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Guest opinion: Evan Ravitz: Boulder needs transportation that respects the laws of physics


By Evan Ravitz

I sold my last car in 1989 and have used a bicycle, now an e-bike, for 99% of my transportation and the bus for the other 1%.

In 1994, along with longtime city Councilmember Steve Pomerance, I helped defeat the City’s $250,000,000 proposed Transit Tax. Steve called it the Big Bus Empire, because the buses were then full-sized highway buses with 52 seats, and according to my simple analysis of RTD “Ride Checks,” all the local Boulder buses carried an average of 5.5 passengers each, nearly 90% empty!

I repeated the analysis in 2007 and 2009, with RTD’s improved “Ride Checks Plus.” By then the buses had 43 seats each and carried an average of six or seven people — seven when gas prices hit $4 a gallon. Still, almost 84% empty.

This is the major reason that RTD has no money! Those 43 passenger diesel Orion buses cost about $300,000 each. Even electric 15 passenger vans now cost about $60,000 each and are ideal for most Boulder local routes except the Skip on Broadway. They get about 12 miles per gallon instead of the Orion buses that get less than five and the highway buses that get less than three.

People who use the local buses know how empty they usually are. I remember telling this and more to former Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum. After listening to the statistics he said merely, “I like buses.” He later admitted to me that he almost never rode local buses.

There is another big reason not to use oversized buses, besides their cost and fuel guzzling. Every pavement engineer knows that road damage is approximately proportional to the fourth power of vehicle weight — the number of wheels and axles being equal. See the Cyclelicious bicycle blog for more information.

This means, I believe, that the Orion buses — which weigh about 10 times the weight of a compact car, or about 32,000 pounds empty — don’t do 10 times the damage but 10,000 times the damage! You can see it in the two-inch deep ruts on Walnut in front of the bus station. Until 28th Street was repaved, it was even worse, since 28th Street has many buses and big trucks.

I explained this to Commissioner Will Toor in 2010, a trained physicist. He laughed, I guess because Boulder could then easily afford the constant repaving that was so annoying then. But since the 2013 flood depleted our reserves, the roads are crumbling because of this profligate waste that has gone on for so many decades. I bet we’ll never have that kind of money again.

Now that electric bikes remove most physical barriers to cycling, local buses are never going to return to pre-pandemic ridership! You’ve probably heard that Denver’s serious e-bike subsidy was wildly popular and sold out quickly.

The last serious barrier to bike use is the weather. Encouraging people to work from home during stormy days is by far the most environmental solution, not oversized buses.

Please, right-size the buses, use the savings to subsidize e-bikes for poorer folks and provide truly protected bike lanes so that people don’t live in fear of getting run down. (Slightly bigger bike racks are needed for e-bikes, and hopefully with roofs — ideally with solar panels for charging — to keep off the rain and the sun, which damages those expensive batteries when it’s hot.) Steve adds that we should charge for parking everywhere except near people’s homes, by hiring companies that use license plate scanners, and use the funds for car and van pooling and other modes.

The Big Bus Empire has wrecked the roads, the air and our finances for half a century. Don’t do what Einstein said was insane, repeating the same.

Evan Ravitz was voted Best Activist by Daily Camera readers in 1992, for spearheading four new types of permits on the Pearl Street Mall, where he was a tightrope artist, getting the 13th Street “contraflow” Bike Path built downtown and promoting direct democracy. His petition got the City Council to legalize electric bikes on our paths in 2013.