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On the Road


People in the alternative transportation sector talk about motivation in terms of cost-benefit ratios and environmental and economic influences.

For me, the love of the automobile (and thusly the subconscious opposition to things like buses or even carpooling) is rooted in self-sufficiency, and the future of travel and transit is dependent on balancing our united need for oil-independence with a want for personal independence.

As you can tell, those Chevy commercials have swayed my point of view.

My car is my rock. It gets me from A to B and back to A on my terms. There are no schedules. No helmets. No awkward conversations. No standing on the side of the highway alone and cold and feeling like a perfect idiot.

That’s where I’ll start my story of the seven days I spent sans auto—the part just before I step off the bus in Niwot and do a walk of shame down the highway. I set out to explore first hand the ways in which Boulder County residents transport themselves: bus, bike, carpooling, ridesharing and alternatives in personal vehicles. The goal of this experiment was to see if abandoning my car necessitated abandoning my autonomy as a commuter and to test the practicality of it all. Can our infrastructure, technology and attitudes successfully support alternatives in travel? Are the barriers to using alternative transportation too big to sway the masses? And can I get to work on time riding an electric bicycle?

But first, I must learn how to ride the bus.

There’s a section on the Regional Transportation District website called “How to Ride the Bus.” It includes tips on how to “find your bus stop” and how to “get off at your stop.”

“Schedules may look complicated, but once you become familiar with them,” the site reads, “they’re really quite easy.”

I realize as I sit on a bus—I think it’s fair to call it the wrong bus—that I have not yet become familiar with the RTD bus schedules. I, in fact, suck at riding the bus. Instead of heading to the office in Erie, I’m on my way to Boulder. I send an expletive-laced text to a co-worker, and my phone immediately rings.

“Where are you?” she asks.

“On the bus. I don’t know what happened,” I say, trying to play it cool and calm.

She laughs.

“Get off at the next stop. I’ll come get you.”

She hangs up.

As I step off the hulking bus, steaming and wheezing in the chilly morning rush hour, out onto the Diagonal Highway outside of Niwot, it occurs to me that my experiment is not just about freedom from my single-driver lifestyle or independence from foreign oil but about the kindness of others. I buy her a soy latte for her trouble.

There are people who have this whole thing figured out—bus schedules, bike paths, tricks of getting from here to there. There are those who have whole-heartedly adopted the culture of buses and bikes. People like Joshua Jackson, a court specialist for the Boulder Municipal Court and Go Boulder’s 2009 Commuter of the Year. Jackson lives in Longmont and rides the bus or his bike to Boulder for work. His mantra on public transportation is “it’s really not that hard.” He gets a free bus pass through work, and he enjoys cycling.

“Obviously, convenience is a pretty strong engine,” he says. “I drive my car once in a while, but when I do, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is a drag.’’’

Jackson’s thought process is: “I have to get up a few minutes earlier. So what?” And his motivations are a blend of cultural, economic and environmental. He seems like a “just do it” sort of guy who says things like, “Make it happen.”

“Relax. It’s not that big of a deal,” he tells me. “If you miss the bus, it’s OK. If you stand there, another one will eventually come.”

But Jackson is not typical. Most people don’t just make it happen.

High gas prices caused increases in Boulder County public transit ridership last year as well as increased investment in vehicles like scooters and electric bikes, and today people generally walk, ride the bus or take their bike when it’s practical; the “green” aspect is usually ancillary. Even traffic jams, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story, discourage people from driving their cars.

Which all means that municipalities must be prepared for ups and downs in ridership.
“I have a deep personal belief that fuel will go back up. It’s our charge to ensure that systems are in place, so that when there is a spike there are real options for people to get on transit,” said Scott McCarey, Boulder County’s alternative transportation coordinator. “People here live and work regionally. There are a lot of people who pulse in and out of Boulder daily. If that system is crimped by $5-a-gallon gas, you will have a tough economic situation. So, it’s not just a sustainability issue, it’s an economic one.”

With what seem like endless grants, the Transportation Department and RTD work to find what will get people out of their cars and onto the bus. They add and tweak and “market the hell out of” different routes. They’re even testing a system that would allow approaching busses to communicate with a light signal, giving priority to the bus and the 20 or so passengers aboard.

After talking with McCarey, I feel almost prepared as I walk up to the RTD stop on Main Street in Longmont. The Bolt—the wrong bus—approaches, stops and leaves, and I feel victorious as the L pulls up minutes later. The L runs between Denver and Longmont, and it drops me off on 287 near Arapahoe, in the midst of busy highway traffic.
I walk to the light and cross the street and head east on Arapahoe, where there is another bus stop. Ten minutes later, the Jump picks me up and takes me to the Erie Community Center.

I am quietly joyful as I walk to the office. My final mile is a pleasant stroll on a nice morning. It takes me about an hour and fifteen to get to work, way longer than it takes me in my car. Still, I’m relaxed and I think that maybe this newfound skill will come in handy in the future. I think, “No big deal.”


Tom Wilson tinkers with his souped-up tandem, which he’s pulled into Small Planet Earth. The bike is Frankenstein-esque. Wilson’s taken off the back seat and added a battery and motor. It can hold eight grocery bags or 350 pounds of cargo.
“It’s great ‘cause I can commute on it and if I need to pick up something from the hardware store on the way home, it’s not a problem,” he says.

In the midst of Longmont’s bustling Main Street, Small Planet Earth is a “green” oasis. Wilson and owner Chuck Ankeny peddle a sundry stock of electric vehicles: traditional-looking HEBB bikes, tank-like A2B bikes, bright-colored scooters and a kelly green three-wheeled car parked out front. Ankeny opened the shop as “my little contribution to getting people out of their cars.”

Certainly, there are challenges here. Battery technology is continually advancing—but a next-generation battery that will ensure long-distance reliability is not yet marketable. Both Wilson and Ankeny say cities need to provide better access and infrastructure for electric vehicles. And residents need to take a more proactive, individualized effort.
“I’d mandate it: One day a month when people have to get out of cars,” Wilson says.
They don’t talk like eco-snobs but like men who genuinely care. And when I ride away on one of their electric bikes—a silver HEBB—they look at me with pride.

An electric bike is like a normal bike that lets you cheat. It’s fun—like, really fun. I dawdle around on bike paths and residential streets and find my way to County Line Road, which I take south to Erie.

County Line is sketchy for bikes, as anyone who cycles on this picturesque rural road knows. But mid-morning, it’s calm and the motor makes the hills less daunting. I average about 17 mph until I’m a mile from Erie, and then my battery begins to run low (note: the battery was not fully charged when I started). Wilson told me that it would last about 15 to 30 miles, depending on how much I used the motor.

Still, I roll up to the office 45 minutes after leaving Longmont feeling good. My ride home is better; I charge the battery fully (about four hours) and take more back roads. I ride past rush-hour traffic and drivers smugly staring at the bumpers in front of them.
It occurs to me, I am having a ball.


At this point, I want to hitchhike. I’ve carpooled, taken the bus, walked, ridden my bike, ridden an electric bike, test driven an electric car and bummed many, many rides, and none of that captures a Kerouac-type of romanticism like sticking your thumb out on a dusty country road. But as practicality and safety goes, it’s not the best of transportation options. So, I opted for an alternative but similar form of catching a ride.
Wilson from Small Planet Earth told me about his favorite tool for taking longer trips: Craig’s List rideshare. So, I posted a listing that read something like, “I need a ride from downtown Longmont to downtown Loveland for an appointment
tomorrow around 1:30. I will happily help with gas.”

That’s how I found the White Knight of Craigslist.

Peter Gabbani is tall with rust-colored hair. He’s a writer, traveler and reader of philosophy. He’s planning on teaching English in Korea, but for now, he spends his days giving rides to strangers he finds on Craig’s List. It’s not a large part of his income, he tells me, but it helps pay for groceries. Plus, he likes it.

“I like to drive and, as you can tell, I like to talk,” he says. “And I’ve met a ton of interesting people with these great stories. Some of (the stories) are horrible, some are amazing. Since I pick people up from the airport a lot, I hear about their travels.”
His riders often tell him he offered them a ride when no one else would. They’ve called him the white knight.

Today, Gabbani has driven from his home in the Highlands area to Longmont to pick me up. We head up 287 and he parks in downtown Loveland. While I’m at my appointment, he stays in the car. Then he takes me back to Longmont. For this, he charges me $20. I pay him and he goes.

It keeps him busy. He’s done it for four months. He’s the affordable personal chauffeur who finds people in need and gives them a ride on his silver steed.

“Some people will say, ‘So, why are you going to Crestone?’ And then I’ll have to explain that I’m only going because they’re going,” he says. “It’s a little awkward at first but then people get it.”


On the eighth day, I slip into my car, the cold leather hugging me. With a tug of the key, Kings of Leon greet me. It’s comfortable, safe and mine.

My feelings toward transportation are a continuum: the ease of sitting on a bus (the right bus), reading the newspaper; the power of pushing a bicycle through town and country; the simplicity of walking on a blanket of crispy leaves; the convenience of a car sitting in your driveway; and the nostalgic feeling of riding into the sunset.

There are costs that come with all: fuel, emissions, money and sore muscles. There are barriers all around, but bridges abound. While the environment is a big green elephant that lurks in every commute, transportation really comes down to individual wants and needs. I set out to see if giving up my car meant giving up my independence, and I realized I have let myself become dependent on my car. I’m not going to be a full-time bus commuter and I’m not buying an electric bike, but I now have the skills, knowledge and motivation to—as Jackson would say—make it happen…occasionally.

If you give a man (or in this case, a woman) a bus pass he’ll ride for a day. If you teach him how to read a bus schedule, he’ll ride for life.


Transportation Resources
RTD: Public transit info, rtd-denver.com
RideArrangers: Carpools, drcog.org
eRideshare: Carpools and rideshares,
SkiCarpool: Carpools to ski areas, skicarpool.org
Colorado Jitney: Winter rec transit, cojitney.com
eGo CarShare: Car-sharing, carshare.org
Bicycle Colorado: Cycling info, bicyclecolo.org
Colorado Walks: Walking programs and events, coloradowalks.org
Smart Trips: Various resources, smarttrips.org


email no info send march17th/09