Selling Public Transportation to the American West

As Western cities look toward mass transit to ease traffic, the question remains: Will people ever use it?

Getting Westerners to leave the car keys at home and hop onto public transportation has always been a daunting task. So when Boulder, Colo. wanted to build a mass-transit system that citizens would actually use, city officials tried something new: They asked people what they wanted.

Before considering a single option, "we asked the community, 'How would you design transit?' " explains Tracy Winfree, director of the GO Boulder transit program.

And Boulder residents answered. No monorails or commuter trains. Instead, just a new easy-to-use shuttle-bus system with frequent service, friendly drivers, and vehicles with comfortable seating and big windows to frame mountain views. Today, this shuttle-bus system, called the HOP, carries more than 1.1 million riders each year in this city of 100,000 - and is a rare success story in the West, where the car is king.

Rapidly growing metropolitan areas such as Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, and Salt Lake City are all looking toward ambitious transit projects to solve their mounting congestion woes. But public transportation remains an elusive ideal in the West, where cities ramble across the plentiful wide-open spaces and independent-minded citizens balk at tethering their daily lives to mass-transit schedules. And as cities seek answers to their mass-transit questions, Boulder's model could hold valuable lessons.

In many areas across the West, congestion has become a defining part of daily life. In Las Vegas these days, residents trade accounts of their "highway horrors" on a special Web page on the Internet edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In Seattle, a recent report reveals that traffic delays cost citizens approximately $1.5 billion per year in lost time. And in Denver, studies show that commuters annually spend the equivalent of an entire work week - 40 hours - stuck in traffic jams (twice as much time as a decade ago).

But getting people out of their cars - and out of traffic - has proved difficult. Unlike the Northeast, where compact cities make public transportation practical, the West's sprawl has made it impractical. The biggest challenge is in retrofitting mass transit to development that was designed to be served by cars, says Scott Reed, spokesman for the Regional Transportation District in Denver.

"The majority of people do use their automobile. It's very difficult to overcome that when you have these areas that were developed around a highway system, developed around the automobile."

Strip malls, megastores with giant parking lots, and far-flung suburbs all conspire to make passenger cars the most convenient travel mode. For that matter, this growth pattern is continuing, says Mr. Reed: Gated communities with curving streets and cul-de-sacs are still the predominant development style - and the most difficult to serve with transit.

THEY are also stretching suburbs farther afield, which then compounds congestion, he says. "As the outlying areas become developed, people have to drive greater distances to get to work, shopping, and entertainment."

This raises an interesting problem for mass transit. With suburbs now hubs of their own, "70 percent of the commuter traffic around Denver goes from suburb to suburb," notes Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West. So when it comes to light rail, the question becomes: "Where do you begin and end light-rail from?"

This sort of dilemma is making small-scale buses like the HOP increasingly appealing. In fact, the HOP has been so successful that Boulder added a similar second transit line six months ago - the SKIP - to replace a standard bus route. When the SKIP replaced the former bus route, ridership tripled. The city is even planning a regional route called the JUMP.

What makes the approach successful, Ms. Winfree says, is the element of community-based design. "The HOP isn't a cookie-cutter system you can put anywhere. What's important is to ask the community, 'What do you want? What will you use?'" she says. "This is designed with the rider in mind."

For Boulder resident Ross Shell, this is a formula that works. "I like to take the HOP to work. It's convenient, it's fun, and it seems more personal than a bus," he says. "I think one of the tasks in getting people to use public transportation is to get people to use it the first time. Once people try it, they'll realize it saves money, it's convenient, and they'll keep using it. But it does have to be convenient."

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