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To Find Money, Shift How Boulder Does Transportation

To Find Money, Shift How Boulder Does Transportation


First Appeared as a Guest Column for The Boulder Bulletin
By Ryan Schuchard, March 4, 2024

Look underneath many of Boulder’s challenges—homelessness, closed swimming pools and parks, families moving out of the city—and you’ll find a common denominator: insufficient funds to meet our demands. On the other hand, one place where resources are untapped is our transportation system. Here I see the potential for meaningful shifts that could save our community real money.


Our community planning primarily focuses on accommodating personal motor vehicles, visible through many strategies within city policies. We prioritize the swift flow of car traffic, offer low-cost or free parking on public lands, require developers to dedicate substantial portions of private land to parking (which indirectly raises housing costs), and enforce zoning practices to increase the distances between residential areas and most destinations. These practices stem from planning philosophies and ideologies from a bygone era.

Focusing city planning efforts on cars might be understandable, as they’re the common mode of transportation for many. However, to design a system to meet the needs of a wide range of users with different demands, so heavily prioritizing cars from the outset doesn’t yield the best results. It pushes large numbers of large vehicles into tight spaces, which often conflicts with other city priorities. Furthermore, it overlooks efficient and cost-effective solutions to better solve the issues facing our community.

We could achieve more with less by shifting our mindset to planning for accessibility. Accessible communities have most of the things people want to reach within a short distance and, crucially, they offer safe, multiple, and convenient ways to travel to those places. Dr. Kevin J. Krizek of CU, an expert who authored a book on how we can get more out of transportation, reminds us that by planning for accessibility, we can better appreciate how having shops, services, schools and amenities close by is a good thing, and it’s equally important to provide for safe and convenient ways of getting to those places.

Planning with a focus on accessibility opens up more choices for everyone. It allows people the option to drive, without expecting such an option to be the priority, a priori. Such a framework for planning can be leveraged to cut costs for our city. When you think about it, transportation isn’t just about roads. Transportation costs include the policing of those roads, the crashes, and the use of that land for one purpose instead of others. Accessibility opens the door to use space in ways to create more funds for public use. We can use a lever to use to reduce the total expenses the city owes to paying for infrastructure and providing services for less.


This mindset applies to the equipment many of us use to get around on a daily basis. Over the past 40-plus years, automakers have steadily made vehicles bigger and heavier. The promise of a plusher experience for drivers attracts many. But now, in 2024, we have gone too far. Popular vehicles come stock the size of military tanks and drivers can’t easily fit into parking spaces nor see elementary-school-aged kids over their hoods.

Streets have become extremely dangerous for pedestrians and such bloat helps explain why. Compounded with more distracted driving, we are mounting crashes from carelessness (largely connected with greater use of phones and infotainment), worse visibility (largely due to poorer lines of sight designed in vehicles), and higher torque making vehicles more ferocious.

The world that we have collectively designed allows and provides for an environment to favor those in larger and larger vehicles. It is crowding out life outside them and pushing away lighter, more energy-efficient forms of travel like biking and even walking.

These heavier vehicles are wearing out and tearing up our roads more quickly. This means more maintenance costs. One predominant law of transportation dynamics is that the destructive impact of weight on pavement is exponential, what engineers point out as the fourth power law. It explains why you see signs about axle weight ahead of bridges, and why the impact of bicycles is essentially nothing. Big things cost lots of infrastructure.

Another cost of large vehicles lies in land as they outgrow parking spaces and travel lanes. Boulder’s physical space is precious and this encroachment is degrading the utility of what we have.

We know the auto industry is not rushing to moderate the problem. And although electric vehicles could be designed to put their superior power to work to create more highly-capable smaller vehicles, vehicles coming online are actually accelerating vehicular bloat.

What power does our small town have to do something about this? A lot. Let’s first be clear that there’s no question we need some big vehicles. And often, households have good reasons to use large-sized SUVs and pickup trucks. This isn’t about getting in the way of people’s choices.

What we can and should do: First, let’s acknowledge there are forces nudging us to make default purchases that collectively create creeping bloat that is sapping our shared resources. Then, let’s start to pilot policies that protect our ability to allow users to appreciate the decisions that impact the system, yet still allow large vehicles. This is something other cities have started to do. We could also explore putting more limits on the upper size of vehicles in places we want to make it safe and enjoyable for people to be outside. We could also look for ways to increase awareness to drivers and leaders about what’s at stake.


There are cost-effective ways to get around that rival the convenience of cars, modes that include walking, biking, e-biking, scooting and more. These might not be the typical go-to transport modes. But if we have good infrastructure in place for using these vehicles with safe and direct routes, these so-called “other” forms of transport can get you to your destination in roughly the same time as using a car. It’s worth noting that many car trips are for just a few miles, most cars are parked and unused 95 percent the day, and most cars cost $25 per day to own, insure, and maintain. These other modes can help a family save a lot of money each year.

Adding to this “other” category is something we could call urban run-around vehicles, or hyper-efficient small electric vehicles designed to travel nimbly around town. Examples are neighborhood electric vehicles (e.g., the Polaris GEM vehicle rated for up to 35-MPH streets, starting at $15,000 new) and smaller two- and three-wheel “minimobility” vehicles that use small battery-electric systems to provide an in-cabin experience while being super-lightweight. This category is not very mature but it is evolving as small battery-electric power systems are giving us entirely new powers. As more varieties come forward, these vehicles have incredible potential to serve as dedicated urban vehicles that save households money and create more space for our community if drivers have rights to safe passage.

Another “other” value-for-money category is public transit when it’s done right. Transit is everything from large buses to small vans in a mix of fixed routes and on-demand services. Transit systems can be strategically designed to encourage high ridership on key routes, thereby heightening a community’s overall accessibility and doing so particularly for the roughly one-third population who don’t drive or probably shouldn’t be driving.

When our system is designed to make these modes succeed, they can perform better than conventional cars for the things they’re good at and as a mix give us more flexibility and options to choose from. They can do this while saving money from the large amounts of energy and manufacturing that translate to high household vehicle costs, as well as from the high cost of space requirements to store 200 or more square feet of vehicles that spend 95% of their time doing nothing except depreciating.

These shifts to steward resources better by organizing transportation less around cars and more around people are “what I was thinking” when I raised my hand to support Boulder’s 2024 Policy Statement on Regional, State and Federal Issues. This statement directs our city to advocate for regional, state and federal policy changes that will continue to fix land use policy that has locked us into car dependence, advocate for crucial funding strategies to give us more transportation options, and establish a new fee on operators of large vehicles that disproportionately endanger pedestrians and bicycle travelers with funding going towards local government efforts to protect vulnerable road users.

It’s also what I was thinking when I volunteered to testify at a state senate committee in support of SB24-036, a bill that would establish a Vulnerable Road User Protection Enterprise, a concept for a new program with the kind of multi-pronged approach we need: Pricing behaviors that direct costs onto those imposing them, assistance to populations that have been left out, and funding for infrastructure that we need for more equitable climate-resilient development.

And it’s what I’m thinking now as I work to prepare for City Council’s activities to establish our wider priorities this year. It’s top of mind and I’m going to be looking for ways to increase the breadth and speed of what Boulder can do to deploy the best modern measures to give us transportation strategies to spur new abundance.

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