Temporarily blocked by traffic in the Maroon Creek roundabout, a school bus stops en route to the Aspen schools on a recent morning. Credit: Bob Ward/Aspen Journalism

Every fall, traffic patterns change at the Maroon Creek roundabout, as local parents drive their children to school.

It’s a familiar phenomenon to local commuters. Though summer is over and tourist traffic is on the wane, a concentrated, early-morning jam often occurs at the Maroon Creek roundabout. Between 7:30 and 8 a.m., the roundabout can clog up, sometimes bumper to bumper, with vehicles heading for the schools complex on Maroon Creek Road.

Most of the cars leave Aspen over the Castle Creek bridge, then travel three-quarters of the way around the roundabout, exiting at Maroon Creek. Roundabouts are supposed to be fluid, ever-moving conduits for automobiles, but not when the vehicles in the circle won’t allow others to merge.

“What happens is the traffic coming from town has the right of way in the roundabout,” said John Krueger, transportation director for the city of Aspen. “The traffic coming into town has to wait for the roundabout to clear.”

As the roundabout clogs, cars and trucks back up on eastbound Highway 82. Under normal circumstances the backups are brief, but a steady parade of school-bound SUVs can effectively block the highway and create gridlock that stretches downvalley to Buttermilk.

The arrival of September means relief from summer’s tourist-related congestion, but school traffic adds a unique wrinkle to the morning commute.

“It’s a good thing we don’t have summer school here,” Krueger joked.

It’s easy to blame the Aspen School District for this problem, and Pitkin County commissioners raised the topic at a recent meeting with school officials. The traffic is, after all, school-generated.

But Fred Brooks, transportation director for the district, says between 1,000 and 1,100 of the district’s 1,700 students are already riding his yellow buses to school every day.

Nationwide, according to School Transportation News, approximately 53 percent of all K-12 students ride school buses. The Aspen district is busing roughly two thirds of its students, which puts it well above average. And there’s only so much the district can do. School is compulsory, but bus ridership isn’t.

“It’s mostly elementary-age kids and their parents want to bring them in,” Brooks said. “I understand that.”

On a recent Wednesday, as the sun rose over Smuggler Mountain and various yellow school buses waited their turn to enter the roundabout, numerous kids could be seen on the bike trails approaching the campus. Some older kids, presumably high-schoolers, could be seen on approaching RFTA buses.

Still, with roughly a third of the student population arriving every day in private automobiles, district officials think there’s room for improvement. The traffic congestion is one problem; safety in the crowded school dropoff areas is another.

Human Resources Director Ginny Haberman admits that she was a die-hard drive-to-school mom when her kids were younger, but she has seen what happens when too many parents absent-mindedly haul their kids to school.

“I see those long lines of cars and I wonder if there’s been any change at all,” said Haberman, who now rides a RFTA bus to work.

But the potential for a parking-lot mishap may be a bigger issue.

“Cars entering and leaving the parking lots while children are being delivered to school require monitoring and a good deal of manpower to prevent problems,” she added.

Leaving the schools on a recent afternoon, a school bus competes for space on Maroon Creek Road. Aspen School District officials are trying to reduce school-related traffic by coaxing families to use the bus. Credit: Christina Capasso/The Aspen Times

Changing minds

Some things have changed in recent years as the district has worked with the city of Aspen’s Transportation Options Program (TOPs) on traffic-reduction strategies.

For example, in an initiative started about eight years ago, some 40 district staff members ride to work in a bus driven by middle school teacher Clay Shiflet. The idea at first was to demonstrate good commuting habits for students, but the faculty members liked it and the idea stuck.

The next step, of course, is persuading families to get out of their cars. The schools have created rewards programs to recognize the classrooms with the best commuting habits, using incentives like pizza parties, smoothie parties and movie tickets. It’s difficult, however, to measure the exact impact of these programs on ridership.

A video describing the benefits of bus-riding and bike-riding to school will hit the district’s website in October, and Haberman expects some teachers to show it in their classes as well.

Haberman knows the bus won’t work for all families and all situations. She hopes that, by educating students about the traffic, pollution and other side effects of driving, that they’ll ride a bus or bike to school at least some of the time.

“If they can’t do it, that’s OK,” she said. “When they go places on the weekend, maybe they can ride a bike. At least they understand the importance of doing it.”

Crowding in Snowmass

Of course, it’s possible for the bus to become too popular, as it seemingly has in Snowmass Village.

Transportation Director Fred Brooks presently runs three bus routes in Snowmass Village, but this fall those vehicles are “maxed out” and he plans to add a fourth. Brooks said he now carries about 195 students from the Brush Creek-Snowmass area, slightly less than a fifth of his overall ridership.

“Snowmass has grown like crazy in the last few years,” Brooks said. “It surprised me how many kids are out there.”

Brooks hopes to have another bus and driver rolling in early October, but it takes time to notify parents and move students from one bus to another. It also takes money.

Kate Fuentes, chief financial officer for the district, says every new bus route is different, based on the driver, the mileage and other factors. She estimates a new Snowmass Village route will cost about $20,000, and the state of Colorado covers roughly 20 percent of the tab for the district’s transportation program.