set out in Colorado’s roadmap can only be won by drastically altering the standard way of living and traveling, according to Rachel Hultin of Bicycle Colorado

“To me, when you get people out of cars and walking and biking in their communities, you’re making communities better today,” Hultin said. “But what you’re really doing is making the investment for future generations.”

To Hultin, community is tied to how individuals feel about their place—and specifically, how dedicated they feel to making it better.

For her, once people step out from behind the wheel of their car, they become closer to the lives around them. 

“Community—it’s a group of people who feel connected by place,” Hultin continued. “And they may or may not know who’s in their community, but the connection to place connects them. And transportation is inherently connected to place. When you get out of your car and you don’t have a windshield, and whether you’re walking or riding a bike, you have a more sensory experience, and your brain actually processes your experience in a more humanized way.”

Acknowledging that fossil fuels are an antiquated energy source, America has seen a significant shift in the development of electric vehicles across the country. On the national front, Ford Motors recently announced plans to reorganize its manufacturing divisions with Ford Blue, which creates the traditional internal combustion engine, and Ford Model E, which develops battery electric vehicles. John Deere has obtained a majority interest in Kreisel Electric, Inc., an Austrian company specializing in renewable battery energy. Colorado’s own Governor Jared Polis has continued to assert his commitment to a goal of 940,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there are approximately 49,271 electric vehicles registered in the state currently. 

The state’s pollution reduction roadmap will focus on encouraging Coloradans to turn to electric vehicles as well as electrifying city and state vehicle fleets. Efforts such as this are to continue past the 2025 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26%. So much so, by 2050, the roadmap plans to have approximately 100% of all vehicles on Colorado streets be electric. In March 2022, Colorado released plans to introduce all-electric, 18-wheeler trucks to the streets of Denver. This effort pairs with Governor Polis’ encouragement for his constituents to purchase electric vehicles.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the state’s “Clean Truck Strategy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by at least 45% in Colorado by 2050.”

However, “They just now kicked the Clean Trucks rule-making into 2023 when it was originally for 2022,” Leathwood said. 

More action and comprehensive planning is to come, according to Timothy Hoover, Colorado Department of Transportation communications integration lead, but he cautioned that this is still in the early stages. 

As of Jan. 2022, the United States has almost 113,600 charging outlets for plug-in electric vehicles.

There are three levels of electric charging stations. Level 1, chiefly for home use; Level 2, private and public usage at no charge to the public; and Level 3, direct current fast charge, which can replenish an electric vehicle battery in an hour or less at a cost to the car owner. The Colorado Energy Office fast-charging electric vehicle corridors project comprises 34 fast-charging stations across the state. Remarkably, 20 Level 2 electric vehicle chargers will be installed at state parks by the end of summer 2022, allowing visitors to the state of Colorado easier access to charging stations. While the addition of these charging stations is a step forward in promoting eco-friendly tourism, the move primarily aids affluent tourists to the state. The social disparity of ease of access to charging stations remains a hurdle for most Coloradans.  

“The National EV Charging Infrastructure program is a new formula funding source from the federal government to support the construction of a national network of 500,000 EV chargers along major interstates and highways,” Hoover said. “It’s one portion of part of the broader Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act signed by the President back in November. The goal is to allow for seamless EV travel across the entire country, leading to greater adoption beyond urban areas.” Hoover also stated that Colorado would receive an estimated $57 million in NEVI funds over the next five years.

The inconvenient truth that Hultin and others may subscribe to is that Coloradans, and most Americans, for that matter, can no longer rely on the most dominant mode of transportation of the last century if they are to reverse the trajectory of climate change.

Simply put, local activists believe the automobile—regardless if it is gasoline-powered or the more modern electric vehicle—is a form of transportation stuck in a bygone era. If Coloradans are to achieve a renewable and sustainable future, and if the state is to meet the goals of reducing emissions proposed by elected officials, these activists believe communities must embrace more modest modes of transportation, such as biking and public transportation.

“It’s not new age,” Hultin said. “If you look at transportation planning documents, for decades, what you hear from people when they do community input is ‘We want more access to more biking, walking, and transit.’”

“So communities have been asking for it for a long time. Bicycle Colorado is specifically working with elected officials across the Front Range to help people who are already elected and have a disproportionate influence over project selection and funding. We’re trying to activate those local leaders who actually know from their neighbors what their needs are and getting those local leaders to actually take action with their regional transportation.”

More than incremental numbers on a politician’s spreadsheet or the percentages that define Colorado’s waning dependency on coal, it is not only about meeting those goals, Hultin said. The uphill fight against climate change is an even more personal journey, one that Hultin believes is all about the speed at which we live our lives.  

McKinley believes the future of sustainability and renewable energy must come with a transition of mind and community. Without it, Colorado’s goals will not be met. 

“I think a lot about the concept of your car being freedom,” McKinley said. “If I’m driving, and I find myself on I-25 at rush hour, I just think about how people think that that’s freedom. It’s mind-blowing to me, and a lot of it comes down to, I think, imagination. We’re so caught up in our lives and moving so fast that we don’t take a second to say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ It’s slowing down that imagination to see that things can be different.”

There is a gaping disconnect between what constituents believe and what they do, McKinley said. In reality, she said, people don’t truly want to change. “That’s going to be our downfall. We’re talking the big talk, but we’re not doing the big do.”

Aside from transitioning to biking and public transit options, according to Leathwood and McKinley, electric vehicles may not even be as green as climate-minded drivers would hope.

Depending on where a Coloradan may be plugging in their electric vehicle, there is a potential they are still contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Colorado still pulls more than 70% of its energy from greenhouse gas-emitting sources such as coal and natural gas.

Conversely, energy from renewable sources have been growing over the last decade, specifically driven from solar and wind from the eastern half of the state. 

“I don’t know if I can put it into those terms, but we have far too many fossil fuel-fired plants,” Leathwood said. 

Data published by the EIA indicates that Colorado’s electricity is produced by four primary sources: coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, and non-hydroelectric renewable sources. Coal and natural gas account for 40.77% and 23.57% of Colorado’s electricity, respectively.

One innovative and measurable way that Colorado could potentially significantly reduce its carbon footprint is by continuing to build upon and encourage its relationship with Swisspod Technologies. The Switzerland-based transportation system currently uses its hyperloop model to transfer cargo or up to 30 passengers through a vacuum-sealed tube, reaching supersonic speeds in minutes with a carbon-neutral propulsion system. Swisspod has begun building a full-scale prototype for the hyperloop facility in Pueblo, Colorado. The company plans an hour-long test on the prototype in late summer 2022. The hyperloop prototype will measure energy consumption, carbon footprints, and speed.

There are already examples of the new age to be found across Colorado’s Front Range. Boulder, a city of more than 106,000, has led the charge on renewable, solar energy.

According to the City of Boulder Climate Initiatives spokesperson Emily Sandoval, there has been a concerted effort to equip city-owned buildings with solar panels. As reported by the city’s website, solar panels can be found on top of the visitor’s center, parking garages, city fire departments, and more.

The effort of electrifying Boulder via solar power is nearing capacity of city-owned land. The next step, according to Sandoval, is crucial in continuing the commitments to reducing greenhouse gases—encouraging private citizens to install solar panels on their properties. 

“We talk about resilience,” Sandoval said. “The thing I’m talking about here is combining all these technologies, leveraging them to their fullest extent possible, rethinking a bit of how we manage the grid. What you might have thought was out of reach a couple of years ago might be in reach now.” 

However, Sandoval suggested that the reality of climate protection may be different for individuals who live in Boulder, a place she jokingly estimated may have the most ecologists per capita in the world, compared to the rest of Colorado that is more dependent on coal and natural gas. 

Sandoval’s sentiment echoed a similar one of Hultin’s, who believes the fight against climate change is just that—not a fight against gridlocked politics, but a cohesive, persistent battle, with which citizens and government agencies are aligned.

“We’re not fighting anything right now,” Hultin said. “There’s a new status quo around the expectation for how transportation investments are actually addressing our current needs and preventing tomorrow’s problems. What we’ve really been a part of the last several decades is a very, very car-centric transportation planning process, in which projects that have been identified are from the get-go created around the idea that we need to increase efficiency for cars to move quickly through corridors.”

The complex issues that Coloradans face require complex and comprehensive solutions—solutions that address the intersectionality of communities, activists say.

30Pearl, a neighborhood project in the city of Boulder, is one example of a new approach that considers multiple levels of community that need to be addressed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. From considerations of walking and biking to where people live and work, 30Pearl promises to introduce diversified zoning in a pedestrian-centric neighborhood.

“Boulder has an extensive network of multimodal infrastructure that makes it easier to choose non-vehicular forms of travel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Samantha Glavin of the Boulder Communication and Engagement Department. “We have more than 300 miles of bikeways, including 73 miles of multi-use paths separated from streets and nearly 90 bicycle and pedestrian underpasses that allow bicyclists and pedestrians to cross busy streets without having to travel alongside car traffic. But we recognize that there’s even more work to be done. For people to choose walking, biking, or taking the bus instead of driving, those options have to be just as convenient as driving. This means having safe and easily accessible bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure located near where people live and work and that connects them with their daily destinations.”

Hultin circled back:

All in all, a greener future must be a slower future.

For 10 years now, she has dedicated her life to educating others on the benefits of bicycling and attempting to improve her community. After all, she is the mayor pro tem of Wheat Ridge. The true meaning of a slower life came to her when she realized her son could easily be hurt, or even killed, in a moment’s notice from an automobile. 

Because of this, communities must slow themselves down, Hultin believes, and when people slow down they begin to develop a stewardship for their place.

“Human nature, it develops a sense of accountability,” Hultin said. “When you experience your built environment, or you experience your community or place, through the human experience of not being in a car, it develops a sense of accountability.”

According to Hultin, once that happens, maybe people will begin to see all the good they can do, and all the change they can make in their world. 

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