A Tale of Two City Plans: Part Two


Boulder, Colorado – In this second part of a series comparing Missoula, Montana, and Boulder, Colorado, at least in terms of city planning and transportation, I again reference a unique article I uncovered written in the mid-1990s by a reporter for The Austin Chronicle.

Boulder sits at an elevation of 5,430 feet and about 25 miles northwest of Denver. In pocket of 30,000 acres of greenbelt, flanked on the west by the Flatirons and agricultural lands to the east – with Denver and Estes Park to the south and north, respectively – Boulder has been experiencing rapid growth for much longer than Missoula, and it has had more time to both learn from its mistakes and battle over-population.

Like Missoula, Boulder is a university town. CU-Boulder has a student enrollment of around 27,000 (undergraduates), and like Missoula, living in the U-district is expensive. In the 1990s, Boulder passed a cap on student population growth, allowing only a 1,500-student increase over ten years.

This cap was reminiscent of a similar move Boulder made two decades earlier, when in 1976 the city capped residential construction growth to 2% a year over existing housing stock.

Thinking that limiting growth and construction would also reduce population growth, it had a reverse effect that did two things: 1) prices for housing skyrocketed and 2) it made Boulder a more popular place to live because it was so “limited” (but only for those who could afford it – like displaced Denverites and Californians).

With Boulder’s existing “blue line” limitation on building any structure taller than 6,000 feet elevation (remember, Boulder’s at 5,430), so roughly three stories tall (though it has allowed some five-story buildings, which is the max height of a firetruck ladder), in order for the city to grow, it had to consider building out, covering more ground. The thought city planners had behind limiting upwards growth is that higher density housing would actually make traffic conditions worse since more drivers are coming and going from a single building. If all those people came into Boulder from different areas, it wouldn’t be as congested. However, this also created a need to mitigate traffic-induced pollution caused by drivers having to travel longer distances to/from work.

Part of the answer came from building extensive networks of ped/bike trails and lanes throughout and surrounding the city. In fact, Boulder currently has approximately .5 mile of trail or bike lane for every mile of roadway (which equates to more than 300 city miles!). This is something I wish Missoula would attempt to replicate. Boulder continues to add about one mile of off-street path and half-mile of on-street designation for cyclists per year, as it has done steadily since 1989.

Boulder also has a strong dedication to public transportation. Its bus system, GO Boulder, operates seven days a week, with buses running from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends.

What has been clear to me is that Boulder is not afraid to try new things and city planners work to understand solutions to growth issues. Missoula shares some of this same sense of adventure, but it is clear that both Boulder and Missoula can continue to learn from each other. Who knows, maybe it’s time for The Austin Chronicle to write a follow-up story now that 15 years have gone by.

Tell us, in your travels, what city have you visited (either U.S. or abroad) that most reminded you of Missoula? Why?

Click here to see Ryan’s blog archive.


Ryan Newhouse has pedaled through thousands of miles of Missoula’s streets and trails as a commuter, long-distance cyclist, recreationist and former city bicycling ambassador. Although he now works from home, he still uses two feet or two wheels to push or pull himself and his daughter around town.  Back to “Bike It” home page or check out Ryan’s own blog.