Our local paper is running a series about 'The Truth About Cars and Trucks'.
What started off as a discussion of alternative fuels is moving into
car-sharing, public transit and anti-sprawl measures.
Today's feature, 'How the continent's best transit works', is below:
How the continent's best transit works
A maverick city bus manager decided to do what virtually no other transit
agency has done in North America: Ask riders what they want, then deliver
it. The results are astounding. Paul McKay reports.
The Ottawa Citizen
(Go Boulder: city of Boulder)
LEAP: The Pearl Street Leap, which runs from 6th to 55th streets in Boulder,
averages 471 passenger trips per weekday and shows a 285 per cent increase
in ridership over its predecessor, the Route 200.
JUMP: The Arapahoe Jump, which connects Boulder and Lafayette, has shown a
45 per cent increase in average weekday ridership over the former service in
February 2000. The route provides over 1,600 passenger trips per day.
BOUND: The 30th Street Bound, providing service along 30th Street in
Boulder, has increased in ridership 63 per cent from February 2000 to
February 2001, with an average of 1,329 boardings per weekday.
HOP: The Hop is a circulator shuttle that makes a loop through central
Boulder, with stops in the Crossroads, Pearl Street and University areas.
SKIP: Travelling north-south across Boulder, the Skip runs along Broadway
from Lee Hill Road to Greenbriar and through the west Table Mesa
neighbourhood, seven days a week.
(City of Boulder's transit routes)
David Zalubowski, The Ottawa Citizen / Bob Whitson, Go Boulder's senior
transit planner: 'Here we ask people -- in their homes, schools, where they
work, at the gym -- what they want. We listen very carefully, then go out
and try to get it for them.'
BOULDER, Colorado - What taxpayer-funded product usually arrives on time,
but is empty so often it burns money for nothing?
That would be the diesel-belching, 12-metre "loser cruiser" that lumbers --
by the relentless hour, day, week, month and year -- through the suburbs of
Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto, Denver, Dallas and hundreds of other North
Most of the time, they chug past bus stops where few passengers get on or
In cities such as Ottawa and Vancouver, public transit accounts for only 15
per cent of rush-hour passenger trips. In outlying cities like Cumberland or
Coquitlam, peak bus ridership is a dismal five per cent of passenger trips.
Outside of rush hour, riders are so scarce they drop off the radar screen of
transit agencies apparently resigned to running buses at a huge loss.
It's no secret where those missing riders are: Usually driving alone, in the
cars that are clogging every major city on the continent. They may not know
it, but those solo drivers are paying for the worst of both worlds.
Out of one pocket, they annually pay an average of $9,000 to own, operate
and maintain private vehicles that are besieged by gridlock. The No. 1
cause? Other solo drivers.
From the other pocket, their taxes help pay for city transit agencies that
own, operate and maintain the 20-tonne buses often carrying little more than
the bus driver and air. Perversely, in the rare times these buses are full,
they are often brought to a halt by commuter cars carrying those who
Empty buses. Empty cars. Overloaded roads. Paying twice for less and less
mobility. Has no one found a way out of this mess?
Yes. One of them would be Bob Whitson, an engineer with a Texas twang and
wry wit who heads up what could be the most successful city transit system
on the continent.
He works for the city of Boulder, an hour's drive northwest of Denver, where
100,000 residents live, study and work in the spectacular shadow of the
Colorado Rockies. And 60,000 of them have city bus passes.
In the world of public transit, that ratio is astounding. No other city in
North America comes even close.
Mr. Whitson says the reason is simple: "The riders chose their bus service.
It was not chosen for them."
He means that literally. In Boulder, riders choose the size of buses
(40-footers are dismissed as "diesel dinosaurs"), the design, the seating
plans and upholstery, the size and tinting of windows and options like
hanger straps and bike racks. The drivers get to choose their uniforms and
the music for an on-board CD player.
Most important, Boulder riders help choose the routes and pickup spots. So
buses come to them, usually in 10 minutes or less.
How is that possible? By scrapping the mindset that has failed to fill
suburban buses for half a century.
"We are outside the mainstream of public transit thinking," Mr. Whitson says
with a renegade grin. "No one here has ever studied transit. We've learned
everything on our own. When I go to national public transit conferences,
they all talk about bus maintenance, the latest in diesel fuels, how
windshield wipers work and counting every nickel that goes in the fare box.
"They never talk about the customer. Here we ask people -- in their homes,
schools, where they work, at the gym -- what they want. We listen very
carefully, then go out and try to get it for them."
The number and range of car-to-bus converts is unheard of.
At the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, 26,000 students voted to
add $15 to their tuition fees every semester for an unlimited bus pass. It
takes them anywhere in the city, virtually anytime. Or to downtown Denver,
the closest ski resort or Denver's international airport (which costs a
non-pass holder $44 for a round-trip shuttle).
Those bulk passes let Boulder bus planners know, in advance, exactly how
many riders they will have, and when and where buses should be routed to
connect the campus, residences, major malls, even downtown bars until 3 a.m.
A student photo ID eliminates the need to feed fare-boxes and have exact
change. In fact, the fare-box is the college administration office, which
collects the bulk fares three times a year and promptly hands the money over
to the Boulder bus operator.
That simple, unorthodox formula also works for the Boulder downtown
merchants, the city's main hospital and several major employers.
For instance, the municipal group that collects downtown Boulder parking
fees uses a portion of that revenue to buy annual bus passes for 6,000
employees who work in the city core. The Chamber of Commerce followed suit,
adding $50 per year to the fees of its members.
The employees love it because they get to commute for free, don't have to
find or pay for downtown parking and can use the bus pass to shop on
Saturday or get to a Broncos game on Sunday. The merchants love it because
it frees up scarce parking spots for shoppers. And the bus company loves it
because it gets paid, in one advance shot, for a year of servicing
predictable, high-use routes.
The next target for Mr. Whitson and his Go Boulder staff were private
companies with hundreds of employees. Successful pitches led several to sign
contracts, pledging an average of $50 per employee for annual, unlimited
transit passes. With up-front payments and predictable riders, that allowed
the bus company to plan the most effective routes to and from those
A key feature is the "safe ride home" promise. By pooling $2 from each $50
pass, the bus company arranged with city taxis to pick up, at no extra cost
to the employee, anyone in the office who needs an emergency ride or one
after bus operating hours. The same deal applies to all 1,200 employees of
the city hospital. Nurses on shifts especially welcomed the low-cost,
flexible bus service with taxi backup.
Next came residential neighbourhoods. So far, Mr. Whitson's Go Boulder group
has persuaded 15 community groups to sign annual contracts pledging a
minimum of $5,000 for annual bus passes. That buys a photo ID and unlimited
bus use, for all members of each household in the neighbourhood block.
Some of the keenest riders are kids -- including teenagers who wouldn't
normally be caught dead riding a "loser cruiser."
Mr. Whitson says that's because "they figured out pretty quickly that it
gives them total freedom. They know there will be a bus every 10 minutes.
They don't have to worry about schedules or fares or exact change or how
many trips they can take."
Mr. Whitson proudly notes that even primary school kids get to help design
the outside bus markings, which boldly announce that a circular route "Hop,"
"Skip" or "Jump" bus is arriving. The nicknames are painted in huge letters
and surrounded by cute rabbits and grasshoppers.
"There is a reason for that. It lets our youngest riders know exactly which
bus to take, and their parents feel safe about letting them take a bus to
sports practice or music lessons," says Mr. Whitson. "We're also instilling
a culture. Those kids are going to be our riders 20 years from now."
Another novel tactic is a Boulder city bylaw that requires developers of new
residential subdivisions to buy each household three years' worth of
unlimited transit passes, at an average cost of $50 each. After the third
year, the residents can either drop the deal or pay the same amount through
their local residents' or apartment association.
There is virtually no attrition on any of these ridership programs. Take-up
on the bus passes (average annual cost of $50 each) has increased from 4,000
to 60,000 since 1994.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion has not increased despite a boom in area
housing and employment.
"These initiatives are driven by concern about congestion and the worry of
businesses that they can't get their employees to and from work efficiently,
or from businesses that want people to shop and are worried people will get
blocked out by congestion," says Mr. Whitson.
"That's our main motivator. That's where we measure our success: Have we
maintained congestion levels at 1994, even with the big growth in jobs and
some housing? We have."
Denver is finding it hard to argue with Boulder's success. The scene of
notorious smog and sprawl, it has recently launched its own version of the
mass bus pass system.
So how can Boulder afford to sell city bus riders an unlimited annual pass
for $50 U.S.?
It can't. As in the rest of Colorado, and most of the U.S., two-thirds of
the costs of public transit are paid through federal, state and city taxes.
Fare-box revenues account for only one-third of costs.
"Our ECO pass is designed to collect one-third of what is needed to run the
buses," says Mr. Whitson. "That's the same amount as if riders were putting
cash in the fare-box. The difference is, most of our buses in Boulder run
full most of the time. A lot of those in Denver run around empty."
Public transit is a baseline, essential service, notes Mr. Whitson.
"No city in North America is going to scrap its system. It is already there,
already being paid for and subsidized. Our thinking here is: Since the buses
are going to be running anyway, let's make sure they are not empty.
"So our bus pass is designed like group medical insurance, except it's for
transit. The cost is based on an average. Everybody has to pay. Some use it
a lot; some don't. Those who don't help pay for those who do. But everybody
has the choice to use their unlimited bus pass."
Is the Boulder success replicable in other North American cities?
"Definitely," says Mr. Whitson. "I think these kinds of programs will work
even better in more densely populated cities.
"They are not based on forcing anyone to do anything. We have approached
this through encouraging, advertising and marketing. People see the economic
benefits, and the benefits of less congestion, less air pollution and a
So why haven't other transit agencies copied the Boulder model?
"The way transit agencies are set up, they are motivated to measure success
by on-time arrivals. That is the number 1 criteria. Second is maintenance
cost. Way down the list is the number of riders. They don't do what it takes
to fill buses. They are perfectly happy for buses to arrive empty, as long
as they arrive on time."
Paul McKay is a Citizen reporter. His e-mail address is:
Tomorrow: How Portland, Oregon fights sprawl